Mass. city faces stumbling blocks on road to recovery

March 12, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Susan Joel lives in Springfield's most affluent neighborhood, yet some mornings she finds condoms on her block, discarded the previous night by prostitutes and their johns.

The public school her 7-year-old daughter attends, not far from City Hall, is down the street from partially boarded-up buildings and a community center that closed its top floor because it was "infested with pigeon droppings," Joel said.

Friends in a middle-class neighborhood of Victorian homes had pellets from a gun pierce their front door. A neighbor's house was recently burglarized, and another neighbor's car was stolen -- twice.

"Right now it feels very difficult to live here," said Joel, a sociology professor at Springfield College. "If Springfield was a person, it would be clinically depressed."

Springfield, the third-largest city in Massachusetts, certainly seems down in the dumps, the victim of a dwindling industrial base, middle-class flight and seemingly intractable poverty, all greatly aggravated by years of government mismanagement and corruption that have left it at risk of bankruptcy.

The situation was not always so bleak for Springfield, which once generated a string of successful manufacturers, including Smith & Wesson, the handgun maker, and the Indian Motorcycle Co. And it was in Springfield where a local physical education teacher, James Naismith, invented basketball in 1891.

Nicknamed the "City of Homes" for its impressive stock of elegant older houses, Springfield is now pocked with decrepit buildings: burned-out hulks left standing in eerie silhouette against the sky because the city does not have the money to tear them down. A quarter of the city's 152,000 residents live in poverty.

Past efforts to fix the city have failed. Now Springfield is struggling to right itself under a rescue plan established 18 months ago by the Legislature and Gov. Mitt Romney.

The plan authorized a $52 million loan for Springfield and put it under the direction of a financial control board comprising the mayor, the City Council president and three people appointed by the governor.

"We're not out of the woods yet," Mayor Charles V. Ryan said.

Thomas Trimarco, the state's secretary of administration and finance, said the loan would help only so much. "There is no question that we don't have the long-term answer to Springfield," Trimarco said.

That is putting it mildly. Springfield could go into receivership or even bankruptcy if it does not overcome two towering stumbling blocks.

One concerns the $52 million loan. Springfield has drawn down $22 million, but the state recently froze further draw-downs because it was clear Springfield could not repay the money by its due date.

Springfield officials and the control board want the Legislature to relax the terms of the loan so the city can get more of the money.

The second stumbling block is negotiations with unions representing teachers, the police and firefighters. The teachers, who have been without a contract for four years, sued the city over its decision in 2003 to freeze wage increases. A judge recently sided with the teachers, who will now seek raises from 2004 and 2005.

The city will appeal the court's ruling. If it loses, the teachers' union president, Timothy Collins, estimates that teachers will be owed about $13 million. Police officers and firefighters would then most likely sue over similar wage freezes, with the total cost to the city about $35 million in back pay.

State and city officials say the unions are unrealistic and unwilling to compromise as the city bleeds.

They also say previous administrations were too solicitous to the unions, giving bigger raises than the city could afford and allowing perks like a decades-old provision giving police officers 60 sick days a year.

"The attitude the unions are taking is just gimme, gimme, gimme," said Alan LeBovidge, commissioner of the state Department of Revenue and chairman of the control board.

Labor leaders accuse Romney of using the control board to quash the unions.

"This governor has starved this city, and now he's trying to take advantage of that to put forward his draconian agenda," Collins said.

Everyone involved said they agreed that teacher morale was low, and many teachers are still leaving, scooping up higher-paying jobs in the suburbs or neighboring Connecticut.

There are, however, some good signs in Springfield. The city's deficit, $41 million when the control board arrived, is now $6.5 million, Ryan said. Some wasteful practices, like giving liquor licenses to people with unpaid property taxes, have been scrapped. Real estate is appreciating, and the city just landed as its new police chief Edward A. Flynn, the highly regarded Massachusetts secretary of public safety.

But there is no sugarcoating Springfield's precarious position.

"The city really has been in technical bankruptcy for many years now," said Philip Puccia, the control board's executive director. "There have been other control boards around the state, but none of them were in cities this big, and their problems were not as bad."

State and city officials say other belt-tightening measures might include selling golf courses, imposing trash fees on residents and asking nonprofit organizations for payments in lieu of taxes.

The situation is so disheartening it is forcing out people like Bernie Cohen, a lawyer and 25-year resident who said he "always believed you need to live in the community you're working in."

Now, Cohen and his wife say they are increasingly concerned about their children's education. "While I don't want to sacrifice my ideals," Cohen said, "I don't want to put my kids' safety and education at risk."

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