Down but not out
SPRINGFIELD, THE STATE’S third largest city and the metropolitan anchor of western Massachusetts, is in the soup. To say it is on the brink of disaster might be going too far. But to say it is a struggling third-tier city facing the same challenges as many urban centers across the state, while true, would not be going far enough.
served as mayor more than 40 years ago.
Just how bad has it gotten in Springfield? The outgoing mayor of eight years, Michael Albano, made national headlines at the end of his term for importing prescription drugs from Canada, but he was tarred locally by a federal corruption probe that dogged his administration for its final three years. When a $3.4 million cut in state aid came through last year, Springfield was forced to lay off 287 employees, by far the most drastic response of any municipality in the state. And the city’s fiscal health has now declined so far that its bond rating is one notch above junk status, with open discussion of the possibility of state receivership. Meanwhile, crime has been on the rise.
Talk to those who live in the home of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and you hear that Springfield has been off its game for a while now. Many people have personal stories about how their troubled city has let them down.
Five years ago, William Pepin, vice president and general manager at television station WWLP, which had outgrown its old facility in neighboring Agawam, began looking for a site in Springfield. So he met with city officials and looked at possible locations. Several looked promising, Pepin says, but they would have required the assembly of contiguous parcels into the single package the station needed. That required legwork on the part of the city, and it became clear to WWLP that it wasn’t happening.
A year after the search began, Pepin got a phone call from a real-estate agent touting a perfect site, but it was in neighboring Chicopee. Pepin hesitated, because he still wanted to locate in Springfield. But when he agreed to visit the site, he was met by an unexpected one-man welcoming party–Mayor Richard Kos, who assured Pepin that he and Chicopee municipal officials would do everything they could to provide WWLP a new home.
“So I’ve got two municipalities side by side, one of which is soliciting me, encouraging me, welcoming me with open arms,” Pepin says. “The other city is not as aggressive, shall we say. Not as welcoming.” Kos won Pepin over, and WWLP moved its 140-employee operation to Chicopee, starting business there in late 1999.
Pepin, a Springfield resident and native of the area, says he travels extensively and sees lots of cities that are similar to his hometown but taking initiative to move forward. “Then I come home,” he says. “I drive down Main Street in Springfield, and I ask myself, ‘What the hell is wrong with this city?'”
Back to the future
Many people are asking themselves that same question. To Paul Caron, a former state representative who lost a bid for mayor against Albano in 2001, public awareness of the city’s problems has grown in the years since then. In that campaign, he attacked the Albano administration for its fiscal practices with great intensity. But Caron was perceived as alarmist. “I don’t think people were ready for the message then that things aren’t as rosy as City Hall makes them out to be,” he says today. “But in the last couple of years, I think people have started to realize I was right.”
but Albano beat him at the polls.
One clear asset the new mayor brought to his campaign was the best-known brand name in Springfield politics. The family mark in local politics reaches back to Charlie’s great-grandfather, Philip Ryan, who served on the city council in the late 1800s. Ryan’s son, Timothy, was elected to the city council in 1993. And Charlie himself mounted an earlier comeback attempt in 1995, losing a race for the open mayor’s seat to Albano. Son Tim Ryan opted not to seek re-election last year, but his father still had plenty of family company on the fall ballot. Another son, James Ryan, and a nephew, Kevin Sears, both made bids for council seats, though neither was successful.
If the younger generation wasn’t able to work the Ryan family magic in politics, the family patriarch, with a mix of pluck and luck, showed that he still had the touch. Campaigning in his signature blue blazer and white slacks and pledging to put Springfield’s fiscal house in order, Charlie Ryan looked and acted like someone who’d stepped into the 21st century from the Eisenhower or Kennedy era. Jerold Duquette, a Springfield resident who teaches political science at Central Connecticut College, characterizes Ryan as a throwback, but a heartening one. “He is someone who is comfortable and confident that politics is a noble profession and produces positive public policy,” says Duquette.
“I look at dismay at what has happened, not only in Springfield, but in community after community,” Ryan says during an interview in his home two weeks before the November election. “There are very few leaders on the local, the state, or the national scene you can point to with admiration.” He is intent on restoring Springfield to the kind of prestige he remembers from his mayoral tenure of 40 years ago.
“When I was mayor in the ’60s, the city was first-class,” says Ryan. “We had a tax situation that was under control, our city employees were getting reasonable raises, our infrastructure was in A-number-one shape, we had money in the bank, we had significant surpluses every year, and we were one of the leading cities in New England.”
No one would mistake Ryan’s nostalgic look-back for a description of Springfield today. Blame for the city’s present troubles, rightly or wrongly, has largely landed at the feet of the man Ryan replaced in the mayor’s office. During his last year in office, Albano was best known as the mayor defying the US pharmaceutical industry (and the FDA) with his program to import low-priced prescription drugs from Canada for city employees and retirees–and to save money for his cash-strapped city. But his administration has been controversial in other ways. Federal investigators have been probing City Hall for three years, producing eight indictments as of mid-December. Albano’s critics say his administration has been rife with favoritism in the form of questionable loans, political-payback jobs, and other benefits.
Albano, who has steadfastly denied any knowledge of the alleged activities for which city workers are facing charges, defends his mayoral record, touting the fact that he’s balanced the budget in each of his years at the helm. “We’re in balance now, the revenues are on track, and our expenses are on track,” he said in September. “Unless there are future [state aid] cuts, we’re in good shape.”
There’s no question Albano was popular during much of his tenure in Springfield, and he received plaudits for his Canadian drug program up to his last day in office. Even today, many people think his problems were more a matter of bad decisions and bad luck than nefarious intent.
“I don’t buy the notion that the guy is corrupt,” says Duquette. “My sense is, this is a guy who was just too good to his friends.” In terms of the city’s economic condition, Duquette says, “In the ’90s, the Albano administration made judgments that were reasonably sound at the time, but the bottom fell out of the high-tech sector and so their decisions turned out to be bad. They thought they were making good investments, but that’s not how it turned out.”
But Richard Kos, the Chicopee mayor who lured WWLP-TV to his city, says Albano must bear some responsibility for Springfield’s state of affairs. Kos points to a state Department of Revenue report on Springfield’s finances, issued last April, that was highly critical of the city’s spending practices, putting a particular spotlight on a ballooning deficit in an account Caron sounded the alarm on in 2001, one known as “free cash” reserves.
“I don’t want to knock my colleague there, but you can draw your own conclusions,” says Kos. “When you overestimate your receipts by several million dollars and your revenue, it doesn’t take long for your free cash to be minus $54 million, or whatever it is.” Kos, too, recently left office, but he says he’s leaving behind a city that’s in better financial shape that it was when he took office.
The feeling that Springfield has been on the wrong track of late seems to be widely shared. City councilors and others grew particularly concerned after last year’s draconian layoffs, and asked the Department of Revenue to come in and examine the city’s fiscal operations. The DOR report supported Albano’s action in cutting the jobs, but its broader examination of Springfield’s finances identified more troubling practices.
In large part, DOR described Springfield as a poor city that is now suffering the effects of heavy reliance on the state for years. In its report, the state revenue department described Springfield’s fiscal profile this way: The city’s per capita income of $13,360 in 1999 was the third lowest in the state and its dependence on state aid, which comprises 62 percent of the city’s budget, the second highest in the state. The city has bumped against its Proposition 2H levy limit due to a steep decline in property values in the early to mid-1990s. Between 1994 and 2003, the city’s tax levy grew by only 28.6 percent, and was essentially flat after adjusting for inflation. Furthermore, tax collections in Springfield have actually declined in recent years as delinquency has increased.
But the most critical part of the DOR report is in its assessment of spending and saving practices. Essentially, according to DOR, Springfield made it a practice to spend every penny it has, and then some. Springfield has “no meaningful cash reserves,” DOR found, and “as a matter of policy, the municipal government spends all that it raises and spending often outpaces revenue collections.”
Much of the talk surrounding the DOR report has focused on the mounting “free-cash deficit” that the agency identified in Springfield. According to Cam Huff, senior research associate at the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, “free cash” is an accounting term that doesn’t actually represent money in the bank, but rather refers to funds that are expected to be available at the end of the fiscal year. Though the practice is ill-advised, some cities and towns–led in recent years by Springfield–spend against that anticipated year-end balance, and when they come up short, simply push the deficit forward onto the next year’s “free cash” account.
Huff said that Springfield has stood out from other municipalities in running a free-cash deficit since 1997. That year, the city was one of 15 Massachusetts municipalities with a deficit in that category, according to MTF. In 2000, when Springfield’s free-cash shortfall was $21.3 million, only three other municipalities had deficits, totaling $1.7 million. By fiscal 2003, Springfield had a $57.5 million deficit, while the total for all other municipalities combined was $7 million, accounted for by nine communities.
“I don’t know what the details are,” says Huff, “but clearly it looks like Springfield has a structural problem of some sort going on.”
DOR recommended the creation of a “finance advisory board,” which would bring the state to the table in working out a long-term plan for Springfield to achieve fiscal stability, thereby avoiding the point of the city “fail[ing] to meet the accepted tests of fiscal stability”–and requiring direct state intervention. A finance advisory board is not receivership, explains DOR spokesman Tim Connolly, who says such panels are currently operating in several Massachusetts municipalities. Rather, their purpose, he says, is to head off the kinds of problems that might lead to receivership.
City finances were, not surprisingly, the central issue in last fall’s contest to succeed Albano. Vying for the mayor’s seat against Ryan was state Sen. Linda Melconian, a 20-year veteran of the State House who had just failed in her quest for the Senate presidency. While both agreed that the city was in fiscal danger, Ryan characterized the situation as more critical than Melconian did.
“You know that old saying, ‘There’s going to be a day of reckoning’? Well, the day of reckoning is here,” Ryan said two weeks before the election. “The Band-Aid approaches of the last six to eight years aren’t going to work any more because we’ve run out of Band-Aids. We’ve had a whole series of one-year solutions. The answer is that the problem is systemic, so there must be a systemic solution.”
accused Ryan of scare tactics.
As a candidate, Ryan grabbed onto the DOR report as evidence of the strong medicine the city needs, and put a link to it on his campaign Web site. In contrast, Melconian accused Ryan of scare tactics. (The 54-year-old lawmaker did not respond to repeated interview requests for this article, before and after the election.) “Charlie Ryan’s plea to bring in the state to take control over the city’s finances demonstrates a clear lack of leadership,” she declared in a September 1 campaign statement. “If Charlie Ryan is unwilling to make the difficult financial decisions required as mayor, why is he seeking office?” Furthermore, Melconian claimed that talk of state involvement in Springfield’s fiscal decision-making was bad for business. In the same statement, she posed the question: “What business or investor would want to come to the city of Springfield if they are informed that the city is on the brink of receivership?”
During his campaign, Ryan promised to go after “tax deadbeats” who owe the city money for past-due property taxes, then totaling a whopping $43 million. It was a pledge that gained added currency when it turned out that Melconian herself had a history of late property-tax payments on two homes she owns in the city. As reported by the Springfield Republican, at about the time she was announcing her candidacy last March, Melconian made six hasty payments to pay off an $11,000 tax debt to the city. (She wasn’t the only public official in arrears on tax payments. The Republican also reported that Democratic state Rep. Ben Swan owed more than $30,000 in back taxes on a building he owns.)
Meanwhile, Ryan was carrying some baggage of his own, threatening his standing in the city’s black and Latino communities. In 1965, black leaders called for a protest march in response to what they claimed was excessive use of force by police in arresting 17 black men during a disturbance at a bar. Then in his second term as mayor, Ryan responded by asking Gov. John Volpe to send out 1,000 National Guardsmen to patrol the march. “It was a watershed event that people remember,” says Henry M. Thomas III, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Springfield. “It’s behind us, and I don’t think it’s productive to throw it in his face now. It was almost 40 years ago. But I do think it was relevant in the context of people having an understanding of the full scope of his record during the campaign.”
When the incident arose in a televised debate during the mayoral campaign, Ryan defended the action as a sensible choice to ensure public safety. He said his intention had been to protect the marchers.
In the end, Springfield voters chose Ryan over Melconian by 14,979 to 13,258, a margin of 53 to 47 percent. Melconian’s tax missteps turned out to be a lucky break for Ryan, who was thought to be running well behind her before the senator’s tax troubles were reported. But Ryan’s get-tough approach also seemed to hit a chord with voters.
“I think that Mr. Ryan is going to have a tough job, but I’m glad that he’s doing it,” says Mary Cassidy, planning director at Springfield Partners for Community Action. “He’s going to come in and shake things up, and I think that’s necessary. I think that’s the general feeling in Springfield, and I think that’s why he was elected.”
Latino North End, gave Ryan a crucial endorsement.
And if Ryan had lingering difficulties with the city’s nonwhite population, the endorsement of Democratic state Rep. Cheryl Rivera, who represents Springfield’s heavily Latino North End, may have helped to overcome them to a degree–even though Melconian carried the dominantly Latino ward by 61 to 39 percent.
“Charlie Ryan is running because he cares about the city,” Rivera said several days before the election. “He’s running because he wants to put it on the right track. It’s not on the right track now.”
If Ryan is to put Springfield on the right track, he must be successful in instituting the systemic change he was touting during his campaign. Ryan says he welcomes the creation of the DOR-recommended finance advisory board, which would give the state a role in overseeing the city’s fiscal practices, and says that his first goal is to look for ways to save money by eliminating programs and jobs that he thinks are unnecessary.
It wasn’t long ago that Springfield enjoyed a reputation as a thriving city. In 1940, one of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration’s make-work creations, the Federal Writers Project, assembled a Springfield guide that described the municipality as a pleasant city of “clean, shady streets lined with prim houses.” The guide painted a picture of Springfield as bustling and lively, but also relaxed and homey. “Springfield shows little of the harassed activity characteristic of many modern communities. Main Street is typical of the city. Automobiles in continuous procession drive up and down it, and there are always streams and counter-streams of shoppers; but men and machines move tranquilly, regulated by white-gloved policemen who have not given over their duties to automatic traffic lights.”
The guide sizes up Springfield as a “manufacturing center of the first rank,” but less dominated by industry than most because its factory buildings were scattered. “There are no mile-long brick and stone mills flanked by acres of factory tenements. No mass exodus of workers fills the streets at the screeching of a hundred whistles. Springfield’s smokestacks are less tall and far less conspicuous, though no less important, than those of her industrial neighbors eastward toward the Atlantic.”
At the time, Springfield’s dominant economic cog was the same one the city had relied upon for a century or more: the Springfield Armory, a major supplier of mostly small arms to the military ever since its creation during the Revolutionary War. As the WPA guide noted, the Armory presence was powerful visibly as well as economically. Describing the appearance of the city in 1940, the guide said, “The river is a silver rim to the half-wheel of the city; the Armory on the hill is its massive hub.”
When the Civil War broke out, Springfield’s economy benefited to an extraordinary degree. Employment at the Armory jumped from 250 to 3,000. Workers in allied trades flocked to the city, and the abundance of skilled labor resulted in the creation of new factories. “Other cities suffered depression after the Civil War,” the WPA guide said, “but Springfield had hit its industrial stride.” Springfield’s population grew steadily for decades after, and between 1900 and 1920 it more than doubled, from 62,000 to 130,000.
The Depression brought a halt to the good times, but the outbreak of World War II restored them, as the Armory escalated to new production levels. Employment at the Armory jumped to an astonishing 14,000 workers who produced, among other armaments, 4 million Garand rifles during the war. After the war, however, Springfield’s run of fortune began to end. Industrial decline set in and skilled workers departed for greener pastures. Then, in 1968, the Armory closed, a devastating development both psychologically and economically. When the Armory shut its doors, 3,000 jobs and $22 million in tax revenue disappeared from the local economy. Springfield’s reputation as a strong manufacturing center was over. And it’s never really recovered.
Today, with a population of 152,000–down more than 22,000 residents from its 1960 peak–Springfield is struggling with a less-than-robust local economy and a population that has lost much of its middle-class base. A growing Hispanic community is now the city’s largest minority group, comprising 27.2 percent of the population. Non-Hispanic whites make up 48.8 percent, and blacks represent 22.9 percent.
By nearly every economic indicator, Springfield is a city in distress. The city’s unemployment rate in October was 7.8 percent, well above the statewide rate of 5.3 percent. Median household income is $30,417, placing Springfield 344th out of 351 Massachusetts communities. The schools are not faring any better, with 2003 MCAS scores that put Springfield third from the bottom statewide, tied with Boston.
On warm summer nights, the decibel level along Main Street is stratospheric. A parade of cars moves bumper to bumper, the hip hop and meringué generating a tangled, concussive din. Nearby, in the North End, there may be a drag race or two later in the evening. And over at a private club police consider reputable in name only–they believe the bustling storefront enterprise is home to drug activity–officers Mark Jones and Mark Provost are cruising slowly past in their police car, watching. The men on the street in front of the social club stare back.
about a missing teenager.
Jones and Provost are natives of Springfield, veterans of the force and survivors of the layoffs. They’re talking about how things have changed in Springfield. More guns, more drugs, more violence. And fewer resources to deal with them.
“No one wants to talk to the police anymore,” Provost says. “They all want to work it out gangster-style.”
“It’s gotten worse,” Jones says. “It helped when we had the community policing officers.”
By “community-policing officers,” Jones is referring to the 100 additional officers Springfield got from the federal Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, an initiative of President Bill Clinton’s that provided officers to qualifying communities for three years. Springfield police administrators and beat cops alike sing the praises of COPS because of its emphasis on community policing. At one time, according to Police Chief Paula Meara, Springfield had nearly 90 officers assigned to community policing. Those cops worked closely with the neighborhoods to forge crime-watch programs, which not only prevented crime but also provided the police information about who were the bad guys worth keeping their eyes on.
Springfield citizens, too, are feeling greater fears about crime. “I think people have become very concerned about crime,” says Jane Hetzel, president of the 40-year-old Forest Park Civic Association, the city’s oldest neighborhood group. “With the budget cuts, I think some criminals feel they have greater opportunity because there are fewer police on the streets.”
sees fear of crime on the rise.
According to Meara, Springfield has become a narcotics marketplace and a magnet for out-of-state weaponry. “People from upper New England come down here and buy the cocaine and heroin that’s coming up here on I-91 from New York and then they take it back [north] and make huge money. You can get great deals on the streets. Drugs have never been priced so reasonably because there’s so much of it. We find that our supply of guns is coming down from Vermont, a very easy state in terms of gun regulation. They used to come from New York and New Jersey, but now they’re coming from Vermont and they’re being traded for drugs.”
The numbers tell a disturbing tale. Aggravated assaults were up sharply last year, from 650 by the end of October 2002 to 955 at the same point in 2003. Robberies increased from 366 to 611 in the same period, stolen motor vehicles from 1,514 to 1,986. Arrests for gun possession leaped from 79 in 2002 to 138 last year. Between February 9 (the day the budget cuts took effect) and October 27, total reported incidents increased 8.4 percent compared to 2002, but arrests declined by 10.2 percent.
Meara says that her department now operates on a budget of about $30 million, down from a high of $38 million. She’s lost about 40 civilian employees, meaning that police officers must sometimes answer phones rather than fight crime on the streets. Meara says she’s turning to the public for assistance. “We just can’t get to every call like we used to. So we’re trying to reduce our calls for service by working with the public; we’re trying to increase crime watch.”
Meara has had her differences with the new mayor. In August, Ryan suggested that if he were elected he would seek to oversee some police decisions, if necessary, about how officers are deployed. Meara responded angrily on a radio talk show, criticizing Ryan as a “Johnny-come-lately on the political scene” set to “undermine the Springfield Police Department.”
But Ryan has also pledged that he will do everything in his power to avoid further cuts to the police or fire departments. “We have a serious responsibility for public safety,” he says. “Already we’ve seen the adverse effects of these layoffs. There comes a point where you say, ‘I can’t and I won’t cut the police department any further.’ That’s where we are right now. I’m not going to do it.”
While everyone agrees Springfield’s in tough shape, some observers believe the situation is not hopeless. Russell F. Denver, executive director of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, argues that too little credit is given to Springfield’s strengths: higher education and health care are healthy industries in the area; the new Basketball Hall of Fame has done well since opening in September 2002; $115 million in riverfront-area investments are on tap, along with a new federal courthouse and a new train station. He also points out that MassMutual, a major financial-services company, is based in Springfield and fully committed to the city, as demonstrated by the recent opening of a 400-employee subsidiary, David Babson Investments, in downtown Springfield. He points to the Worthington Street “entertainment district,” a string of restaurants and bars, as a vital improvement to the downtown area.
“We’re doing well in reviving the downtown area,” he says, “and that’s to Michael Albano’s credit.”
But the city’s new mayor knows that getting Springfield’s financial house in order is the first order of business. In addition to pursuing uncollected local taxes, Ryan says he intends to go hard after millions of dollars he says the Commonwealth owes Springfield. He says the state has covered less than a third of the $400 million that Springfield has spent on busing to achieve racial balance since 1974, while it’s supposed to pay the full bill. He also alleges that Springfield is discriminated against in the distribution of local aid, especially monies from the state’s Additional Assistance Fund, which this year totals $378 million. If Springfield is the third largest city in the Commonwealth, he asks, why are 35 municipalities ahead of it on the Additional Assistance list? Springfield’s allotment from that fund this year, he says, is $1.8 million, less than the town of Winthrop, population 18,000, which is getting $2.3 million.
After making the tough decisions on specific cuts, there may also be new revenue sources to consider, like trash-pickup fees. Even with plenty of belt-tightening, though, Ryan believes that the city’s future depends on help from the state. “Unless there is significant assistance, we’re not going to be able to make it,” Ryan says. “It’s as simple as that. We could be looking at receivership.”
Meanwhile, Caron, the former state representative, believes that the only answer for Springfield is a bailout bill. “It will require someone who will make a good case to the Legislature and say, ‘We have the third largest city and the second largest school district not only in Massachusetts but in all of New England. We can’t allow this city to just fold up shop.'”
Ultimately, however, Springfield’s long-term health will depend not on cutting a better deal with Beacon Hill but on recapturing at least some of the private-sector vitality that once made the city a powerhouse of the western Massachusetts economy. John Davis, a former industrialist who operates an investment office and a family foundation in Springfield, believes the city and area have great potential.
“One of the big issues for Springfield is finding ways to attract new businesses, particularly technology-type businesses that are going to provide value-added in the future,” he says. “Boston’s been successful with technology and biotechnology, but we never seem to get the benefit of that here in Springfield. One of the big issues in eastern Massachusetts is that it’s getting very crowded. I think Springfield is an area where we have good infrastructure; our housing is a lot more reasonable than in the eastern part of the state.”
And in a fitting link to the city’s manufacturing tradition, one place where new biotech ventures could take root is the old Springfield Armory, since 1967 the home of Springfield Technical Community College. In 1996, the college opened a “technology park” on the site that is now home to 13 companies in technology-related fields, with a total of 860 employees. The venture has been the brainchild of the college’s long-time president, Andrew Scibelli.
Springfield Tech now offers a degree in biotechnology for aspiring technicians, and Scibelli, who is retiring from his community-college post in June, thinks the city is well positioned to compete for biotech firms that are ready to graduate from the laboratory to commercial production. Meanwhile, he says Bay State Medical Center and nearby University of Massachusetts-Amherst are exploring a possible joint research-and-development project in biotechnology.
And Allan Blair, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, says he’s guardedly optimistic about Springfield’s future. For one thing, he says, the city is scheduled to open an 80-acre tract of developable land next year, the first sizeable chunk of industrial space brought onto the market in more than a decade. Since new investment is one way to expand the property-tax base beyond the Prop. 2H levy limit, Blair says this new asset could give the city some fiscal “traction.”“I think Springfield has all of the infrastructure in place to be successful,” he says. “It’s just a question of re-ordering priorities, and that can only be done in City Hall. I think the next mayor, Charlie Ryan, is going to be faced with some tough decisions about spending and government organization, but I think he’s up to the task.”
And with the laundry list of problems facing Springfield, Scibelli says there may be a silver lining to having a mayor who is in his golden years. “He has nothing to gain,” says Scibelli. “He’s not going to run for Congress or run for higher office, and from that perspective alone, he comes in with all good intentions. We have to have faith and hope that he’s got the horses to do this. This is the main city in western Massachusetts, and there’s a lot riding on it.”
Additional reporting for this article by CommonWealth editors and contributors.