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Analysis: A Key Ryan Decision Gave Springfield a Second Chance…

Springfield Control Board with Charles Ryan

The Control Board in 2007. A difficult choice Ryan, second from left, made but one time validated. (WMP&I)

When Springfield Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Timothy Plante presented the budget in June 2020, the outlook was grim. The coronavirus was poised to wreck the economy, state finances and thus municipal coffers. However, the bloodletting was not immediate and the economic threat passed with minimal bleeding. The city should thank Charles Ryan, at least partly, for having the strength to weather this mother of all crises.

On Monday at age 94, Ryan passed away. There will be broader and more complex remembrances, but Ryan’s decision to seek state assistance may be one of the single-most impactful of his two tenures as mayor from 1962 to 1968 and 2004 to 2008. The decision cost the city, reverberating to this day. Still, Springfield avoided wholesale receivership and established a fiscal stability, balancing the city even through a global catastrophe like the pandemic.

Like the rest of the United States and the commonwealth, Springfield had endured wars and even plagues before. It had fiscal struggles before, too. Yet, the dawn of the new millennium brought financial crisis that threatened the city’s ability to serve its residents and meaningful local control.

Ryan left office over 13 years ago. Credit does also go to the man who beat Ryan in the 2007 election. Domenic Sarno, whether traumatized from crises dating to his time as a mayoral aide or preternaturally tight, has not restored the city’s worst fiscal habits. Nor can we know for sure that had Ryan not won the election 2003 his opponent, then-Senator Linda Melconian, could not have found a way.

However, Ryan won and his decision set the stage that Sarno has maintained. Though the Finance Control Board was still in charge when Sarno took office, Ryan was the one to realize the problem was too big for the city to handle alone. It was a financial and a political problem that required reinforcements.

Ironically—or maybe not—the city sought assistance from the state in part because of a crisis the latter precipitated amid recession. The city’s books were in horrid shape, but the state’s continued butchering of local aid left Springfield with little room to maneuver.

The loan that came with the Control Board got the city over the hump. The restructuring the Board instituted hypothetically could have been done on the city’s own. However, it had not and the politics of making tough choices were too grueling for even the most masochistic political do-gooders. There did not exist the will to radically reorder state-municipal funding structures, at that time, for Springfield alone.

The state only put off a broader reckoning. What are now termed Gateway Cities—which includes Springfield—face a bevy of fiscal challenges. Reform can be nearly impossible as Holyoke’s recent travails illustrate. While the city is not in the red as Springfield was, the politics have rewarded charades couched as watch-doggery while disincentivizing actual reform.

Charles Ryan

Ryan as a mayor–the second time. (via Urban Compass/Heather Brandon)

Not six months into his term as mayor, Ryan made the call to seek Beacon Hill’s help. It was a risky move. The governor at the time was a Republican, arguably one to the right of even the current one. The axe would ultimately fall hardest on the city workforce, though the legislature did preserve collective bargaining rights which had been on the menu briefly.

The Control Board, through the Mitt Romney and the Deval Patrick administrations, rebuilt the back-of-the-house operations of the city. Economic development and public safety had more middling results. But even with looming pension costs and scrapes with the ceiling of Proposition 2 ½, Springfield has never faced an existential crisis like the one Ryan found in 2004.

Indeed, it may have ultimately cost him the mayoralty. Sarno campaigned against the new trash fee in the 2007 election effectively. Ryan, whether because he did not take the then-councilor seriously—few did—or because he was confident voters would understand, lost in large part because of the fee the Control Board ordered.

By then, the ball was rolling on reforming city finances. Governor Patrick switched out Control Board members. Within a year’s time, Springfield was writing its own budget if with state training wheels. As the Control Board exited in 2009, the legislature imposed some guardrails and oversight. While the Great Recession would hit it hard, it was better prepared than it had been during the comparatively minor recession six years before.

A decade on, Plante had become CAFO after a city career he began under the aegis of the Control Board. The economic and public health crisis hovered over that budget presentation. There was no panic, however. The city would successfully close out the fiscal year the virus crashed. The next budget would cause fiscal palpitations, but not cardiac arrest.

Plante worried what the following year would bring without federal assistance to states and municipalities. He did not know then state revenue would almost completely recover by year’s end. What mattered was Springfield had the dexterity to manage. The pandemic had still caused shocks, but President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act smoothed the way. The current fiscal year uses some ARPA funds for lost revenue, mostly meal and hotel taxes.

Sarno Plante present 2020 budget

In June 2020, Sarno & Plante announced budgetary storm clouds ahead–but confirmed the sky was not falling. (WMP&I)

Looking back, it seems impossible to imagine a city, brought low in a recession whose defining casualty was, two decades later withstood a species-wide calamity like the coronavirus. Perhaps there was another way, but Mayor Ryan’s way did what it needed to do.

These actions did not force the state to reconsider its broader abdication of stressed cities or the Western Massachusetts economy. However, they preserved the city of Springfield to live to fight another day. There are many other legacies of Ryan’s, but on this one alone he has earned his rest.