Two Mayors

So now I’m off the Yale IV, in more ways than one. Yesterday was Election day locally, and I do mean locally — there were no national races or even statewide races affecting my corner of the universe. We had a remarkably uncontentious set of races for various local offices, punctuated only by the removal of the local town hothead, who was resigning her spot on the Town Council, and the subsequent dethronement of the long serving council President, whose tenure was no doubt tarnished by having to deal with, and be associated with, aforementioned hothead. Life’s unfair like that sometimes.

Last night the mayor of Boston was re-elected for the fourth time. Menino’s been a fair mayor, but not an amazing one, and is given credit for redevelopment but blame for terrible schools. They talk down here of big challenges, but when I consider the issues facing Boston and its immediate suburbs, the problems are those of managing growth, channeling it productively, deciding what to build, and dealing with the nationwide trend of schools segregated by wealth.  Boston has a solid economy, its housing crisis is relatively mild, crime is low if rising in the past year, and the city is clean and boasts a wealth of cultural attractions. So people are reasonably content with the mayor. Menino’s challenger, if anything, was too like him genetically — his outlook and approach is rather different, at least so he claims.  But in Boston many things are still seen first through the lens of background and race and ethnicity.  An Irishman from Southie named Michael Flaherty cannot convincingly run as anything but a machine politican. We already have a highly effective machine politician in office, so Mumbles Menino — even his staunchest allies would never claim he’s a gifted orator — skated in, 57-42.

Back home, in Fitchburg, MA, my home town, the incumbent mayor was likewise re-elected last night, on a wider margin, but only after two years of serving in office. She replaced a complete debacle of a leader, a clothing salesman turned grandstander who was so obviously an incompetent the city didn’t even care to elect a native to replace him.  Thus the incumbent mayor is the very face of a Change Candidate; Lisa Wong, 30 summers of age, Asian-American, not native to the city, a BU grad who studied urban planning if I’m not mistaken. She unfortunately came to office at the very beginning of the economic crisis, and has but unable to do little more than manage it for the last two years.  However, she also had no real challenger — the challenger listed on the ballot was an acknowledged crackpot, while her more credible 2007 opponent decided to launch a sticker campaign only last week. The finally tally was Wong 60, crackpot 14, sticker guy 26 (assuming all the write in and sticker votes actually voted for him, which is probably close enough to true).

Fitchburg is a city without a margin for crisis. It’s been neglected by the state for a long time now; Boston and environs suck up most of the oxygen, and therefore resources, in Massachusetts.  It’s was left behind when the country and the economy shifted in directions it could not follow.  It is blue collar in an economy that rewards connections and brainpower, not arm power. It lacks the money for reinvestment and redirection; everything it has goes to a bare level of survival. It’s geographically a bit isolated, which is a blessing in terms of quality of life, but a curse in terms of economics.  It’s very poor, run down, and lacks hope for the future. It might bounce back when gas hits ten bucks a gallon and small dense urban centers come back in fashion, but until then, it’s hard to see where it’ll go. It’s a place where kids like me, who do manage to succeed by some definition or another, are urged by civic leaders explicitly and implicitly to leave, for our own good.  Which robs it of it’s so-called Best and Brightest, and pushes it further back.

Fitchburg would be fortunate to have only the problems Boston or Watertown faces. The mayor has put the library on a part time basis, which means it lost accreditation, closing it off from interlibrary loans with other libraries.  She shut off most of the city’s streetlights, which has proven deeply unpopular, despite having little real effect — research shows pretty convincingly that streetlights mostly produce light pollution, not crime reduction; the city is much better off living darker than laying off a police officer. However, streetlights make people feel safe, and that matters politically. Americans are bad at seeing second order consequences; they react instinctively in the political sphere. It’s not just debaters who don’t know how to weigh arguments properly — nobody does in our political arena where everything is black or white.   However, despite Mayor Wong’s resultant unpopularity, no one serious ran against her.  No one wants the job.  She mostly chooses which thing to cut today, knowing that the thing she decided to keep is simply the thing she’ll have cut tomorrow instead.

People don’t pay taxes anymore, they don’t want to. In Massachusetts, a town or city cannot take in more than 2.5% above their total property tax income from the year before, unless there’s new construction or growth.   Any increase in total tax income over 2.5% must be approved in a override referendum, which never happens in larger towns and cities, and only rarely passes in posh suburbs.  This “Proposition 2 1/2” was passed in a ballot referendum in 1980 and took effect in 1982. As as side note, my uncle, recently inducted into the Fitchburg High Hall of Fame, thereby lost his chance to be a state champion, as the state championships were not held in 1983 due to budget cuts that Prop 2 1/2 required. Since then, inflation has been above 2.5% in 22 of the 27 years that followed.  Real estate values have shot skyward but revenues have not followed.  The tax based spending power of every local government in Massachusetts has declined.  The state makes up for it a bit with state aid, but it doesn’t meet the gap.  And state aid puts revenue and spending out of the control of the local governments — the state has cut state aid several times the past two years to balance its own books.  This situation is unsustainable in the long run, of course. Schools services get a little worse, and a little fewer, every year. Yet a repeal of Prop 2 1/2 is nowhere on the political radar. People think we still live in “Taxachusetts” despite our overall tax burden ranking 23rd out of the 50 states.

It’s an act of ultimate anti-patriotism, wanting to keep your money for yourself, so you starve your community of taxes. Clearly the United States is better served by your second flat screen TV than it is by a better school. In New England, there’s no regional authority below the state level; county government no longer exists.  So mayors are straightjacketed in places like Fitchburg, forever cutting, never adding new. Mayor Wong can’t encourage or spur growth; she has no money to do it with. None of the money in the comparatively wealthy towns surrounding Fitchburg — Townsend, Lunenburg, Westminster — is available for reinvestment in the city center, even though most of their economic power comes from it.  They’d be much better off if Fitchburg would bounce back.  But they won’t pay for it either.

So a city dies slowly.  The surrounding areas enjoy a brief prosperity that too will fade once the center is completely hollowed out. Fitchburg is a canary in the coal mine of Prop 2 1/2, one of the places which was already weak and in trouble in 1982, and which has been gradually devastated ever since.  And it likely will be allowed to die by uncaring neighbors and an uncaring state.  Little will be done about the imbalance in taxes, where wealth grows ever concentrated and unstable, until places like Boston and Watertown and Belmont and Newton are truly hurt by it.  When Weston has to turn out their streetlights, then maybe voters will notice.  By then, it’ll be too late for Fitchburg.

I hope Mayor Wong has tricks up her sleeves to turn it around. The only real hope is new growth that somehow springs up, through favorable zoning laws, or effective marketing, or securing some federal program or something.  But ultimately it’s impossible to get around the reality of ever declining common wealth. Maybe Fitchburg will have a flash of innovation and pull itself out of its doldrums.  But if it does, that will just shunt the problem elsewhere — some other town or city would be the first to wither then, and be that dying canary; by saving Fitchburg you may simply doom Springfield, or Pittsfield, or New Bedford.  And no one will talk about it.

So I’ve started.