AFTER NATURAL disasters, such as the tornadoes that touched down earlier this month in Springfield and other Western Massachusetts communities, public officials will inevitably worry more about getting things back to normal than about enforcing rigid fiscal discipline.
This is understandable; the bills for cities and towns can pile up pretty quickly — from the cost of repairing damaged public buildings to wages and overtime for the cleanup crews that remove and dispose of downed trees — and some extra borrowing to cover these expenses may be entirely justifiable. But deficit borrowing can start a dangerous cycle for communities that, like Springfield, have a history of financial trouble.
The Springfield City Council’s recent decision to authorize deficit spending in response to the tornado activated an existing state law intended to give communities more freedom of action in times of disaster. It isn’t yet clear whether Springfield will end up using the extra latitude. But deficit spending may be particularly thorny in a city that, by 2004, had racked up such deep deficits that a state-imposed board took over its finances for five years.
Springfield is back under local control, and current Mayor Domenic Sarno has sought to convey a sense of fiscal responsibility. Still, the Patrick administration and state Auditor Suzanne Bump should scrutinize the city’s spending closely. After any disaster strikes any community, underqualified and unscrupulous contractors come out of the woodwork, and an influx of borrowed or donated emergency dollars can allow unsustainable spending practices to escape detection.
Under state law, proposals for emergency borrowing need the approval of the local governing body and the state’s Division of Local Services. Local officials need to give a clear account for what they intend to do with the money they borrow, but a close examination of how the money is actually spent isn’t guaranteed. Such checks should be standard operating procedure. The prospect of a close post-disaster audit also guarantees that municipal officials will seek any federal reimbursements to which their communities are entitled.
When disaster strikes, the state should do everything it can to help local governments to get back on their feet quickly. But the best help may be making sure that they spend their emergency funds wisely.