Sometimes it takes a fresh perspective to fix an old problem. Lisa Wong was 27 when she decided to run for mayor of Fitchburg, Mass., a shrinking manufacturing town running budget deficits and suffering from near-junk bond status. Wong was young, but she had a master’s degree in economics, a budgeting background from her days in Boston’s financial district and government experience as the former director of Fitchburg’s economic redevelopment agency. “There wasn’t a single doubt that I could do the job,” she says.
Over the past eight years, Wong has taken steps to put the city on firmer financial footing: reducing library hours, laying off a third of her police force, cutting salaries and benefits for municipal employees, and turning off more than 60 percent of the streetlights. Voters could have thrown her out if they thought the cuts were too drastic. Instead, they’ve re-elected her three times. When the city cut library hours, citizens protested and Wong joined them. “We actually cried together,” she says. “We talked about how to get the city back in shape.” Since then, the city’s financial reserve increased from $10,000 to $3 million and its bond rating received two upgrades from Standard & Poor’s.