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Small City, Big Innovations, Huge Progress

The community in Fitchburg, Mass., came together to solve youth crime and budget challenges.

Sometimes smaller is better – especially for cities solving problems through innovation.

Fitchburg, Mass., is one of those smaller cities. A community of 40,000 with a history that traces back before the founding of the United States, it is one of those places that has successfully reinvented itself a number of times over the more than 250-plus years of its existence. With a picturesque New England landscape, Fitchburg attracted Hollywood filmmakers in 1961, who selected it as the location for the film “Return to Peyton Place.”

However, over the last decade, Fitchburg has endured many of the same challenges afflicting larger, more urban metropolitan areas, including declining revenues and an increase in crime rate – particularly among the city's youth.  

Mayor Lisa Wong was elected in November of 2007 at age 28. In addition to her noteworthy youth, Wong is also the first minority mayor in Fitchburg’s long history and the first female Asian-American mayor in the entire commonwealth of Massachusetts. These attributes helped Wong bring a new perspective and energy to the office – qualities which were soon tested.

Upon taking office, Wong faced a $6.5 million budget deficit complicated by increasing insurance and pension costs and a looming reduction in state aid to municipalities. She moved quickly to consolidate departments and reduce personnel costs, balancing the budget and raising the city’s stabilization fund from a low of $20,000 to over $4.6 million – all within her first 30 months in office. With restored financial health, the city’s bond rating inched upward.

Of course, it was not a totally painless process. “The Fitchburg Police Department had 92 sworn officers in FY 2007 and was down to 71 officers by FY 2012,” Wong said. “We are back up to 74 as of this fiscal year. None of us were happy, including myself, about having less resources, but at the end of the day, everyone really stepped up and put the community and our children first."

Fitchburg replaced sworn officers that were serving as dispatchers with civilians that could be hired at a much lower cost. As a result, 12 police officers were moved from administrative duties back to patrol. But instead of resisting such shifts in responsibility (as might have been expected) Wong gives high praise to the police for approaching the situation with a positive, helpful attitude. She said the Fire Department was similarly impacted, but the city's firefighters also accepted the necessary changes for the greater good of the community and its young people.

Fitchburg had two problems that were Wong’s primary focus: crime and children.

The community’s kids were struggling. Crimes perpetrated by the city’s youth were unacceptably high and Fitchburg had the second highest childhood obesity rate in the commonwealth. With the mayor's leadership, the community got involved confronting these challenges.

The Fire Department created a movie night program to provide families with safe and wholesome evening entertainment. The school district replaced normal school lunches with a farmers’ market concept that focuses on individual choice but with an emphasis on healthy fruits and vegetables. Older high school students organized classes to encourage physical activity, teaching younger children how to jump rope with elaborate steps and footwork.

The Fitchburg Police Department responded to the challenge with a number of initiatives:

  • The Youth Police Academy is a summer activity for middle school-age youth using school resource officers as instructors. The week-long course includes team building exercises and lessons in goal setting, conflict resolution, mediation, decision-making and self-esteem. Physical fitness, K9 demonstrations and lessons in applicable laws are also part of the program. High-tech equipment (always popular with young people) is also employed. As an example, participants are permitted to experience the effect of chemical or alcohol impairment through the use of "fatal vision" goggles.
  • The Police Athletic League is an opportunity for youth to participate in positive lifestyle choices, including a blend of sports, education and civic activities. The effort employs mentors to enhance expanded regional football, basketball, track and field, and cross country programs.
  • The Reading Trolley provides a way for children who may not have transportation to access the library. Utilizing one of Fitchburg's existing trolleys, a police sergeant and a group of volunteers take reading materials to selected neighborhoods. It's available to anyone, but particularly focused on young men in need of positive male role models.
Wong emphasized that these activities are community and police led. Many of the programs are part of a single campaign, “FUN n FITchburg,” which is an effort to combat childhood obesity and increase quality of life in the city. Wong points to this as one of her favorite efforts.

She can be justifiably proud. These combined initiatives have not only resulted in a restored financial balance sheet for the community, but the city has experienced the second greatest drop in crime in Massachusetts – including noticeable reductions in youth crime. School dropout rates are declining, graduation rates are increasing, and students are healthier and happier.

Things are looking up in Fitchburg. Not content to simply guess at the results, however, Wong is setting aside funds to measure outcomes.

It might be tempting to simply shrug and think this is all well and good for cities like Fitchburg and then question how it might work on a larger scale in a more urban setting. However, it is undeniable that Fitchburg and Wong have shown what can be accomplished in the face of a financial crisis using the universal tools of energy, enthusiasm, positive attitudes and a heavy dose of innovation.
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.
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