Mass. Mayor: Hike Taxes to Save Firefighters

May 29, 2013
The mayor's proposal keeps 31 firefighters on the job when the SAFER grant runs out in August.

May 29--LAWRENCE -- Returning to City Hall after more than two weeks in Florida and the Dominican Republic, Mayor William Lantigua yesterday proposed a $237.2 million budget for the new fiscal year that accomplishes what had seemed beyond the city's reach only days ago: no firefighters would be laid off.

As many as 31 firefighters faced losing their jobs when the federal grant that has paid their salaries for more than two years runs out in August. Lantigua's budget proposal keeps all 31 on the payroll through June 30, 2014, mostly by raising property taxes 2.5 percent, which along with new growth will bring in $3 million.

In all, the new budget would increase spending for the city and its schools and special funds -- the airport, parking garages and sewer and water operations -- by $8.4 million, or 3.6 percent. The schools will get $6 million of the increase, including about $5 million from the state and $1 million from the city.

The effect of the tax increase on tax bills for homeowners and businesses won't be known until the value of all property is recalculated and the tax rate is set in December.

The new budget proposal would hold water and sewer rates steady. It includes no new programs. No city workers would be laid off in any department, although the school department continues to be battered by layoffs and firings as Jeffrey Riley, the state-appointed receiver running the schools, reshapes operations. Riley announced over the weekend that he will lay off 25 administrators and shift the $1.3 million in savings from the central office to the school buildings.

Retaining the firefighters and keeping the property tax increase to 2.5 percent -- the maximum allowed without voter approval -- signaled a fiscal rebound for the state's poorest city.

"I'd like to announce to you, councilors, that this not only is a balanced budget, but this is a budget with real revenue projections," Lantigua said in his budget presentation to the City Council last night, taking one of his frequent jabs at the inflated revenue projections of former Mayor Michael Sullivan that left Lantigua with $24.3 million in deficits when he succeeded Sullivan in 2009. "There are no one-time revenue sources, with no additional borrowing and without laying off a single person in the great city of Lawrence. I think that's great news for all of us."

"It's good," fire Chief Jack Bergeron said about the funding for his department. "I'm glad nobody is going to get laid off. I'd like see the unfunded positions filled, but I understand the position the city is in."

Lantigua delivered his good budget news amid a swirl of distractions, including a day of speculation at City Hall about whether he would return from his overseas trip in time for the council meeting last night. When Lantigua wrapped up his speech and left the chambers, councilors said nothing about his spending plan but immediately turned their attention to last week's disclosure that another city employee and Lantigua confidant is being investigated by law enforcement agents.

Lantigua delivered his budget speech to a mostly empty City Council chambers in an uncharacteristically subdued, almost abrupt fashion. His speech lasted just six minutes, a third the length of last year's budget message, and besides the councilors, was attended by only a handful of commissioners, a half dozen residents who are regulars at council meetings, and the state-appointed fiscal overseer, Robert Nunes.

When it ended, Councilor Eileen Bernal proposed that the council hire an outside auditor to investigate collections at city garages to determine what may have been lost following the revelation that a parking garage attendant who is one of Lantigua's top political lieutenants was questioned by the FBI last week about tens of thousands of dollars that may have gone missing from the Museum Square garage. The council tabled the proposal until Tuesday.

Nunes announced last week that he would conduct his own review of parking revenues. Last night, he said the review began earlier in the day with face-to-face interviews with Budget Director Mark Ianello, Purchasing Agent Rita Brousseau and acting Public Works Director John Isensee.

The news of the new FBI investigation broke as Lantigua and his wife, Lorenza Ortega, a confidential secretary in the city's Personnel Department, were in their second week of a trip Florida and Dominican Republic. The couple left as a close member of Ortega's family was dying and as Lantigua's father became seriously ill.

The couple returned over the weekend.

Lantigua did not notify City Council President Frank Moran of his absence, as the charter requires, and did not directly communicate with Nunes or Ianello through his two-week absence, even as yesterday's deadline for submitting the new budget approached, both men said yesterday.

Lantigua declined to answer questions about his absence after the council meeting last night. Ianello said it is not unusual for him to go for protracted periods without speaking to Lantigua and said the two communicated during the mayor's recent absence through intermediaries, including Economic Development Director Patrick Blanchette.

"As long as we balance the budget," Nunes said about whether Lantigua's absence hindered the process of putting together the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. "The mayor told us what his priorities are, which are public safety and schools, and we able to fund his priorities."

Lantigua's new budget makes more generous revenue projections than did his first three budgets, due to a confidence that grew out of budget surpluses of up to nearly $7 million in the earlier budgets. Among them, the budget proposal projects revenues from personal property taxes will jump 11 percent, to $5.3 million, next year.

Lantigua proposed allocating $700,000 from the approximately $4.5 million that remains of last year's budget surplus to pay off the $850,000 deficit for snow removal that piled up last winter. Another $1.6 million of last year's surplus would be spent for capital projects in the schools, reducing the surplus to about $2 million.

The budget also includes a jump of about $5 million in state aid, although all of that will be spent on the schools, where the increased state aid will require a $1 million match by the city. In all, state aid to the city and schools would total $168.5 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, equal to 71 percent of total spending.

The budget funds the 2.5 percent pay hikes that the city's three fire and police unions recently negotiated, but leaves Lantigua's salary at $100,000 and leaves the salaries for eight of the nine city councilors at $15,057. City Council President Frank Moran's salary also remains steady at $17,065. Moran also collects a salary of about $60,000 as a state representative.

Among department heads, only police Chief John Romero would get a raise. Romero, who has a separate employment contract with the city, would get a 2.9 percent pay hike, to $123,185.

Also in the police department, Lantigua's budget continues to fund the $94,248 salary of Deputy Chief Melix Bonilla. Lantigua has paid Bonilla's salary since putting him on leave following his indictment on corruption charges on Sept. 11, despite protests from city councilors and state Inspector General Glenn Cunha.

Copyright 2013 - The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.

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