LAWRENCE — He's launching a search for a new school superintendent, confronting an alleged corruption probe and last week accepted the resignation of his chief of staff, leaving another empty seat in his administration.
Tonight, Mayor William Lantigua tosses another political ball in the air: A proposed budget of about $71 million for expenses for city departments and a 30-day clock for getting it through the City Council. Meanwhile, he must also satisfy a state overseer who has been monitoring city spending since last year.
The task will be made more challenging by the resignation last week of former mayoral Chief of Staff Leonard Degnan, who put together much of the new budget because Lantigua has not appointed a budget director or treasurer.
The budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, would propose huge challenges even for a mayor undistracted by other mounting challenges and with a full table of commissioners and advisors.
A top challenge facing Lantigua is that he can no longer use borrowed money to balance his budget. The special permission which the state gave Lawrence to borrow to cover operating deficits over the last three years has run out, and will be replaced next year by a payment of about $1.5 million on the $27.4 million borrowed by the city.
Nevertheless, Degnan said the new budget will contain none of the layoffs that occurred after the current budget was adopted in July, when more than 80 city workers, including 47 police and firefighters, lost their jobs. His comments came as he left City Hall for good last week to return to the insurance company he owns.
The Fire Department has been rebuilt in recent months by using a $6 million federal grant, which has allowed fire Chief Jack Bergeron to rehire 26 firefighters and to make plans to add 16 more. Those jobs are safe through next year, when the grant runs out, and will allow Bergeron to reopen the Prospect Hill firehouse by the end of the year. A ladder truck also has been returned to the South Broadway firehouse.
The Police Department has not replaced the two dozen officers laid off in July. Although Chief John Romero is reconstituting the auto insurance fraud task force that was lost, along with a half dozen other special units, in the layoffs last July, he is doing it by shifting existing staff, not with new money.
Lantigua and Robert Nunes, the state overseer, did not return phone calls last week seeking comment on the new budget. But Nunes said earlier that it will ask for more sacrifices from a city already weary of tax hikes, service reductions and layoffs. Almost certain in the new budget: A 2.5 percent property tax hike, the maximum allowed without approval from city voters.
Among the challenges the new spending plan will have to address:
State aid to Lawrence would drop another 1.2 million, to $15.4 million, under the state budget Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed. The governor's plan is wending its way through the Statehouse.
The borrowing authorization Lantigua negotiated with the state requires Lawrence to put 1.5 percent of its property tax levy — equal to about $665,000 — into a separate capital budget to pay for infrastructure improvements and major purchases. Lantigua was required by the City Charter to send the Council a capital budget by April 1, but has not yet done so.
A court settlement the city reached this year with a man who claimed he was brutalized by police allowed the city to move $350,000 of the settlement into the new fiscal year. It's due by Sept. 1.
Contracts with police and civil servants that expired June 30 remain unsettled. Lantigua was able to squeeze $240,000 in givebacks from firefighters in a contract they signed Sept. 30, but the city's two police unions so far have resisted concessions.
Sgt. Scott McNamara, who heads the union representing superior officers, and Alan Andrews, who leads the rank and file, could not be reached for comment.
Daniel Rivera, who heads the City Council's budget committee, said he expects Lantigua's budget will meet the challenges using new revenues, including the money coming in from the stepped up pressure Lantigua has placed on the city's tax deadbeats.
"I think you'll see that because of the things the council and administration put in place (to collect revenue) that we never collected before, the revenue projections will be healthy," Rivera said. "They're not going to be fantasy, but they'll be healthy."
Other measures put in place this year also will help bump up revenues in the new budget. They include a switch to a cheaper employee health plan run by the state, an increase in the city's portion of the hotel occupancy tax from 4 percent to 6 percent, a new 0.75 percent tax on restaurant meals, and an end to trash collection for commercial properties and multi-family properties with more than six units, which saved $200,000 annually.
Later this year, Lantigua will send the council a proposal to install parking meters on downtown streets, including on Essex and Common streets, which would generate about $540,000 annually.
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