LAWRENCE — Mayor Daniel Rivera yesterday renewed his campaign pledge to keep the lid on taxes and hire more cops in a State of the City address that was most notable for its brevity and its cautious pronouncement that the state of the city is “hopeful” rather than “strong.”
Rivera bypassed the word most mayors, governors and presidents prefer in their similar annual addresses, in a speech that came on a day when he confronted new revelations about the bills left over from the mayor he succeeded.
Among them, The Eagle-Tribune reported this week that former Mayor William Lantigua left a $300,000 paving job unpaid for and ordered another $400,000 paving job just before the Nov. 5 election, when he responded to a contractor’s warnings that it was too late in the year to do the work by waiving its warranty. A few of the roads have started to buckle, public works chief John Isensee said.
Rivera did not mention the paving jobs or the former mayor, whose administration was hampered by the steady drumbeat of scandal, indictment and grand jury leaks. But the absence of any significant initiatives in his eight-minute address to the City Council last night suggested the new mayor is mindful of the problems left on his desk, although Lantigua also left Rivera a balanced budget.
Besides reiterating his promises to hire more cops and keep taxes flat in his own first budget, which he said he will submit to the City Council two weeks before the deadline in May, Rivera promised only to reorganize some departments and to make the library a center for arts and culture.
Rivera last night embraced only one or two of the dozens of reforms and initiatives proposed in the 76-page report his transition team handed him on his first full day in office on Jan. 3, which called for new programs in housing, education, health, the arts, economic development and other areas.
Instead, Rivera said the task of improving the city he now governs — which has the highest unemployment rate and lowest per capita income in Massachusetts — will be “arduous,” and he suggested the city will need more help from the outside in its recovery. Already, the state bears the full cost of operating Lawrence’s public schools, and also has run them for two years.
“We have found that Lawrence is a community that people in the Merrimack Valley and across the Commonwealth want to help and they want to see us succeed,” Rivera said about his first days as mayor. “And lastly in these short 32 days, what I have found is that since the election in November, the state of our city is hopeful.”
He said his first task will be to hire more rank-and-file cops, which he has earlier he will pay for in part by shrinking the Police Department’s command staff. The proposal has run into resistance from the union representing the department’s superior officers.
He said he will ask the City Council to allow him to restructure the departments of Community Development, Economic Development, Planning and Inspectional Services in an effort to better position Lawrence to attract industry and jobs.
If Rivera’s brief address was narrow on specifics, it was broad on themes. He noted the inspiration he drew from attending President Obama’s State of the City address last week, where he was the guest of U.S. Rep Niki Tsongas.
“What struck me most about my visit to our nation’s capital was that even in this polarized, gridlock atmosphere that has gripped our national politics, everyone that was in the capital that night was full of hope, hope and anticipation of the possibility for greatness, the possibility of bold action, of a challenge to make our nation better,” Rivera said. “We too have that hope, that possibility, those challenges. And I look forward to greeting it all and accomplishing much with you.”
Rivera delivered the address to an overflow audience of the council chambers, which included a sprinkling of department heads and School Committee members, two also-rans in last years mayoral election (firefighter Manny Gonzalez and inventor James O’Donoghue) and one state representative (Diana DiZoglio). Bob Nunes, the city’s fiscal overseer, and Jeff Reilly, who is running the city’s schools for the state, did not attend.
“I’m very happy to hear he’s not raising taxes,” O’Donoghue said about Rivera’s pledge that there will be no property tax hike in his budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1, which Rivera said would be the first flat-tax budget in 12 years. “We’re not able to afford it. We need a break.”
“Everyone is hopeful, like he said,” said Brenda Rozzi, president of the Sacred Heart Neighborhood Association and a lifelong friend of Rivera’s. “He’s going to bring us back to where the city needs to be.”
The new mayor waited quietly in the back of the council chambers for 30 minutes before delivering his 8-minute address, while the council first recognized the Lawrence Pop Warner cheerleading squad for placing third in a recent national competition and then held four public hearings on the placement of stop signs and a bus stop.