By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — The city grudgingly accepted state oversight of its spending four years ago as a way out from under its crushing debt.
Two years later, the state also took control of the schools, consolidating its grip on public life in Lawrence.
Today, much of the initial anger and unease over the loss of control at City Hall and the schools is evaporating — even turning to relief — at least among the four candidates for mayor who responded to a questionnaire on the issues facing the city as it heads into Tuesday’s preliminary election.
Mayor William Lantigua and challengers Marcos Devers, Juan “Manny” Gonzalez and Daniel Rivera addressed the state takeover and other issues put to them in an Eagle-Tribune questionnaire. In written answers, they often generally agreed on how to fix many of the problems facing the state’s poorest city, including attracting development, providing jobs, attacking poverty and reducing the high school dropout rate.
But the incumbent and his challengers diverged sharply on a subject that has infused almost every issue in the campaign: Lantigua’s leadership.
Lantigua, Devers and Rivera said they support continuing the state’s veto power over local spending and its even more complete takeover at the schools, where Boston also controls staffing and the curriculum.
“We have made tremendous improvements over the past four years and I greatly appreciate the partnership of our state government” in restoring balance to the city’s budgets, said Lantigua, who is seeking a second two-year term and expressed the expectation that he will get it.
“We are clearly heading in the right direction and over the next year I am sure that my administration will work closely without state leaders, including (state overseer Robert) Nunes, to determine what is the best time for us to relax oversight or continue on.”
That decision is left to the state for as long as the city still has a balance on the $24 million it was allowed to borrow as part of the deal that also required it to accept the state’s fiscal oversight.
“More oversight always is better,” said Rivera, a city councilor who chairs the council’s budget committee. “I think to continue to have a third set of eyes on how we spend the people’s money is not a bad thing.”
“With the state oversight, whenever the Council and the mayor have disagreements regarding budgets, the financial overseer can provide valuable insight and perhaps resources,” said Devers, a state representative who is making his third run for mayor.
Only Gonzalez, a city firefighter making a first run for public office, suggested the time is near to end the state’s oversight of city spending, at least if he is elected mayor.
“Under a Gonzalez administration, it will be time to get rid of the state overseer,” Gonzalez said, while also noting the city’s ongoing fiscal woes. He said they include the $200 million the city owes its pension fund, one of the most underfunded in Massachusetts.
Candidates Nester De Jesus, an accountant, and James O’Donoghue, an inventor, did not return the Eagle-Tribune questionnaire.
Lantigua, who as mayor also chairs the School Committee, has said the state took over the schools at his invitation and says the takeover is a major accomplishment for his administration because of the turnaround he said it is bringing about.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education took over the schools two years ago to correct what it said was chaos on a dysfunctional school committee and to reverse chronic underachievement by students.
“In order to make fundamental changes, state involvement was and is needed and that is why I called the Department of Education and asked for them to bring their toolbox to better serve our children,” Lantigua said. “It’s working!”
Devers, Rivera and Gonzalez said they supported the takeover, but said creating the need for it is among the worst of Lantigua’s failures.
“Let’s be clear – the school system was not given away. It was taken away,” Gonzalez said at a mayoral debate last week.. He said he supported the takeover but said he would want to restore the mayor “as captain of that ship” if he is elected.
Devers and Rivera want the state to stay.
“I didn’t support it at first because I was upset with the current mayor and the former school committee’s derelict behavior, which led to state control,” Rivera said. “Now that they are here, I believe that if the state and (state overseer Jeff) Riley can help us get ahead of the curve on making significant change, I support it.”
“The state takeover of our city schools was essential given the fact that the current mayor was incapable of presiding over a school committee that was dysfunctional,” said Devers, a former educator. “We are seeing some positive results but it is still too early. I will be ready to evaluate the effectiveness of the reform initiatives during the school year 2015.”
All four candidates agreed that attracting development and the jobs it brings is a first step toward reversing some of the city’s bleak economic data, including unemployment and poverty rates that stubbornly remain among the highest in Massachusetts and property values that are among the lowest.
Unemployment has edged down from 17 percent to 15 percent of the city workforce under Lantigua, but 40 percent of Lawrence children still live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. Single-family home values dropped 5 percent in the four years following the nationwide housing crash in 2008, to an average of $167,77, according to the city’s Board of Assessors. At least 40 percent of the city’s homeowners owe more on their homes than they’re worth, according to a recent study by Zillow Inc.
Lantigua said a solution to all that is to push local businesses and industries to hire city residents first.
“Our unemployment is high, but it’s lower than when I took office and for the first time in a decade, the mayor’s office is actually fighting for Lawrence jobs for Lawrence residents,” Lantigua said. “When I am re-elected, I will look to implement more local incentives for companies to hire Lawrence residents, train Lawrence residents and promote Lawrence residents.”
Devers said he also would reward local industries and businesses that hire city residents first and said he would pursue more federal job-training grants.
Gonzalez said he also would better market the city’s assets to begin rebuilding a middle-class, including cheap rents and a growing community college campus, and he said he would repair the city’s reputation.
“Right now, the perception of Lawrence is a laughingstock to the rest of the world because of the chaos and criminality that exists under the Lantigua administration,” Gonzalez said. “Until we turn the perception of our city around, property values will remain stagnant as middle-class families look elsewhere to live.”
“As mayor, I would spend half my time on economic development, with a focus on bringing jobs to this community,” Rivera said.
The incumbent and his challengers split on what successes Lantigua has had rehabbing the mills, restoring vitality to downtown and driving blight from the neighborhoods. They also split on who should lead that effort.
Lantigua said Lawrence enjoyed “unprecedented growth in may of our historic mill buildings” during his four years in office, citing the ongoing renovations at Monarch Lofts and Malden Mills, two former mill buildings being converted to residential lofts.
He said Economic Development Director Patrick Blanchette is working on an initiative to “bring our downtown back to life,” which he said would be announced in January and would be a focus of his second term.
To Lantigua’s opponents, Blanchette is part of the problem. Rivera and Gonzalez said they would fire him.
“First, we need to hire a professional economic development director who has actual experience pitching a community’s resources to the business world,” Gonzalez said. “Opening an occasional CVS, Burger King or overpriced chicken shack is an insult to every working man and woman in this city.”
The “chicken shack” Gonzalez referred to was a Pollo Campero franchise that closed months after it opened with the help of a tax incentive.
“We would do four things right away,” Rivera said about attracting development. He said he would hire more police to reduce crime and make the city more appealing; target industries that have a need for what the city offers, including cheap water rates and “a hard-working immigrant workforce;” rebuild the city’s reputation and remake the city’s economic development team.
Devers said he also would better “market our assets” to industries that need what the city can offer, provide small businesses with incentives such as low-interest loans, and more aggressively pursue government grants, tax credits and other incentives for redevelopment projects.
What’s the city’s own most pressing capital need?
At a debate last week, Devers, Gonzalez and Rivera said clearing and relining or replacing the corroded underground pipes in the city’s 140-mile water supply system would be at the top of their to-do list. Lantigua already is asking the City Council to borrow $25 million for the project.
But the three answered differently on the questionnaire.
Devers and Gonzalez said they would fix worn-out school buildings.
Rivera, joined by Lantigua, said they would build a new public safety center, replacing the archaic and dilapidated 47-year-old police headquarters on Haverhill Street that was built for a much smaller department in a low-tech era of law enforcement. A new building is estimated to cost up to $20 million.
Rivera and Gonzalez would suspend the pay for three city employees who have been charged with serious crimes, including Melix Bonilla, the $140,000-a-year deputy police chief charged with fraud and bribery for allegedly arranging the swap of 13 city vehicles for four owned by a car dealer connected to Lantigua. Lantigua suspended the three with pay after they were indicted or charged.
Devers said he would seek legal advice on the issue.
Lantigua, Devers, Gonzalez and Rivera offered varying strategies for reducing the dropout rate at Lawrence High School, now at 6 percent.
Lantigua said he has supported more mentoring programs and extra-curricular activities. Rivera said “a good jobs program” would give students a reason to graduate. Devers said students who need it should be provided non-traditional alternatives to the regular high school program.
All four agreed that parents are key to keeping their kids in school and that more should be done to get them involved.
“I grew up in Puerto Rico having nothing,” Gonzalez said. “I have instilled in my children the value of succeeding in school (and) learning the values of hard work and have striven to make sure my children graduate high school and graduate college. Until we are successful driving home the point to every student and parent in the city that the path to economic success is paved with education, there will be students who will drop out of the system.”