By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE — A power failure affecting 3,000 homes and businesses knocked the lights out at City Hall last night, threatening to derail an important vote on the city’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
About 70 people — including most of the city department heads — still sat in the dark when the meeting finally convened 23 minutes late.
But aided by emergency lighting set up at the City Council table by Department of Public Works employees, councilors got enough light to read what they were voting on, passing Mayor William Lantigua’s $255.3 million budget by a 6-3 margin.
Just one night after a controversial and dramatic session that took more than five hours and ended after midnight, councilors needed less than half an hour to take care of business.
Lantigua called the council’s budget vote in the dark “a first.”
“I have never seen anything like it, but it didn’t stop them from conducting business,” he said.
“I’m glad it’s over and I’m glad they adopted the budget with very little cut. It’s a budget that we can afford and it funds all the departments to the level we can afford. Just being able to pass the budget on time — it’s a huge accomplishment,” Lantigua said.
Councilors were facing the potential for a long weekend that could involve emergency sessions to adopt a budget on time, or allow the mayor to adopt a provisional budget to keep the city running at the start of the new fiscal year, which begins Monday. That could have been challenging, as the mayor was bracing for a showdown with councilors if they failed to pass the budget.
“I was not going to do a 30-day budget. I was just going to let the chips fall where they fall, because I went through a lot of pain to put this budget together,” Lantigua said.
Loud applause erupted in the three-quarters full City Council Chambers after the budget passed. Councilors Twomey, Sandy Almonte, Estela Reyes, Kendrys Vasquez and Oneida Aquino and Council President Frank Moran supported the budget.
Councilors Dan Rivera, Marc Laplante and Eileen O’Connor Bernal voted against the mayor’s spending plan.
Wednesday night’s marathon budget session was marked with great acrimony and ended with Council Vice President Rivera raising a charter objection, which ended the meeting abruptly at about 12:30 a.m.
“I just felt like everyone needed 24 hours to think things over,” Rivera said after last night’s meeting.
“A budget that raises taxes for the 10th year in a row and doesn’t add any new police officers is going to be a problem. I wanted to make sure that everyone knew this is what it was going to do. Nobody should be surprised that police response times are going to be down and their taxes are going to go up,” he said.
“The budget is supposed to be a conversation between the council, the mayor and the community. But the mayor was trying to ram this thing through. If the people in this city don’t like the way the mayor is running the city, then they better start paying attention,” he said.
Rivera, who is one of several candidates challenging the mayor this fall, has been critical of the administration’s fiscal policies, particularly when it comes to funding the Police Department. He noted that the city’s police force is currently at 119 officers, much lower than the 161 officers it had several years ago.
After debating for more than five hours Wednesday night over more than $800,000 in potential budget cuts, the council voted to trim just $11,400 from the mayor’s spending plan.
“They’re basically saying that the way the mayor is running the city is OK,” Rivera said.
“What they did is pass a budget that allows the mayor to hire more of his pals, but doesn’t put one more police officer on the street,” he said.
The mayor heaped his own criticism on Rivera, who is seen as one of his chief adversaries in this year’s mayoral race.
“Once he saw that most of the council were not going along with his cuts, he got political and lost his cool and started yelling at Mr. Nunes,” Lantigua said, referring to the state-appointed fiscal overseer, Robert Nunes.
“Just because things weren’t going his way, he’s yelling at Mr. Nunes. Wonder what he’d do if he were mayor?” Lantigua asked.
He also chided Councilor Laplante’s attempt to trim the budget “by punishing” the city’s school children.
“He wanted to cut $6 million from the School Department budget,” the mayor said.
“Fortunately, for the first time in many, many years, the School Department is going to meet its net school spending level,” he said.
Lantigua said a major highlight of the budget is that it allows the DPW to add five new positions.
“That’s a department that has been cut to the bone in recent years,” he said.