By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Facing at least three men who may challenge him for his job later this year, Mayor William Lantigua delivered a State of the City address to the City Council last night that asserted the progress the city has made balancing budgets, fighting crime, improving schools and attracting economic development during his three years in office.
The mayor was alternately combative, jocular, sarcastic and upbeat during the 42-minute speech before a crowd of about 100 people, which he delivered five weeks after announcing he would run for a second four-year term. Several times, he looked up from his single-spaced, prepared text to remind his audience of the mess he inherited from people who preceded him, whom he did not name, and to assail his critics, whom he also left unnamed, except for several references to the press.
“I hope that at the end of my remarks that, if not all (of you) — and I know it will not be all — but most of you will conclude that what you can see, not just with your eyes but with your conscience, is that the state of the city is on the rise and that Lawrence still is and will continue moving forward, despite what you hear sometimes,” Lantigua said in his opening remark before turning to his prepared text.
After a year when he faced two recall attempts, lost two top aides to indictments and gave up the city’s schools to state control, Lantigua’s second State of the City address — he skipped what should have been the first two — had only a tentative reach into the future.
He proposed a handful initiatives, most of them modest and funded largely by the state or federal governments.
He announced what he said would be “a significant announcement to help police take weapons off the streets,” a likely reference to the gun buyback program he first announced in December.
He said he also will ask the council for funding to buy high-powered rifles for police cruisers to provide police with “the same weaponry that may be confronting them on the streets and in hostage situations.”
He said he would step up efforts to combat the illegal dumping, by installing more surveillance cameras at hot spots.
He said he will hire seven firefighters over the next few months as part of an ongoing, federally funded program to restock Fire Department ranks following the attrition and layoffs of 2009 and 2010.
Otherwise, Lantigua spent the evening tallying his successes of his first term and detailing the record he will run on as he seeks a second.
“Although some choose not to see it, those in the financial world state otherwise, not because they want to do me a favor but because that’s the realty,” Lantigua said, referring to the uptick in the city’s bond rating by one Wall Street credit rating agency and the upgrade in the outlook for city borrowing by another.
He said graduation rates in the schools are up, crime is down, streets are cleaner, more cops and firefighters are on the job and the city’s garbage trucks are fully automated. He said his new director of Veterans Services, Jamie Melendez, has doubled the number of former service men and women receiving benefits, which may have been a gentle jab at the program’s former director, Francisco Urena, who gave up the job last year to take a similar one for the city of Boston.
He noted several new developments that broke ground or cut ribbons last year, including a CVS drug store on Broadway and the new campus for Northern Essex Community College under construction on Common Street.
He also cited the improvements to local parks, including the construction of the Spicket River Greenway and the improvements to Campagnone Common, the ongoing upgrades to the city sewer and water systems, and the repaving of 31 streets last year (including Boxford Street, where he lives). All the improvements were funded almost entirely with state and federal money.
Lantigua hinted at one other significant change, although he did not spell it out. He commended Police Chief John Romero — who attended the speech with about a dozen other commissioners and department heads — for his leadership, indicating that the thaw between the two men is continuing.
Romero was the only department head who attended last year’s State of the City address that Lantigua did not recognize.
About 100 others packed the council chambers for the speech, including Jeffrey Riley, who the state appointed to run city schools last year after declaring the system “chronically under-achieving.”
Three members of the city’s Statehouse delegation sat in a front row of the chambers, including Rep. Marcos Devers, who has not ruled out running against Lantigua in September’s preliminary election.
Afterward, Devers credited Lantigua with “tangible improvements,” including newly paved streets, improved student test scores and better relations with the Police Department.
“All those are positive things, but they’ve been achieved as part of a team,” Devers said. “The mayor has gotten a lot of help from the state.”
He cited the state takeover of the schools, the state-appointed fiscal overseer who has veto power over city spending and the state Chapter 90 money that has paid to pave the streets.
“I’m just glad the mayor had a successful State of the City,” Councilor Daniel Rivera, who declared his candidacy for mayor Monday, said after the speech. “I’d say just that a lot of that success came in spite of the mayor, not because of him.”