EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 17, 2013

Crime down, test scores up under Lantigua? Not so fast...

By Keith Eddings
keddings@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE - Student test scores are up. The credit rating is climbing. More veterans are being served. More potholes are getting filled. More developers are breaking ground.

The only thing dropping is the crime rate.

That’s the upbeat state of the city Mayor William Lantigua described in an address to the City Council on Feb. 5.

Some of it checks out, the records show. Some don’t.

These are statements Lantigua made during his State of the City address about major issues facing Lawrence, and how they compare to the record.

Lantigua did not return a phone call seeking comment.

CRIME

“Crime has dropped to the lowest level in nearly a decade.”

Lantigua did not respond to a request for 2012 crime data, so the claim can’t be verified for the full decade he cited. But for the decade that ended Dec. 31, 2011 – two years into Lantigua’s term - the number of violent crimes increased 44.6 percent, from 528 to 764, according to data provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The trends are uneven, the FBI data shows. Robberies increased 57 percent in 2011 compared to 2002. Assaults were up 45 percent. Rapes dropped 55 percent. Murders increased five-fold, from two in 2002 to 10 in 2011, equal to the most ever. (The number of murders in 2012 is available from news reports: two people were murdered in Lawrence last year, the lowest number since 2005, as Lantigua said in his address.)

The total number of crimes against property dropped 7 percent, from 2,667 in 2002 to 2,481 in 2011. Burglaries jumped 79 percent. Larcenies were unchanged.

In his address, Lantigua dwelled on the 33 percent decline in vehicle thefts over the decade. That number is accurate for the full decade, but vehicle thefts have soared under the Lantigua years, reversing years of decline. The number of vehicle thefts dropped steadily through the decade, from 1,509 in 2002 to 418 in 2009. In 2010, Lantigua’s first year in office, the number spiked to 769. The number jumped again the following year, to 1,026, the FBI data shows.

“We have seen a 33 percent reduction in auto theft - real number, not propaganda, not make believe, not adjusted. Real number,” Lantigua said about the last decade.

Before Lantigua, the drop since 2002 had been 72 percent.

THE CREDIT RATING

“Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investor Services increased our bond rating and gave us a stable outlook.”

Only Standard & Poor’s raised the credit rating on Lawrence’s long-term general obligation bonds. It raised the rating half a notch, from BBB- to BBB, both investment grades, in August. Also in August, Moody’s Investors Service left its rating at Baa1, also an investment grade. Both companies improved their outlooks for the city’s credit ratings, meaning they do not expect to change the city’s credit rating anytime soon.

THE BUDGET

“We once again submitted a balanced budget. . . . That’s hard to do when you come into a city facing a $30 million deficit.”

Lantigua has balanced all three of his budgets, in part by borrowing money and laying off dozens of policemen and firefighters. The cops and firefighters were rehired after the state and federal governments stepped in to pay their salaries. The grant paying the salaries of 31 firefighters expires in August. The city has applied to renew it. Lantigua inherited a deficit, but overstated it in his address. It was $21 million. The deficit increased to $24 million in Lantigua’s first budget, which included $3 million of borrowed money.

SCHOOLS

“Graduation rates are on the rise.”

The graduation rate at Lawrence High School dropped 1 percent in 2010, Lantigua’s first year in office, to 49 percent. The rate jumped to 54 percent in 2011. The state took control of the schools on Jan. 1, 2012, citing chronic under-performance, and relieved Lantigua of his oversight. At graduation six months later, 64 percent of seniors received diplomas. Lantigua credited the state for the increase in his address. Although the state is in charge, the Lawrence School Committee still meets. Lantigua, who chairs it, has attended just one meeting since June.

COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT

“Lawrence continued to see strong commercial investment.”

The number of building permits issued for commercial construction was not available last week, but the number of permits – commercial and residential – dropped last year after increasing during each of Lantigua’s first two years in office. The city issued 937 building permits in 2010, up nearly 14 percent. The number of permits issued increased 6 percent in 2011, to 994 permits. The number dropped by the same amount last year, although the city saw several major commercial projects open or break ground. They include an expansion of Commonwealth Motors on Marston Street and a new health studies building that Northern Essex Community College is building on Common Street.

INFRASTRUCTURE

“No other administration has moved more rapidly and cost effectively on public infrastructure improvements than mine.”

Lantigua has never proposed a capital budget, although he recently appointed a committee to develop one. Even without the long, comprehensive vision that capital budgets provide, several significant public works projects are underway in Lawrence, including a $15 million upgrade of the system that treats and distributes seven million gallons of Merrimack River water daily. Under Lantigua, a $2.6 million, 2.5 mile greenway along the Spicket River is nearing completion, 12 years after it was mapped. Under Lantigua, the city’s fleet of garbage trucks were automated – while commercial customers were dropped from garbage routes – and the city partnered with the state to install surveillance cameras at hot spots for illegal dumping. The city paved 43 streets during Lantigua’s first three years – including Boxford Street, where he lives – compared to 16 that were paved in the three years before Lantigua took office. State Chapter 90 aid for road improvements in Lawrence has totaled $4.5 million under Lantigua, up 20 percent from the four-year total before he took office. Like road work, all major infrastructure projects in Lawrence are funded largely by the state and federal governments.

VETERANS’ SERVICES

“Under the leadership of Director Jaime Melendez, Veterans’ Services has almost doubled the former military men and women receiving benefits.”

Melendez did not respond to a request for the numbers. The Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services tracks only the number of veterans receiving income supplements under its Chapter 115 program. Those numbers are up 14 percent in the 14 months since Lantigua named Melendez to run the Lawrence veterans’ office, to an average of 98 a month. In the 14 months before Melendez took over, the office served a monthly average of 86 veterans.