EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 12, 2012

Officials start budget 'wish list'

By Keith Eddings

---- — LAWRENCE – In the most impoverished of all 351 towns and cites in Massachusetts, the poverty can be seen in almost every public building.

At the public works yard on Auburn Street - so out-of-date it still includes stalls for the horses that pulled water tanks and pumpers to fires – a 15,000-square-foot garage has been boarded up and is too unsafe to enter.

At the 75-year-old South Broadway firehouse, the crumbling concrete floor is propped up by scaffolding in the basement and losing the strength to hold the engine and ladder truck assigned to the building. Without repairs, the building may have to be abandoned, Fire Chief Jack Bergeron has warned.

At the massive yellow-brick education complex on Haverhill Street, built in 1882, a roof the size of a football field leaks badly and needs a $1.6 million repair.

Police cruisers are 10 years old. The Fire Department’s snorkel truck is 30 years old. Several other city departments, including the Building Department, still use paper records almost exclusively.

But, yesterday, nearly a decade after the city stopped planning major infrastructure improvements and purchases as the money ran out, a team appointed by Mayor William Lantigua began calculating the bill for the neglect. By March or April, the committee is scheduled to release the city’s first comprehensive capital budget since 2004 and submit it to Lantigua and then the City Council for approval.

Budget Director Mark Ianello, chairman of the committee of department heads developing the capital budget, acknowledged that much of it will be only “a wish list” because the money still isn’t there.

Even the capital budget document itself will be stripped down, Ianello told the commissioners yesterday, because he doesn’t have the money or staff to create the polished, four-color five-year plans that wealthier municipalities roll out annually.

“Ours is going to be down-and-dirty,” Ianello told the committee. “It’ll be more data-driven than pretty looking.”

Still, the plan will allow the city to better coordinate the projects that get selected, helping to avoid miscommunications like the one last year when city planners designed a plan for burying utility lines at Campagnone Common without allowing for the fiber optic cables operated by the Information Technology Department.

The city’s last comprehensive annual capital plan was adopted in 2004 under former Mayor Michael Sullivan, which included $30 million to rebuild Veterans Memorial Stadium, restore the City Hall facade, purchase 26 police cruisers and make other repairs and purchases. The plans were abandoned in the following years when the economy sank and the money ran out, despite a mandate in the city charter that mayors present updated plans to the council annually.

Mayor Lantigua has not proposed a capital plan during his three years in office, focusing on the more immediate challenge of balancing his annual operating budgets. That challenge was multiplied by the fact that he had no budget director for the first two years of his term, until he hired Ianello 13 months ago.

A document Ianello distributed to the members of the capital committee yesterday suggested the challenge he faces extracting a capital plan from commissioners who have never been asked for one. Page 1 of the document is titled, “What is a capital improvement program?”

Ianello yesterday asked the members of his committee to return Jan. 2 with lists of their priorities, which he said should be limited to those costing at least $25,000 and that will have a life of at least five years. He also asked them to focus on projects that generate revenues or state and federal aid.

Because the projects are expensive – a new police headquarters to replace the cramped cinder block relic built in 1966 would cost at least $12 million - most of the projects’ remaining costs would be paid for by borrowing. That poses another challenge for a city already $116 million in debt and paying $15 million a year in interest.

The good news is that many city functions are operated by enterprise funds are supported by the revenues they collect, including the Sewer and Water Department, the airport and the parking garages.

Among them, a $15.8 million upgrade of the water system, which treats and distributes seven million gallons of Merrimack River water daily, is about to get under way, paid for entirely with state aid and user fees. The project includes improving filtration and security and replacing all 13,000 residential and commercial water meters.

The city also is under a federal mandate to divert storm water and other inflows from the 137 miles of underground pipes that carry sewage to a regional treatment plant in North Andover. The 10-year project is expected to cost $50 million, also paid for by state and federal aid and user fees.

Otherwise, for capital projects that don’t generate revenues or aid, the work will funded by borrowing and by the $800,000 that the state requires the city to set aside annually for capital projects.

“I can assure you, it’s going to be a fraction of what the needs are,” Ianello about the work that might get done over the next few years, then offered a short list of his priorities.

“I think there’s got to be a plan for police cruisers,” he said. “There’s roofs. I know there’s leaky roofs everywhere. Have you been to the police chief’s office? It seems pretty cramped. A new police station isn’t in the mix, but (Chief John Romero) should get it on the list. We’ve not asked the department heads to exclude anything.”