By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — Mayor Stephen Zanni last night painted Methuen as a city moving forward thanks to vigilant oversight of its finances and aggressive pursuit of grants that save taxpayers money.
As he gears up his reelection campaign, Zanni old a group of about 50 residents and officials attending his State of the City address that he has delivered on a vision he laid out at his first address last year. He listed achievements that include netting development and economic grants and getting the high school project back on track.
“One year later, there is tangible evidence that Methuen is better off,” he said.
Specifically, Zanni pointed to the appointment of a community development director, Bill Buckley, to seek grants and focus on economic expansion. The community development office drew up a package of incentives that kept Century Box company from relocating to another state.
“Equally important is providing support to our existing establishments,” Zanni said last night. “This is why I worked intimately with Century Box and city officials to develop a tax plan where Century Box would not just stay in Methuen. They would expand their production here.”
He said that expansion would create almost 100 new jobs.
Additionally, a grant for $200,000 gained by Methuen last fall will renovate the Tenney Street park by upgrading its equipment.
“This is an important investment in our city’s Arlington neighborhood, an investment that will be welcomed by residents and come at next-to-no cost for our local taxpayers,” Zanni said.
He also touted a $500,000 grant, which requires a local $250,000 match, to build a new clubhouse for Nicholson Stadium, a project he said “has long been near and dear to my heart.”
Several city officials and residents worked to build a clubhouse in 2007, but, after the foundation was poured with volunteer labor, funding dried up. Zanni said he is working on raising money for the city’s match so the project can go forward.
Zanni said the high school renovation and expansion project was “clouded with uncertainty” when he took office in January 2012, just after the city decided to fire its contractor, Dimeo Construction, when the total cost estimate jumped by about $6 million. The City Council approved Consigli Construction to finish the job, and city officials have said the project remains on schedule for completion by the summer of 2014.
“The reconstruction of our high school is the single greatest project that our city is invested in,” Zanni said.
The mayor said he saved the city thousands of dollars negotiating new contracts for municipal employees by eliminating so-called side letters, which were perks for some individuals attached to a unit’s contract.
“Fairness, for employees and taxpayers alike, led me to eliminate these side letters, increasing both fairness and transparency while saving our taxpayers money,” he said.
Those contracts also included raises for city employees whose pay had been frozen, and in many cases cut, to save money.
Changes to the city health insurance program, which covers both municipal and school employees, will save about $1 million per year, he said. Grants improving the energy efficiency of city and school buildings is estimated to save $300,000 once installed, he has said, and a solar array which is scheduled to begin operating this spring on top of the city’s landfill, will save $1.8 million over 20 years, he said.
Zanni said he still supported “privatization where it made sense.’’
“One area in particular where privatization makes sense is our city’s Information Technology Department,” he said. He said he was “disappointed by the City Council’s ultimate decision to reject my proposal,” but said the plan “was placed on hold” and he was committed to finding cost savings where he could.
Several councilors had doubts that privatizing the IT department would save money. They resisted his initial attempt a year ago to contract service with the company that reviewed the department and recommended privatization.
“I disagree with his IT (assessment),” said Councilor Jamie Atkinson. “Myself and five of my colleagues said it wasn’t cost saving.”
Zanni is about halfway through his first term, and announced last year he intends to run again this fall. Several candidates have said they are considering a run, but none have officially declared.
At the start of his address, he asked for a moment of silence to honor “a trio of icons” from Methuen who recently died: Former Tuskegee Airman Luther McIlwain, high school baseball Coach Bill Blood and former City Councilor Ronnie Ford.
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