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Merrimack Valley

April 22, 2013

Overseer, councilors spar over spending

By Keith Eddings

keddings@eagletribunegmail.com

LAWRENCE – Two city councilors interrupted a mostly upbeat assessment of the city’s fiscal health by the state-appointed fiscal overseer last week to question what he’s done to get several indicted cops off the payroll and to keep 31 firefighters working when the grant that pays their salaries runs out in August.

“It’s gotten so crazy in our city that even when you’re convicted, you can still get paid,” said Councilor Marc Laplante, referring to Mayor William Lantigua’s decision to continue paying police Officer Daron Fraser’s $60,000-a-year salary for 29 months through his indictment and conviction for beating his girlfriend at the time. “The indictments are another issue.... Why can’t you assert yourself to save a quarter million a year in the police department. How can you help us?”

The overseer, Robert Nunes, emphasized throughout his hour-long defense of city spending Tuesday night that he has no authority to override Lantigua’s decisions to continue paying indicted cops, or to layoff or retain the firefighters. But after months of trying to stay out of it, Nunes jumped into the controversy over Lantigua’s decision to continue paying Fraser and three other indicted cops - including Deputy Chief Melix Bonilla, who was indicted on corruption charges last year - even after putting them on leave.

“I totally agree with you and I expressed my opinion to the mayor,” Nunes said. “The mayor and I have gone back and forth and some of the conversations have been very heated.”

Nunes also held out little hope that the city would be able to come up with the $2.1 million that would be needed to retain all 31 of the firefighters when the federal grant that pays for them runs out Aug. 26. He rejected Laplante’s suggestion that Lantigua dig into the $4.6 million that remains of last year’s budget surplus to keep the firefighters on the job. Nunes said using one-shot revenues such as a budget surplus to cover operating expenses such as salaries would “signal that the city’s finances are unstable.”

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