EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 22, 2013

Overseer, councilors spar over spending

By Keith Eddings
keddings@eagletribunegmail.com

---- — 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.”

“We got an upgrade because we have not used (surpluses) to balance the budget,” Nunes said, referring to Standard & Poor’s decision last year to upgrade the city’s credit rating a notch, to BBB. “That will continue as long as I’m here.”

“So when I go back to constituents whose houses have burned down, I tell them we had to cut 31 firefighters but our bond rating is very good,” Laplante responded. “I don’t think if our bond rating goes from Triple B to B- that will make a hill of beans to a person whose house has burned down.”

Nunes warned that the challenge of keeping the firehouses staffed will be made more difficult by other new demands on revenues, including the $10 million increase in spending in that Jeff Riley, the state-appointed receiver running the city’s public schools, included in the budget he has released. Even if the legislature approves the $8.4 million increase in state aid to Lawrence schools that Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed, the city would need to come up with another $1.4 million for its share of the school budget, Nunes said.

“Funding 31 firefighters and $1.6 million for the schools is impossible,” Nunes warned. “It’s absolutely impossible. The city doesn’t have that much money. It’s just impossible to do it all.”

Nunes also noted that members of the city’s firefighting union would be getting a 2.5 percent raise beginning July 1 under a contract they approved, a reminder that brought on another round of criticism from Councilor Daniel Rivera, who chairs the council’s budget committee and has said the money the city will spend on the raises should be spent instead to hire more firefighters.

“I urge you to be more responsible,” said Rivera, who is running for mayor. “You can’t promise people raises when you don’t have the money to fund it. A small amount of people will be very happy. A large group will be unsafe.”

Nunes responded that firefighters have not had a raise in two years, and that many non-union employees have not had a raise in five.

“There are clerks who are making $40,000 after 30 years of service,” Nunes responded. “It’s not much money (to give them raises) and I think the city can afford it.”

Nunes also said the city will end the current fiscal year on June 30 with a budget surplus, which would be the fourth in a row. He said the only department running a deficit is Public Works, which overspent its $150,000 budget for snow and ice removal by $687,760. The overrun will be covered by last year’s budget surplus, Nunes said.