By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Mayor William Lantigua balanced four budgets in a row, a fundamental responsibility of the job that eluded his predecessor. Three of his budgets so far have ended with multimillion-dollar surpluses.
He repaved miles of city streets, including more than 50 streets over the last two years, marking each with blue and white signs bearing his name and the upbeat inscription “Moving Forward.”
He automated trash collections, nudged up the city’s credit rating from near junk-bond status and presided over important redevelopment projects that he says helped reverse the 17 percent unemployment rate he faced when he took office.
And by his own account, he invited the state to take over city schools in an effort to reverse their chronic under-achievement.
Each success came with a footnote.
Lantigua’s balanced budgets cost dozens of police and firefighters their jobs, producing a spike in crime and a heavy reliance on mutual aid to fight fires that ultimately caused the state to step in and rehire all of the firefighters and many of the police officers. The end of deficit spending in Lawrence also occurred under the watch of a state-appointed fiscal overseer, who remains in control of city spending after four years and has not suggested the city can now live without him.
Most of the money to repave city streets also came from the state, and one of the relatively few streets Lantigua ordered paved was his own.
Lantigua ended trash collection for businesses. He did little to awaken the city’s redevelopment authority out of a slumber that has lasted longer than two years.
The city’s credit rating remains mediocre despite notching up, and its 14 percent unemployment rate is twice the state’s, as is its poverty level. Four in 10 Lawrence children were living in poverty in April, the most recent month for which figures are available.
And when Lantigua describes the state takeover of the school system he oversaw, what goes unmentioned is the stinging rebuke of his leadership that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued as it prepared to step in.
The department’s 75-page assessment said that under Lantigua’s chairmanship, the School Committee focused on “unproductive activities” while failing to perform its core missions, including hiring a superintendent.
Lantigua, 58, carries this complex narrative of his first four-year term into the preliminary election on Sept. 17, when he will face five challengers who have made his leadership a central issue of the campaign. The top two candidates will go on to the Nov. 5 general election.
“This administration is lacking a vision of where Lawrence should be headed,” said Juan “Manny” Gonzalez, a city firefighter who is one of the challengers Lantigua will face on Sept. 17. “You see the signs on the polls — ‘Moving Forward’ — but are we really moving forward? I don’t see it.”
Whatever disagreement there is about his successes and setbacks since he took office on Jan. 4, 2009, with a pledge to be “the best mayor Lawrence ever had,” Lantigua has evolved from his days as a Statehouse representative little known outside the city to become one of the most prominent and controversial public figures in the state.
The transition has been assisted by his status as the first Latino elected to lead a Massachusetts municipality and by his sometimes confrontational style of government and politics, his tight control of life inside City Hall and the attention he receives from news organizations across the state, brought on by the controversies and scandals that began on his first days in office, when he said he would not give up his $60,000-a-year position as a state representative.
His colleagues in Boston pushed him out of the 16th Essex seat after a few weeks by threatening to blow up a deal he helped craft that allowed the city to borrow up to $35 million to cover the years of deficit spending that preceded him.
“We knew he was going to be a hard character to work with in the beginning because of the insistence that he wanted to keep two jobs,” said City Councilor Daniel Rivera, another of the five challengers Lantigua faces later this month. “I think everybody figured that out.”
From the petty to the profound, the controversies have continued through Lantigua’s first term.
His wife, City Hall secretary Lorenza Ortega, was forced to return a $500 federal heating subsidy she collected for the Boxford Street condo she shares with Lantigua, who together earn $150,000.
He fired a public works employee who refused to return from the unpaid leave he took to care for his dying wife, replacing him with former state representative Jose Santiago. Lantigua fired Santiago six weeks later when Santiago was charged with violating a restraining order.
The mayor’s former chief of staff, Leonard Degnan, has been indicted for allegedly shaking down city contractors. Melix Bonilla, his deputy police chief, has been indicted for allegedly swapping 13 city cars for four owned by a used car dealer connected to Lantigua, a deal that the city’s fiscal overseer said cost the city $36,000. Lantigua suspended Bonilla, who managed Lantigua’s 2009 campaign, after his indictment. The mayor continues to pay Bonilla’s $140,000 annual salary.
In June, the man Lantigua put in charge of collections at the Museum Square garage, who also is his campaign photographer, was charged with skimming at least $6,000 from the cash-only facility.
Federal and state grand juries investigating his administration are continuing to meet and have called in almost all of Lantigua’s top aides and commissioners to testify, from his receptionist to his budget and economic development directors.
In June, an Essex County grand jury summoned the mayor himself.
More recently, state Attorney General Martha Coakley last week accused Lantigua of an exhaustive list of campaign finance law violations dating to 2008 and sued him over the issue for the second time in a year.
Lantigua could not be found at City Hall after Coakley announced the lawsuit Tuesday afternoon, when hordes of reporters descended on the building, including an Eagle-Tribune reporter who had a previously scheduled interview with Lantigua for this story. Lantigua did not show up for the interview and did not return a phone call seeking to reschedule it.
But Lantigua’s combative style was back on view the next day at the corner of Lawrence and Park streets when he led a cheering, sign-waving crowd of about 70 supporters, many of them city employees, who swamped the intersection as the mayor distributed lawn signs and voter registration forms and pasted campaign bumper stickers on the rear windows of willing, honking drivers flashing thumbs up out of their windows.
He high-fived supporters, munched from a box of limoncillos — a tropical fruit popular with Dominicans — and brimmed with the confidence of a mayor who beat back two recall attempts, outlasted two years of rumors that his own indictment was imminent and is widely considered to be one of the two candidates still standing after the Sept. 17 preliminary election eliminates four of the six contenders.
His political base — Dominicans swelled with pride at having one of their own in City Hall’s third-floor, corner office — is unshaken by the rumors.
After taking one of the voter forms, Charles Chavez, a 28-year-old information technology engineer who moved to Lawrence in 1997, explained his support in language that could have been lifted from the mayor’s Facebook web page.
“The street was awful here,” Chavez said, describing the potholes and cracked curbing that met him at the intersection when he moved to the North Lawrence neighborhood from New York in 1997. “I even broke an axle on my car. But he’s fixing the streets.”
In fact, Lawrence streets have become smoother and cleaner over the last few years, in what may be the signature success of Lantigua’s first term. Other major public works projects are planned or underway, including a $16 million upgrade of the water supply system that is replacing every residential and commercial water meter and 45 major underground valves that direct the flow of water. Earlier this month, Lantigua asked the City Council to borrow $25 million more to clean and reline or replace much of the system’s 140 miles of underground pipes.
“If the council approves it, we’ll have $40 million worth of projects on the road and we’re not raising the water rates to do so,” said acting Public Works Commissioner John Isensee.
The city’s water and sewer fund has a $7.7 million surplus, up from a $700,000 deficit four years ago, when the operation was made a separate enterprise fund beyond the reach of City Hall.
Other public works projects have lagged and there is no plan as of yet to catch up on decades of neglect. Lantigua has never proposed a capital budget despite the mandate in the city charter that he submit one annually to the City Council.
One is in the works, but Budget Director Mark Ianello said most of the improvements it will recommend will be unaffordable.
Lantigua “can’t be blamed for the loss of resources,” said Police Chief John Romero, who for 16 years has commanded his force from a crumbling cinderblock police station on Haverhill Street, where the decay greets visitors even before they reach the door. Police tape routes them around the cement front steps, which have disintegrated to the rebar and spilled their debris in chips across the stairway.
Inside the building are other challenges facing the mayor, including a divided police force with a faction that is alienated by the layoffs, by the demotions he imposed to make Bonilla – now indicted – second in command of the department and by his suggestion three years ago that city cops are lazy.
Lantigua laid off about three dozen cops in July 2010, reducing the force to 110 sworn officers and causing Romero to dismantle the special units that fought gangs, drugs, car thefts, insurance fraud, domestic violence and other crimes.
The ranks have since rebounded to 119, allowing Romero to reconstitute some of the special units and causing crime rates to dip. In the year since it was brought back, the narcotics unit has made 1,200 arrests and seized 23 guns and nearly $1 million in drugs and cash.
In an untarnished success, Lantigua also was able this year to retain all of the 31 firefighters who faced getting laid off a second time this summer when the $6 million federal grant that paid to rehire them three years ago ran out.
Eric Zahn, president of the firefighters union, said his union typically does not endorse candidates and isn’t likely to in this race, even with one of their own — Gonzalez — on the ballot. Alan Andrews, president of the union that represents the police rank and file, did not return a phone call. Scott McNamara, president of the police superior officers union, said he does not expect his union to make an endorsement, although McNamara is supporting Lantigua. All three unions recently reached contract settlements with Lantigua after working without contracts for as long as three years.
If the city is getting safer as the police and fire departments are restocked, other challenges are proving more difficult for Lantigua.
Since he took office four years ago, the assessed value of all property in the city has slumped 5 percent, to $2.8 billion. Much of the nation is recovering from the economic slump and the burst housing bubble that caused real estate values to plunge, but recovery has not reached Lawrence.
In 2011, the last year for which numbers are available, home values in Lawrence dropped almost across the board compared to the year before, led by a 5.1 percent decline in the value of the average single family home – to $167,771 – according to the city’s Board of Assessors. The value of industrial properties dropped 2.6 percent. Commercial property values were flat.
Signs of recovery
Still, there are signs of recovery around Lawrence. Lantigua is taking some of the credit.
Northern Essex Community College is completing work on a downtown campus that will replace an ugly abandoned mall. Hundreds of new housing units have opened or are about to in Monarch Lofts and Malden Mills.
Commonwealth Motors last year significantly expanded its Marston Street dealership.
The year before, JSB Muffin Town opened a bakery in an empty factory building on Andover Street, where it expects its workforce will grow from an initial 40 workers to 250 over five years.
“This company was looking in and around the Boston area to expand and the mayor and his team personally drove to Muffin Town in Chelsea to recruit this company,” Patrick Blanchette, the economic development director, said about JSB. “They are a growing company with mostly all Lawrence employees.”
Despite the new growth, poverty and joblessness remain stubbornly high in Lawrence, even as a key tool of growth — the city’s redevelopment authority — idles. The agency, whose three sitting members were appointed by Lantigua, has met just twice in two years. It cast just one vote of significance, to aid a project that has since stalled.
Gonzalez, one of the candidates challenging Lantigua, said Lantigua sometimes misreads the city’s development needs, as he said the mayor did when he gave a property tax break to a Pollo Campero franchise that opened at 195 Lowell St. last year. It closed after a few months.
“If you’re in charge of economic development and you’re going to bring a chicken place in here knowing that every bodega sells chicken, where for $4 you can feed your family, how do you think a Pollo Campero that sells a small portion for $10 (will do)?
“You should know that’s not going to make it here,” Gonzalez said. “You got to be making better decisions.”
Biog in Brief :Born: in the Dominican Republic in 1955 and immigrated to Lawrence as a teenager in 1974. Education: His campaign web page says only that he was "educated in the Dominican Republic," and Lantigua won't give specifics. Work history: Worked in computer production for 23 years for Schneider Electric in North Andover before his election to the Statehouse. Political experience: Represented the 16th Essex District from 2003 until 2010, when he gave up the seat to become mayor. Family: Lantigua has said he is married to Lorenza Ortega, a City Hall secretary. He has four children, Veronica, Vanessa and Valarie, and William Kennedy.