EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 29, 2012

Lantigua requests $1.4 million for cars, software and roads

By Keith Eddings
keddings@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — The archaic paper record-keeping system that allowed $33 million in new development to go unreported for two years — costing the city $300,000 in uncollected taxes — would be replaced with computer software that would integrate records across City Hall, under a proposal Mayor William Lantigua sent to the City Council yesterday.

The $126,000 computer program is part of $1.4 million in major purchases and infrastructure improvements Lantigua requested, which would be paid for out of the $6.6 million budget surplus from the last fiscal year that was reported earlier this week.

More than half the $1.4 million would be spent on computer software to replace paper systems in several departments. They also include $300,000 to automate timekeeping and attendance records for city employees and $150,000 for a system that would track labor, materials and work orders in the Public Works and Sewer and Water departments.

Budget Director Mark Ianello said the efficiencies in the automated timekeeping system would save up to $500,000 annually, more than paying for itself the first year.

Lantigua asked for $500,000 more for road and sidewalk improvements, but did not identify which streets would be involved. Among the streets paved this year was Boxford Street, where Lantigua lives, which had been a five- or six-block stretch of craters and potholes.

Finally, Lantigua asked for $48,000 to purchase three Ford Focus vehicles for the parking enforcement officers who patrol non-metered parking areas.

The City Council will receive the spending proposal on Tuesday, when it is expected to be referred to the budget committee.

Daniel Rivera, the committee chairman, said he will oppose it. Rivera said the city should hold onto all $6.6 million of last year’s budget surplus to hedge against cuts in state and federal aid that he said may come as Boston and Washington struggle with budget shortfalls. He added that the problems in the Building Department that allowed 349 permits to go unreported to tax collectors in 2010 and 2011 were due to poor leadership, not paper technology.

“Until they get new management in that office, the new software is not going to make a difference in the overall problem,” Rivera said.

Peter Blanchette, acting director of Inspectional Services, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The Building Department’s failure to report 349 building permits to the tax office over the last two years was traced to longtime inspector Lawrence Hester, who was put on paid leave Oct. 5, a few days after the failure became public.

Robert Nunes, Lawrence’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, said the city will have to write off $100,000 in taxes that should have been collected from 47 property owners in 2010, representing permits allowing $10.3 million worth of improvements and new development that was not reported.

He said the error was discovered in time to allow the city to collect the other $200,000 from 302 property owners last year, who made $23 million worth of improvements and development that were not reported.

Nunes last month called for several reforms to the way the Building Department does business, including the software system Lantigua proposed yesterday to track licenses and permits as they make their way through City Hall.

The city also has hired auditors to review department practices and audit permits it issued before 2010, which Nunes said will expose “the full extent of Lawrence’s potential losses and determine if any additional remedies are needed.”

Yesterday, Nunes said he supports the supplemental budget. He said the software upgrades will allow the city to serve residents “in a more timely, effective and accountable way (and) save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The $1.4 million supplemental budget would come on top the $246 million budget for the city and its schools and special districts for the current fiscal year that the council approved in June.