EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 7, 2012

Editorial: In Lawrence, no one cares enough to do the job right

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — In Lawrence, we see the consequences of hiring political allies to do important jobs rather than seeking out the qualified and competent.

The Building Department failed to report to city assessors more than $33 million in new development it had approved over the last two years. As a result, Lawrence has failed to collect $300,000 in property taxes owed to the city.

That’s $300,000 that Lawrence could have used to keep firefighters and police on the job. Instead, to balance its budgets, the administration of Mayor William Lantigua laid off dozens of police and firefighters in 2010, jeopardizing public safety in the city until the receipt of grant money allowed many of those positions to be refilled.

Reporter Keith Eddings found that the one bright spot in this mess is that the mistake was caught in time to fix the 2011 assessment roll, adding the 302 permits that were not reported that year. The city will be able to issue bills for the $200,000 in taxes those permits represent. But $100,000 in taxes from 47 projects that should have been reported in 2010 is lost.

The Building Department is led by Peter Blanchette, a former building inspector whom Lantigua appointed to his post shortly after the mayor was elected in 2009. Blanchette is the brother of Lantigua ally Patrick Blanchette, who serves as Lawrence’s economic development director and had been the mayor’s acting chief-of-staff.

The lapse was uncovered by Breda Daou, the chairwoman of the city’s Board of Assessment. Daou reported the discovery to Robert Nunes, the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, Budget Director Mark Ianello, Mayor Lantigua and other city officials at a meeting on Sept. 19. At that point, she had discovered that 302 building permits authorizing $23 million worth of new construction in 2011 had not been reported.

Nunes ordered Peter Blanchette to audit the permits issued in 2010, which found another 47 permits authorizing $10.3 million worth of new development also had not been reported to assessors.

That this debacle had previously escaped the notice of Nunes is not surprising. Ostensibly appointed to protect taxpayers’ interests as a condition of allowing Lawrence to borrow millions to close past deficits, Nunes claims a remarkably low level of job responsibility.

When last week’s Lawrence scandal was unveiled — the fact that three suspended cops are collecting a total of $270,000 a year for no work — Nunes washed his hands of the affair, claiming he has no responsibility for personnel matters. Presumably, with the title of “overseer,” Nunes can at least be expected to “see” the problems that exist right under his nose.

When informed of the uncollected tax revenue, Nunes roused himself to a level of agitation heretofore unseen.

Nunes told Eddings the failure to inform assessors of 349 new building projects over the two years was due to “the negligent practices and lax oversight that has apparently festered for years in the Building Department.” He said the department’s practices have been a drag on the city’s recovery and called for fundamental reforms in way it does business.

“Not only is this a flagrant affront to the taxpayers of Lawrence who can ill afford lost property values, it endangers the many advances we have made to strengthen Lawrence’s finances, (including) three balanced city budgets and improved bond ratings,” Nunes said.

The Building Department can’t be bothered to inform the assessors of the permits it has issued. The fiscal overseer can’t be bothered to subject the city’s financial operations to the thorough scrutiny they deserve. And the mayor can’t be bothered to do much of anything — except take care of himself and his friends.

The problem in Lawrence is that nobody cares enough to do the job right — and that’s a problem that predates the Lantigua administration.