LAWRENCE — Local Democrats believe the Massachusetts Senate today will resoundingly approve a bill allowing the city of Lawrence to borrow up to $35 million, because legislation now includes provisions for a "strong overseer" and an earlier trigger mechanism for a financial control board, if necessary.
"A strong overseer is exactly what the city needs at this point in time," Sen. Susan Tucker, D-Andover, said yesterday. "The bill has been strengthened a great deal from what the governor initially filed ... . It ensures taxpayer money won't be wasted while striking the right balance for the city. The times call for that," she said.
But Senate Republicans are expected to file an amendment that calls immediately for a control board for the financially troubled city.
"I don't think we should hesitate to put in a control board," said Sen. Michael Knapik, R-Westfield.
An overseer is simply not strong enough to address Lawrence's fiscal problems that represent "the compilation of years of poor decisions," Knapik said.
The city currently has a $24.5 million budget deficit and another predicted $15 million revenue shortfall next year. Massachusetts communities aren't allowed to borrow money without legislative approval. Gov. Deval Patrick filed the bill late last year, asking that the city to be allowed to borrow up to $35 million to repair its finances. His bill called for an overseer immediately for the city and a financial control board by Jan. 31, 2011, if the city's finances were still in disarray.
The House of Representatives approved the bill, with an overseer and earlier control board mechanism, last week.
But critics have argued for weeks the bill isn't strong enough and called for a finance control board immediately. Supporters say the legislation needs to be passed immediately because the city is running out of money.
The Senate version requires the Patrick administration to appoint a city-funded overseer within 30 days of the bill's passage. The overseer would have various advisory, review and monitoring functions. Tucker said she's committed to getting the overseer on board once the bill is passed.
Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, argued that a fiscal overseer, who spends every day working with city officials, might better serve the city than a control board.
"A strong overseer, quite frankly, can be better than a weak control board," he said. "You're certainly going to be able to get more information and have a much better idea of what's transpiring there."
Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, agreed with Panagiotakos. He said there are "plenty of examples of weak control boards."
"This calls for a strong overseer with teeth ... . The overseer's recommendations can't be ignored. And the overseer has the ability to call in a control board," Baddour said.
Baddour said he personally knows Lantigua and newly-elected members of the Lawrence City Council. He believes local government should be given a chance to repair the financial problems they inherited.
"Let's see if they can be part of the solution, with help from the overseer," Baddour said.
Baddour pointed to Tucker, saying she's explained the situation well to the Senate. Echoing her comments, Baddour said to "put aside the politics." Lawrence is "a city in financial distress."
The Senate bill authorizes the state to name a financial control board if the overseer reports in writing that the city is unable to achieve a balanced budget, faces a fiscal crisis that imposes an "imminent danger to the safety of citizens of the city and their property" or that the city will not achieve fiscal stability without the assistance of a financial control board. Material from the Statehouse News Service was used in this report.
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