METHUEN — Many would argue the state of Methuen is not strong. During his State of the City address Wednesday night, Mayor James Jajuga never said it was, but his wide-ranging speech made the case that a new day might dawn in 2019.
His address, delivered at the Methuen Senior Center, touched on the ongoing financial entanglements related to police contracts, and focused on enhancing economic development and improving the quality of life in the city.
He acknowledged the ongoing police contracts issue that has loomed large over the city for much of his first term, stemming from a contract approved by the previous administration and City Council that would have seen Superior police officers making $400,000 salaries.
A recent move by Jajuga's office to reinstate Superior officers to a previous contract and a concession by the council of $1.2 million to the police budget has thus far saved the city from widespread layoffs and deficit spending.
"While I continue to have concerns that we may still be vulnerable to financial risk, this decision — with the Council's reinstatement of much of the necessary funding to avoid a budget deficit — has taken the issue off the front burner for now, allowing us as a city to focus on the numerous other important issues facing Methuen," he said.
As the city looks ahead to budget season, Jajuga announced it has hired the Collins Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston to prepare the FY2020 budget, and pledged to "work across the traditional municipal-school divide."
He noted the city is in the process of choosing its first Chief Administrative and Financial Officer, crafting its first Capital Improvement Plan, and taking steps to ensure long term financial stability in the wake of the recent budget mires.
The City Council, various department heads, Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger, previous leaders including former Mayor Bill Manzi, and dozens of residents attended the speech, which was taped, but not broadcast live.
City Council Chairwoman Jennifer Kannan said the mayor touched on a lot of key issues, and she is ready to focus on the 2020 budget.
Councilor James McCarty said he felt some of the ongoing tension spill over into the mayor's speech.
Before Jajuga launched into his address, he cracked a joke about how some people haven't seen him in a while, alluding to a statement McCarty made at a recent City Council meeting inquiring why the mayor was not present.
"It's been a cold winter, and I'm hopeful for the thaw," said Councilor James McCarty after the speech, alluding to tensions between the administration and the council over the police budget.
Councilor Eunice Zeigler said she was eager to hear the mayor speak on more cooperation between branches of municipal government.
"I was glad to see him talking about a new day, with more cooperation," she said. "At the heart of any disagreement, we are all trying to do what we feel is best for the city."
Zeigler said she also was happy to see the Jajuga speak to various economic development initiatives.
Jajuga highlighted major recent economic investments, like New Balance and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which will bring jobs to the city, and named other business investments in 2018, such as the Orange Theory gym at the Loop, the Chik-fil-A, the re-purposing of the former Parlex and Verizon facilities into mixed use commercial buildings, and the newly relocated and expanded Irish Cottage.
Looking ahead, Jajuga projected $20 million in downtown investment, noting several residential and mixed-use development buildings, the opening of the rail trail this spring, and enhancements to the waterfront.
"With $60,000 in state funds we secured for the waterfront, we will acquire new land for public use at the new boat ramp, and complete the vision for a community space between the boat ramp and Martin Park," he said, noting there is also a tentative plan to design a fishing platform.
Zeigler said she would like the city to focus on diversifying the tax portfolio, and work to ensure existing businesses are thriving, and believed in the the administration's support of those initiatives.
Closing out his speech, Jajuga called for more focus on the positive developments in the city.
"We cannot allow ourselves to be mired in negativity," Jajuga said. "When we push aside the cynicism to focus on all of the positive things that are happening for Methuen, there is no limit to what we can achieve together."