METHUEN — Residents and city workers left the Great Hall in disbelief at 8:35 last night when City Council Chairman John Cronin Jr. announced "City Hall will be closed tomorrow."
Mayor William Manzi's $56 million municipal budget had just failed to pass on a 4-4 vote, forcing a shutdown of all non-emergency services for today.
But city government avoided the crisis when Councilor Philip J. Lahey Jr. — a vocal opponent of the mayor's budget — switched his vote.
"I haven't changed the way I feel," Lahey told colleagues as he made a motion to reconsider the 4-4 vote that initially defeated Manzi's proposed spending plan for the 2011 fiscal year that begins today.
"And I still think the citizens of Methuen aren't getting a fair shake," said Lahey, who opposed the budget because he was against any tax increase.
But, minutes after casting a vote that would have closed City Hall, the Senior Center, the Nevins Library and many other public places, Lahey approached Council Chairman John Cronin Jr. and asked if the council could reconsider the vote. Many of the councilors were on their way to the parking lot, but were quickly reassembled
"As soon as I took the vote, I wanted to crawl under the table," Lahey told colleagues. "I don't feel right, but I think I'm doing the right thing," he said.
Lahey joined Councilors Cronin, Stephen Zanni, James M. Hajjar and Jennifer Kannan in supporting the budget.
Opposing the budget were Councilors Jeanne M. Pappalardo, Patricia Uliano and Larry Giordano. Absent was Councilor Joyce Campagnone, who is out-of-state on vacation.
"It's been a roller coaster night," Manzi said.
"We're very happy that Phil decided to change his vote. We're all very gratified that he did, I think it's a great budget and I'm happy that it passed," Manzi said.
Last night's budget session, a continuation of the emergency meeting that began Tuesday night, had Lahey and several other councilors protesting the tax increase.
City Auditor Thomas J. Kelly said the mayor's amended budget would mean about a $48 tax increase for the owner of a home valued at $280,000.
Uliano suggested eliminating most of the proposed $800,000 stabilization fund to avoid a tax increase.
"The people are hurting. The people out there can't afford a tax increase," said Pappalardo, who also supported the $800,000 cut.
The mayor emerged from a recess, agreeing to cut the stabilization fund to $525,000. Kelley said this would mean a tax increase of about $36 for a home valued at $280,000.
But that was not enough for half of the councilors.
"There would have been a lot of adverse ramifications had we adjourned for the night on that vote," said Cronin.
"Meals on Wheels wouldn't be serving seniors tomorrow. It would have shutdown the school system. A lot of people would be going without their pay checks next Thursday," he said.
Logistically, Cronin didn't know whether he had the right to call councilors back for another vote soon after the budget failed to pass.
"Then it dawned on me that we hadn't voted on the School Department budget yet," Cronin said.
"And that was something we needed to do. After checking with the city solicitor, we were cleared to go back into session to take the school budget vote and reconsider the previous vote," he said.
Manzi said he disagreed with having to decrease the stabilization money he budgeted.
"But politics is the art of compromise," Manzi said.
"The bottom line is that we got back all of the people who were laid off, we have a fully funded senior center and library. We were able to reach agreements with nine unions that agreed to $1.8 million in givebacks to the city. And we avoided the 62 layoffs," the mayor said.
As for Lahey, he said he will be watching the city's finances closely.
"Come November, don't tell me the tax rate is going to be higher," Lahey told his colleagues.
If it is, he won't be willing to support an additional tax increase next time, he said.
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