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Lawrence City Council refuses to set tax rate, sticks freshmen councilors with budget mess

Blanchette Pats himself on the back while purposely

trying to create budget deficit, state takeover 

 

By: Tom Duggan, December, 2009

 

Patrick Blanchette and James McGravey

Lawrence City Council President Patrick Blanchette and his friend, Lawrence City Clerk James McGravey

Under the leadership of Council President Patrick Blanchette, the Lawrence City Council spent the last two years taking “symbolic” budget votes, blaming the Sullivan administration for their own inaction, and refusing to pass significant budgetary reforms to deal with the city’s growing financial crisis.

 

Now, the 2008-2009 Lawrence City Council has ended its’ two year term and adjourned its’ final meeting leaving a budget deficit in the neighborhood of $15 million (depending on whose budget figures you believe). Yet, despite the massive debt created by the 08-09 city council and the lack of reforms in the last two years, Council President Patrick Blanchette closed out the two year session without addressing the deficit, setting a tax rate for homes and businesses, or holding a public hearing.

 

The tax-recap was put on the regular city council agenda at the request of Mayor Sullivan less than a month ago. Blanchette sent the issue to the Budget and Finance Committee to be passed. But the Budget and Finance chairman, Grisel Silva refused to discuss the matter at her final budget meeting and, instead attacked the mayor for financially mismanaging the city.

 

With no recommendation from Silva’s Budget committee, the full city council still had the option to bring up the matter at their last meeting. They could have ordered a public hearing (as required by law) and they could have set the city’s property tax rate before the end of the year.

 

Not having done that; property owners in Lawrence will not get their tax bills until after the new council is sworn in, holds their first

City of Lawrence's Economic Development Director, Patrick Blanchette

City of Lawrence’s Economic Development Director, Patrick Blanchette

meeting, sets a date for a public hearing, discusses and debates the budget, the tax rate for home owners, the tax rate for businesses, approves all of that, gets the new mayor’s signature, and has the city’s budget re-cap certified by the State’s Department of revenue.

 

That means a widening budget deficit every day that the tax bills do not go out (after January 1) for lack of a tax rate being set by the current city council .

 

Lawrence’s Budget and Finance Director, Mark Andrews insists that the operating deficit for the current budget is under $2 Million. But, those budget calculations include projected income from the state which legislators have already said will be significantly reduced due to state financial woes.

 

Some Lawrence officials say the actual city debt could climb as high as 19 million by mid-January, and when the new (fiscal 2010-2011) budget is passed in June of next year, state officials say Lawrence is looking at an additional $10 to $20million reduction in the city’s revenue stream.

 

According to the charter (the city’s constitution) it is the city council’s responsibility to approve the budget by July 1, of every year. It is also their obligation to approve all expenses in that budget.

 

In the last two to four years, councilors have blamed the “Sullivan administration” for the budget deficits but the fact is, the city council is mandated by charter and state law to investigate, pass or reject the city budget. It is they who must reconcile the city’s finances and bring the city budget into balance by December 31st.

 

It is they who must set a tax rate for the upcoming year and send an official report to the State’s Department of Revenue, certifying that the city’s budget is in balance.

 

But instead of fulfilling their obligation to the taxpayers and the voters, Patrick Blanchette, Grisel Silva and the rest of the 08-09 city council spent their last meeting messaging each others’ egos, waxing philosophical about their years together and pandering to the incoming Lantigua administration.

 

Now, a new council must deal with Blanchette’s budget mess. A new council which has six new members coming on board January 5th (out of nine). That’s six new councilors who will have to reconcile the city’s budget mess, set the tax rate and have the city’s finances certified by the state’s Department of Revenue.

 

According to sources at the state house, the legislature passed a new law last month allowing cities like Lawrence additional time to submit their tax classification (House Bill #2226, “extension of mailing date”) which means the council is not in violation of state law. (The law was signed by Governor Patrick on December 15th. For a copy of the bill go to: http://www.mass.gov/legis/bills/senate/186/st02pdf/st02226.pdf

 

Lawrence Mayor Mike Sullivan and at least two outgoing city councilors (who did not want to be identified) told the Valley Patriot that they believe the tax classification and re-cap should be done by the present council regardless of the new regulation.

 

“Look, it’s this city council’s obligation not to set the tax rate,” said Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan. “They should do it before the end of the year and not burden the new councilors with such a tremendous responsibility while they’re just coming in the door. It’s also not fair to the taxpayers. The tax bills need to go out in a timely fashion or the city loses millions of dollars.”

 

The communities of Andover and North Andover have already set their tax classification. Lawrence receives more than 75% of its annual budget from suburban, state tax-payers.

 

Governor Deval Patrick told The Valley Patriot last week that the state would be giving assistance to the City of Lawrence but “that help will most likely come in the form of helping the city with reforming the way they do things, not necessarily in the form of financial help but the details are still being worked out.”

 

Sources close to the governor say that Deval Patrick is considering appointing a financial receiver to oversee the city’s finances, “but they’re just not going to call it a receiver.”

Tom Duggan

Tom Duggan

Tom Duggan is president and publisher of The Valley Patriot Newspaper in North Andover Massachusetts, a former Lawrence School Committeeman, former political director for Mass. Citizens Alliance, a 1990 Police Survivor and hosts the Paying Attention! Radio Program on 980WCAP in Lowell, Massachusetts. You can email your comments to valleypatriot@aol.com.

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