What’s Happening with Lawrence Budget?
By: Attorney Robert O’Koniewski – January, 2011
As the New Year dawns, the fiscal clock is ticking for Lawrence. It should be a watershed year for the folks residing at 200 Common Street. It is do or die time, just as the state prepares to send even less money to cities and towns this year due to its own fiscal negligence and malfeasance. Whether transparency of the fiscal doings at city hall is part of the equation will be a big part of the story, also. So far that really has not been the case.
By the end of this March, it will be a full year since the Legislature passed and the governor signed the $35 million bailout for Lawrence’s favored son, Mayor William Lantigua (Chapter 58 of the Acts of 2010).
As that bailout took effect, the city came under the immediate management and scrutiny of a state appointed financial overseer, who just happened to be the same fellow at the state Department of Revenue who signed off on the previous Sullivan Administration budget plans that led us to our current mess. And just as the city prepared to set a tax rate in December for the 2011 fiscal year, lo and behold, the city determined that it in effect finished FY 2010 with a $5 million surplus, which was promptly spent to cover overruns in other accounts, but certainly not to improve the otherwise decimated public safety accounts such as to put more police on the streets.
Perhaps if the city and its officials displayed a commitment to increased transparency of the process then citizens and taxpayers may hold a less cynical view of the happenings down at city hall. Chapter 58 requires the overseer to make a number of monthly and quarterly reports to the state and the Legislature about Lawrence’s fiscal condition, but those reports, which are public documents, are nowhere to be found on the city’s website.
For example, section 4(a)(9) of Chapter 58 requires the overseer to report monthly to the Secretary of Administration and Finance as well as to the house and senate ways and means committees on the progress made towards reducing the city’s capital and structural deficits.
Section 4(a)(10) requires the overseer to report quarterly to the secretary of administration and finance as well as to the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees on all expenditures made from the bailout fund, including the amounts and purposes of expenditures for personnel costs, contracted personnel costs or consultant fees.
Section 4(e) requires the overseer by August of last year to develop a 3-year operating and capital financial plan to achieve fiscal stability in the city. The plan must include a preliminary analysis of the city’s financial situation and the overseer’s initial recommendations to immediately begin to address the city’s operating and structural deficits.
Section 5(c) requires that in any year in which the bailout loan remains outstanding, the city must submit to the state quarterly reports presenting a budget to actual comparison of revenues and expenditures. The written reports must be submitted within 30 days after the conclusion of each fiscal quarter and must be in the form and include the information and detail that the state so requires.
To the best of my knowledge, if these reports have actually been done, they, at a minimum, have not been made public for the city’s taxpayers to review on the city’s website.
One may ask, “Why do you really care? Why beat this transparency horse to death?”
Well, we are in this mess in the first place because the previous administration, with the complicity of certain past city councilors, relied upon the inexpertise and prevarications of prior budget directors and a complete lack of proper disclosures to the taxpayers to keep us in the dark. It’s as if the doctor thought the patient would get better by simply telling us the tumors would go away.
Now, we certainly are not going to hold the mayor responsible for the past. But we can hold him and his team responsible for what happens going forward. If one were to go back and read the mayor’s FY2011 budget submittal back on June 1, 2010, he made a big point of stressing the “shared sacrifice” we all need to experience if the city is going to turn the corner on its financial problems.
My taxpaying neighbors and I did not cause the mess we are in. In fact, if you were to poll the taxpayers, they simply want the police and fire staffed at a level that is necessary to keep us safe, they want their trash picked up on time each week, and they want the roads safe and passable. So if we are going to suffer through the increased drug deals in our streets, and the nightly violence and random shootings, and the increased car thefts and house break-ins, and the lack of properly staffed police patrols all in the name of this so-called “shared sacrifice”, then at least put it in print where we can read for ourselves just what level of progress the state overseer is making towards balancing the budget, and eliminating waste and fraud and incompetence at 200 Common Street.
f not for the sake of meeting the mayor’s pledge of better transparency of the system, do it for the rest of us who are having a hard time laying our heads to rest peacefully at night amidst the increased gun play and bloodshed in our streets.