By: Tom Duggan – August, 2010
The race to replace State Senator Sue Tucker in the Second Essex District of Massachusetts has found the failed finances and financial mismanagement of the City of Lawrence at the center of this contentious campaign among both Democrat and Republican candidates.
The Second Essex district is comprised of Andover, Dracut, Lawrence, and Tewksbury.
There are three candidates running for the Democrat nomination, all of whom live in Andover: newcomer Jack Wilson, Andover School Committee Chairman Debra Silberstein and State Rep. Barry Finegold. In the Republican primary, two newcomers have joined the race: Andover’s Jamison Tomasek and Tewksbury’s Patrick Rahilly.
Only two of the five candidates, (Finegold a Democrat, and Tomasek a Republican) oppose a state appointed finance control board being imposed on the cash strapped city of Lawrence.
Newcomers Debra Silberstein, Jack Wilson (both Democrats) and Pat Rahilly (a Republican) favor either a finance control board or a more stringent plan to take over the city’s finances and restore stability to the city’s budget. More than 70% of Lawrence’s city budget is subsidized by state taxpayers.
Last February the State Legislature voted to allow Lawrence Mayor Willie Lantigua to borrow $35 million with no financial controls and no guarantee in the legislation that the money would be spent on public safety and providing essential services.
State Representative Barry Finegold not only voted for the $35 Million bailout with no oversight and no fiscal controls, he testified before the legislature that Lawrence needed the borrowing measure to avoid layoffs in public safety. He also strongly opposed an amendment in the bill that would have imposed financial and management controls on the city’s ability to spend the money.
When the measure passed and Mayor Lantigua took receipt of the first $24 million, he gave raises to workers in city hall, increased the city payroll by more than $500,000 and laid off 25 police officers, 24 firefighters and demoted superior officers anyway.
Those questionable management decisions are now at the forefront of the Senate race as Finegold has found himself the brunt of criticism for blindly supporting Governor Patrick’s $35 million legislation for Lawrence with no fiscal oversight.
LAWRENCE SPENDING MEASURES HARM PUBLIC SAFETY IN OTHER TOWNS
“Massive public safety cuts are forcing Merrimack Valley communities to subsidize Lawrence public safety operations,” says Democrat Jack Wilson.
“Under the current legislation, three of the five members of the control board would be appointed by the Governor’s Secretary of Administration & Finance. He should use that authority to appoint members who possess the skills necessary to first restore and maintain public safety in the city and then move to a long-term solution for financial stability and continued economic growth.
“For all the talk of creating jobs, improving public education, and economic development, none of it matters if the city and the region are unsafe.”
Wilson says that the system of ‘mutual aid,’ “whereby communities agree to provide assistance to each other for larger scale emergencies is turning into a one-way street in Lawrence. With the recent massive cuts in the public safety budget, including twenty three firefighter layoffs, the city is now incapable of providing adequate public safety protection for its own residents and businesses.”
Wilson says that communities surrounding Lawrence are seeing more of their own resources being diverted to help the city fight fires in “what now amounts to a subsidy of the city of Lawrence’s public safety department.”
He sites as an example, that Andover has already answered more mutual aid calls to Lawrence than it did in all of 2009. “Clearly, this is no way to manage public safety and it is a trend that must not continue.”
“By any objective standard, the staffing levels of the police and fire departments are far below what is required for a city of Lawrence’s size, density, and population. The overseer that has been in place in the city since the stabilization law was enacted, has been working under a deeply flawed piece of legislation. No law should be enacted that is blind to public safety.”
Wilson’s outspokenness on the public safety aspect of the issue has earned him the support of many Lawrence Firefighters including Pat Driscoll the president of the Lawrence Firefighters Union.
SILBERSTEIN SAYS CONTROL BOARD NOT ENOUGH
Andover School Committee Chairman Debra Silberstein agrees with Wilson that public safety must be taken into consideration as part of the solution of fixing the entitlement city. But, she says, a fiscal oversight board “is a band-aide approach” and is calling for even more stringent measures to take over the city’s out of control spending.
“Advocating for a fiscal control board in Lawrence is a solution of the past, it’s like kicking the can down the road which is what has been happening for far too long. It doesn’t solve the problem,” Silberstein told the Valley Patriot. “I think the situation in Lawrence is a much deeper problem requiring a much more comprehensive solution than just throwing a control board at it.’
“What I want is a full blown plan for recovery. We need to put all the pieces in place needed to strengthen that city. That’s not going to happen overnight and it is complex. But, we need a full blown recovery plan that includes managing he city’s finances and spending. Lawrence doesn’t need a control board it needs a fiscal recovery plan.”
Silberstein says that the solution to Lawrence’s spending problems must include a plan for economic development. “What really needs to happen is the implementation of a comprehensive economic plan that links financial oversight to small business development. We have to involve all the stakeholders in trying to solve Lawrence’s financial crisis.”
“The roll out of the $35 million borrowing measure was flawed form start. Was there anyone who felt that this was going to solve the problem? We wasted a lot of time between then and now when we could have had the framework for a recovery plan in place and we could be on our way to making things better. The taxpayers would have had more confidence in moving that city forward but instead we’re just putting a band aide on the problem.
Silberstein says that her plan would include three key parts: “The first is the economic piece. We need to develop an economic development plan to help small businesses stay in Lawrence and bring more small businesses to the city. What’s happening now is scaring small businesses away. The business community is a primary stakeholder in the future of the city and with state taxpayers paying the bill it’s only right that the state have a hand in how this money is spent. The second is financial oversight to make sure the city is spending the taxpayers money effectively and make sure that maintaining public safety is part of that plan. The third is long term, and that is strengthening the city schools.”
“I believe the plan would be more of a restructuring and go beyond the financial piece and involve labor in the plan. They need to be part of solution. You have to look beyond immediacy of the crises and be able to have long term recovery plan. This isn’t going to be easy.”
REPUBLICANS DISAGREE TOO!
With two of the three Democrats calling for stronger fiscal and management controls on Lawrence’s budget, and State Representative Barry Finegold defending his vote to let Lawrence borrow $35 million with no spending controls, the Republicans are also at odds over what to do about the spending problems in Lawrence.
Andover’s Jamison Tomasek opposes a finance control board and imposing management restrictions on Lawrence’s spending.
Tomasek initially said he favored a finance control board for the city but changed his position last month saying that he believes Mayor Lantigua and his new administration are doing all they can and ought to be given a chance to fix the problem.
“He didn’t create this problem, he inherited this problem,” Tomasek said. He also says that he has seen “no evidence” of financial mismanagement, adding “if I see evidence of financial mismanagement in the future, of course, I am willing to take another look at the idea of a finance control board but right now I think the timing is wrong.”
His opponent, Patrick Rahilly says he has no idea what his opponent is looking at. “I believe that when the mayor of a city says he needs to borrow $35 million to balance his budget and avoid layoffs in public safety, and then gets that money but lays off cops and firefighters anyway, that’s financial mismanagement.. among other things. The corruption and dishonesty going on in Lawrence cannot be ignored any longer. Every community is suffering because of the bad decisions being made in Lawrence. Cops and firefighters from all over the Merrimack Valley are now acting as Lawrence’s de-facto public safety force and that leaves the rest of us unprotected while our cops and firefighters are in Lawrence fighting fires and responding to crime.”
“My opponent sees it differently. He doesn’t think Lawrence needs a finance control board, I do. He doesn’t see waste and mismanagement, and I do. That’s what this race is going to come down to, fiscal accountability versus the status quo. I am the candidate who represents holding people accountable and making sure our tax money is spent the way it’s supposed to be.”
The Massachusetts primary elections will be held on September 14th. Democrat voters will be asked to nominate one of the three candidates (Silberstein, Wilson and Finegold) while Republicans may choose between Tomasek and Rahilly. The winner of each primary will square off in November to fill the seat being vacated by Andover Democrat Sue Tucker who announced early this year that she was retiring from politics.