Lawrence Mayor Brian DePena’s State of the City Address

Council President Marc LaPlante, Council Vice-President Estela Reyes, and members of the Lawrence City Council, City Clerk Diane LeBlanc, city officials present both here and through virtual media, and my fellow Lawrencians, good evening.

My gratitude to GOD, my wife Dilenny DePeña, my family, as well to the whole team at the Council Chamber that makes this event possible, and so many other things as well. We deeply appreciate our longtime partnership.

And to everyone here, or watching online or reading or watching this later, good evening and welcome to the State of the City address.
As your Mayor, I stand before you to present the State of the City of Lawrence. We still find ourselves in the midst of the pandemic. The difference this year is that we now have widely available COVID19 vaccines that can help most from the worst of the virus that’s disrupted our lives, and I’m proud to say most Lawrencians have chosen to get vaccinated, including many of our city workforce, as well as 71% of eligible Lawrence residents. Eighty-seven percent (87.4%) of adults 30 years or older are fully vaccinated in Lawrence.

Every day, city departments responsible with vaccinating people, reach out to our residents (whether by going directly to people’s places of residence or receiving them at numerous vaccinations sites that the city and its partners have throughout the city). To all those who have gotten vaccinated – thank you. Thank you for doing your part to wake us up from this nightmare that has claimed 285 Lawrencians and has sicken more than 35,000 people in our city.

In late December 2021, Governor Charlie Baker sent the City of Lawrence a total of 38,040 free rapid antigen COVID19 test kits for distribution. Least to say that the limited amount of kits were rapidly dispensed. Two weeks ago, I ordered the distribution of 140,000 test kits paid by the city. The city developed a plan to distribute the kits in a manner that prioritizes high risk and disproportionately impacted populations. After surveying demand from agencies that serve these populations and larger housing sites, distributions began to take place, for safe opening and operations. A general list is available at the Mayor’s Office and a more detailed list is available at the Center, as distributions roll out.

Like the pandemic, none of the challenges that face our city have fast or easy fixes, and all of them are going to take a unified effort to solve. A State of the City address is typically an opportunity to inform you of the city’s accomplishments and give a rosy account of the year ahead. However, the last two years, with the COVID19 virus wreaking havoc, have been anything but typical. As Mayor, and in my first State of the City, I’d love to inform you of the staff’s past year’s many wins on, transportation, fiscal discipline and more — and to revel the people and organizations who made them happen because we should be proud of them.

But the last two years have left all of us small on patience for cheerful talk. So, tonight is not the time for a typical speech because these are not typical times. Instead, I’m going to focus this address on the most pressing problems our city faces.

Let’s begin with the decades long backlog of critical infrastructure and capital improvements that Lawrence faces and that cannot be put off for any additional amount of time. Two new schools, for our children, are either in the final stages of funding and construction. The buildings will provide a better school to deliver a better quality of education for our children.

For our heroes, a new police station is being designed and soon to be built. As you know, each of these projects will require the city to issue bonds/borrow funds. We have and will borrow and will be fiscal responsible in doing so. A plan is set out and will be communicated shortly to the public through this council’s meeting with specifics. It has been discussed at the Budget & Finance sub-committee last week.

Speaking of funding for capital projects, S&P Global Ratings (“S&P”), a municipal credit rating agency, raised its underlying rating on the City’s general obligation debt to ‘A+’ with a stable outlook from ‘A’ with a positive outlook. S&P cited the City’s continued positive operations and growing reserve levels as factors leading to the upgrade, as well as ongoing economic development which has translated into healthy tax base growth and allowing for declining property tax rates and increasing levels of unused levy capacity. S&P also cited strong management with good financial policies as a positive credit factor.

Concurrent with this upgrade, S&P affirmed the ‘AA’ enhanced rating with a stable outlook on the City’s general obligation bonds secured by the State Qualified Bond Act local state aid intercept program. As you may know the Municipal Finance Oversight Board approved Lawrence to borrow funds under the state AA rating, allowing for lower interest borrowing. This is great news and deserves the accolade of past administrations discipline in budgeting and spending.

Continuing on funding, as the city’s Chief Administrative & Finance Officer informed most of the elected officials and residents, the $57 million in ARPA funds that are currently at the council’s prerogative, and is, considered unrestricted funds because of the amount of revenue losses that the city has incurred throughout the pandemic. CAFO Ianello came before the Budget & Finance Committee that is under Chairperson Pavel Payano, with the wishes of the city – which is to release the $57 million into this year’s current budget as recovered revenue losses and by the end of the fiscal year make that fund free cash. That will make the highest free cash that the city has ever had in the history of Lawrence. Once that is in place, in the coming years, as explained by the CAFO, the city will be able to get a loan for Leahy next year and pay for debt services for a number of years without having to increase taxes for any of the three largest projects the city is going forward building in FY 2023. The people of Lawrence were correct when they voted not to allow the city a 2.5% tax override. It’s not required. State representative Frank Moran made that information, to my team, early last year.

Several smaller initiatives and changes that are ongoing relates to the vision for the city. As urbanization continues to drive growth, Lawrence is becoming more important to business, and more interdependent with business collaborations between organization, and business hold out the promise of significant progress in improving long-term economic growth, and quality of life. For much too long, prior administrations have concentrated on projects and housing that have not netted any tax income for the city and have not truly support the Business & Economic Development Division of the City of Lawrence. Future outlook identifies opportunities for business and city leaders to work together in a number of key areas – in particular, smart growth (which is taking a strategic approach to growth, with clear targets, public and private sector investment, support for enterprise, appropriate regulation and incentives, and effective long-term city planning), doing more with less (unlocking efficiency by harnessing business expertise, technology and data, deploying private-sector investment, and developing well-executed public–private partnerships), and winning support for change (building a shared long-term vision of the future through deep, sustained interaction between cities and business, supported by stakeholder engagement, consensus and mutual accountability, and quantifiable goals and performance-management systems.)

That is why I have entered into a contract for consultant from Harvard University to assess the entire Office of Planning & Development’s staff, role, and policy in and of entrepreneurship and small businesses. I recognize the need for a more holistic approach to propelling entrepreneurship and business growth in Lawrence. We will focus on supporting entrepreneurs and existing businesses of all kinds to thrive — from vendors and general contractors to food-related and childcare businesses. Such businesses are typically not candidates for venture capital or viewed with the same excitement as tech startups aiming to be the next unicorn. But each is critically important to our community by providing jobs, supporting households, and driving social mobility.

Furthermore, with technology and operation support, they could someday become businesses that grow in a big way too. To that end, I will focus on creating a collaborative effort to align resources and support for entrepreneurs and existing small businesses in Lawrence. We will help them with the necessary resources to grow and maximize their opportunities. Lawrence is the place to be for small businesses and entrepreneurs and my administration will pave the way for their success through the recovery and beyond.

As for housing, my administration will focus on meeting the housing needs of our residents as well as welcoming those seeking to live in our vibrant community. As housing costs rise and homeownership becomes more and more unreachable for many, we will create new funding support for homebuyers as well as the creation of new affordable, workforce and market housing. I am dedicated to building the wealth of our residents through homeownership as well as the entrepreneurial and business support. At the same time, Lawrence’s future is dependent on developing new housing opportunities for our future generations as well as those seeking to move here. My administration will create a fund with the participation of financial institutions and other partners to support these initiatives.

As you know, a grant was suddenly found, and is being used, to update the City’s classification & compensation plan through the University of Massachusetts – Collins Center. We hope to receive that report in the incoming months and prepare not only that packet for your approval, but also make those changes reflect in this year’s budget. In the past there have been some ch3anges to the 2005 classification of positions, but the plan and the salary scale remains in the year 2005. Since then, every union has received salary increases, and although the COLA over several years have been insufficient to catch up to the salaries, the non-union employees have received no salary increases in their salary chart. Only very few have had their salary increased in their own positions grade pay scale.

The work, of former Personnel Director Bonet of his written proposal to the City in 2014, and other former employees fight against a civil service federal decree in court, helped Lawrencians that were being affected by the 1973 federal decree to have better opportunities to be selected for public safety positions in Lawrence. That change has really had a positive effect on crime. Chief Vasque and his team of law enforcement leader who have taken these young Lawrencians and provided the best training and assignments. Chief Vasque has reconstructed the police department into a truly professional team, a team that knows the culture, the language, its people, its streets, its issues, etc. His work has taken Lawrence into an era in which it has seen the lowest amount of crime ever! Crime in the year 2020 was low, but it was mostly because many businesses and places were shut down due to the pandemic. Through new recruitments, new and better equipment, vehicles, and increases in community policing, it will guarantee that the city maintain low crime rate throughout our neighborhood now and in the near future.

Last month, the city hired seven additional police officer recruits. Six individuals are assigned to the NECCo police academy, while one is assigned to the Reading Police Academy. However, what will see in the near future is an exodus of senior and young law enforcement officers from the Lawrence Police Department. There are a number of reasons this will occur, including senior retirements, better and more prestigious law enforcement opportunities for the young police officers in state and federal agencies, and seeking other places to work. So, my office, as well as the City’s Personnel Department, will need to be in full steam to support and process many new Lawrence recruits. I ask that anyone having a hand on this recruitment process provide the upmost priority service to continue the uninterrupted security of, and for, our residents.

In addition to continue the task of including our youth into programs, I will be asking the Workforce Investment Board to explore and research educational programs that will allow our youth with decision making of entering into a trade. As many know, trades are in high demand as the need for more experienced labor employees continues to grow. Trade careers are typically known to be more stable and require technical ability. It is these technical abilities that I am asking the WIB to seek funds in order to provide today’s youth in types of trades such as Mechanical, Construction, Industrial, Medical, Culinary Arts, and more.

While four-year college students are still in the classroom, trade skill students are graduates, and earning an income, after about two years in the classroom. Skilled trade experts make a good living. A huge need for master tradespeople exists. Earning a college degree isn’t a bad idea, but it’s not for everyone. Trade careers give you practical and useful skills, incur less student loan debt, and allows you to earn experience and an education. Plus, trades are always in demand.

I’ve asked the council for funding to support several consultant costs. One such project is to compose a committee of stakeholders, and with the professional technical skills of a higher educational learning institution, project the peoples voice (of words) into a plan so that the city may present to DESE, in our attempts to return schools to the control of the voters. The last three administrations have not created a plan to do so. The current LPS turnaround plans have been created previously by a receiver and currently by a board composed by the Commonwealth. I believe a new governance is required as well as a specific, concrete, and efficient timeline plan created by residents, educators, parents, students, board members, councilmembers, and other stakeholders. I intend to provide that plan for your approval prior to sending to DESE.

In conclusion, this administration has taken and has begun working with our employees to address the cleanliness of our city, repair our roads and sidewalks. Furthermore, emphasize will be in addressing the homelessness, substance abuse, and gang related issues currently affecting the quality of life in our city.

The state of our city is strong. It is sturdy and it has proven to be durable and resilient through tough times. We have proven time and again that by working together, Lawrence can turn obstacles into opportunities. It is the honor of my life to play this role in my remarkable hometown at such a remarkable time. I believe in Lawrence because this city made my immigrant family’s dream come true. Together, we’re going to continue to accomplish remarkable things. We’ll continue to improve core services, we’ll continue to grow our economy, we’ll continue to improve our quality of life, we’ll continue to include everyone in our city’s story. Because now it’s the people turn.

Already we are anxious to see the final results of Lawrence’s two new schools and its new police station. These are remarkable accomplishments, and I thank the council the role it chose to make them happen, and for the role they are about to take to continue making it happen.

Thank you for your time today and thank you for the honor of being your mayor. God Bless Lawrence. On behalf of Lawrence and its residents, this is the conclusion of the State of the City. ◊