THE REPUTATION of Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua is in freefall. But so far, the financial gains made over the past year in the struggling city of 72,000 on the Merrimack River hold firm. For now, that’s what counts.
Recent reports that Lantigua and his live-in girlfriend received federal fuel assistance despite a joint income well above the eligibility requirement are just the latest jolt. The big one came last month with reports that state and federal law enforcement are investigating Lantigua for possible corruption, including what, if any, financial connections exist between the mayor and several local bars and nightclubs. Lantigua, a native of the Dominican Republic, was hailed in 2009 by underrepresented Latino voters as a pioneer, ready to rekindle the immigrant spirit of Lawrence. But he got off to a bad political start by trying to cling to both his mayoral and state representative salary. And things spiraled down from there.
So far, the suspicions surrounding Lantigua haven’t hindered his efforts to steer Lawrence toward fiscal stability. That accomplishment, however, comes with considerable help from a fiscal overseer appointed by Governor Deval Patrick who ensures that up to $35 million in loan guarantees from the state won’t go down the drain. Lawrence is finally collecting taxes, reining in spending on municipal overtime and salaries, selling off tax title properties, and setting the tax rate on time. The city has balanced its budget and will even show a small surplus this year, a development that few would have predicted. Residents aren’t happy about the cutbacks in municipal services, especially public safety. But Lantigua had nowhere else to go after inheriting a $24 million deficit.
“In one year’s time, a huge mess has been cleaned up,’’ said Jay Gonzalez, secretary of the state Executive Office for Administration and Finance. Gonzalez also said that the state’s fiscal overseer had reviewed tow-truck contracts and taxi permits — areas of alleged favoritism by Lantigua — and found no abuse. On balance, said Gonzalez, Lantigua has been “completely collaborative’’ with the state’s fiscal overseer.
In some areas, neither the state nor Lantigua has met expectations. The three-year stabilization plan for Lawrence called for the hiring of a budget and finance director and a permanent collector-treasurer to keep Lawrence’s finances in order. Almost a year later, residents are still waiting.
It’s hard to know whether Lantigua will end up in front of a judge or an awards committee for fiscal stewardship. Without knowing that, Gonzalez and his team need to maintain a strong and constant presence in Lawrence City Hall.