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Lynn council is set to debate bailout

LYNN — A City Council vote on a loan to fill the city’s budget hole is set for Tuesday amid concerns over a trash fee and the addition of two new jobs for the council office.

The finance plan, advocated by Mayor Thomas M. McGee and City Council President Darren Cyr and approved by the state Department of Revenue, allows the city to borrow up to $16 million. The money would be used to close the nearly $12 million budget hole the city is facing over the next two years.

Because the measure would change the city charter, eight of 11 councilors must favor the amendments. If approved, the home rule petition would be sent to Beacon Hill where the Legislature and the governor must give it a thumbs up.

The petition would allow Lynn to borrow the cash over 10 years; implement a $90 annual trash fee per unit; create a City Council budget analyst position; remove the requirement to seek voter approval for borrowing more than $4 million; and change the council’s secretary to a level one department head.   

The mayor declined requests to answer questions about the home rule petition.

At least two city councilors are poised to oppose the measure because of the trash fee. Another said he favors the overall package now, but his mind could change before the panel votes next week.

Newly elected Ward 2 City Councilor Richard Starbard said he was the only non-politician who testified in favor of the original trash fee last summer. That proposal, which was passed unanimously and signed by former Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy, would have placed a $150 to $220 annual trash collection fee on non owner-occupied units. But the city never issued the bills. Officials said exemptions for owner occupants and their relatives made it unwieldy.

“The bills were never mailed and we left more than $2 million on the table,” Starbard said. “If the vote on the home rule petition were tonight, I would vote no.”

Starbard also raised questions about other ways to raise cash. Unlike Boston, which received $32 million from nonprofits last year under a Payment In Lieu of Taxes program, Lynn collects about $25,000 from its many not-for-profit organizations, he said.

Starbard also said the home rule petition would create a five-person working group to examine ways to reduce healthcare costs and perhaps increase city employee contributions to premiums. The group will make recommendations by October to be implemented in 2020.

“Why are we waiting so long?” Starbard asked. “Why aren’t we looking at reducing these costs now?”

Ward 1 City Councilor Wayne Lozzi said he will not support the home rule petition unless seniors are exempt from the trash fee.

Newly elected City Councilor-at-Large Brian Field said while he still has questions, he is leaning toward voting for it.

“We are still talking about last year’s budget which has an $8.1 million shortfall that we have to close within months,” he said.  “I do wonder why we have to hire a financial advisor. I don’t understand why we need it. I am trusting the mayor and his staff, but I still have time to change my mind. The question is, what’s the alternative?”

Michael Donovan, director of the Inspectional Services Department (ISD), said he wants to know how the city can create two new positions for the council while other City Hall departments are hurting.

“Due to the hiring freeze and the city’s budgetary problems, I am down three inspectors and two clerks. That’s five out of 24 employees, and that’s lowered ISD’s level of service to the community,” he said. “And it’s not just our department, the parking, fire, and police departments are down staff as well.”

The council’s executive assistant, Theresa Young, was paid $100,379 last year which includes incentives and overtime, according to city records. Under her new job as director of council affairs, her pay would rise to $107,006, a $6,627 raise.

Cyr defended the provisions, saying the council needs a budget analyst and the executive assistant already does the job of a department head.

“Terry is the confidant and personal secretary to 11 councilors,” he said. “She attends all the meetings and routinely spends two to three hours on the phone with me every weekend and she is not paid for that. Most council members feel the same way.”

City Councilor-at-Large Brian LaPierre said he will vote yes on the loan. He said the city is between rock and a hard place.

“Passage of the home rule petition means we will be OK  financially,” he said.

LaPierre favors the trash fee, which would be billed twice a year at $45 per unit. An owner of a three-family would pay $270 annually. He said the previous measure, which exempted owner-occupants and their relatives, was impossible to enforce.

“It was a logistical nightmare,” he said. “Under our new plan, the bill for the trash fee would be sent with the tax bill.”

LaPierre also favors the raise for Young.

Ward 7 City Councilor Jay Walsh said the loan will stabilize the city’s finances and the trash fee will provide a way to pay a portion of it back.

“Look, no one wants to pay more, but we must do something and this is a good plan to do that,” he said. “I don’t know whether it will pass Tuesday, but I will support it and try to make the best of it.”

Walsh also favors making Young a department head.  

“She should be at that level,” he said. “Her title is secretary, but she really acts like a department head without the title and the pay.”

Still, Michael Fisher, president of the Lynn Department Heads Association, said he’s unsure why the proposal to change her job title was made.

“I like Terry a lot and I don’t begrudge anyone getting ahead,” he said. “But from a manager’s perspective, making this job a level one department head would be a departure from other level one managers who have staff from two to more than 40 employees. It appears she would be in charge of herself.”

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