Mayor Thomas McGee talks about last year and the upcoming year. (Owen O'Rourke)
Local Government and Politics, News

Lynn Mayor Thomas M. McGee reflects on his first year in office and looks ahead

LYNN — In his first year in office, Mayor Thomas M. McGee has focused on revitalizing the city through development and multiple long-term planning efforts, while scrambling to dig Lynn out of its financial crisis.

"I think stabilizing the finances is a big piece of what we need to do, (which includes) starting to find a way to make some capital investments in the community as well as the economic development that we continue to see," McGee said.  

McGee inherited a mess of city finances last January. One of his first major efforts was working with the state delegation to borrow $14 million through a home rule petition that the city exhausted to balance its fiscal year 2018 and FY19 budgets.

Even with borrowing $9.5 million to balance the FY18 budget and $4.5 million for FY19, the city is still projected to have a $5 million budget gap for FY20. Getting a handle on closing that deficit and improving the city's financial state was what McGee highlighted as his major challenge for his second year in office.

To close that gap, everything is on the table, McGee said, which includes finding a way to realize cost savings and increase revenue.

City officials have instituted a $90 trash fee on homeowners annually, projected to result in $2 million in yearly revenue for the city, one of their strategies to raise revenue to pay back the loan and stabilize their budget.

Despite the budget crunch, McGee highlighted key hires and staffing increases over the past year. Stephen Archer was named the city's fire chief, Dr. Patrick Tutwiler was selected as superintendent of Lynn Public Schools and Michael Bertino was hired as the city's full-time chief financial officer.

The Lynn Police Department will see an increase of 19 new police officers by August -- nine paid for through a federal grant -- and the Lynn Fire Department received the go-ahead to add 20 new firefighters through a $3.45 million federal grant.

McGee highlighted new businesses downtown, including Brew on the Grid, Revolution Pie + Pint and One Mighty Mill, an improvement to the arts and cultural scene through the second Beyond Walls Mural Festival, and infrastructure and traffic improvements made through MassWorks Infrastructure Program grants as part of projects such as the new Lynn YMCA and Market Basket.

More additional infrastructure improvements will be seen as the city was approved for $59 million in funding through the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) for three roadway reconfiguration projects. That funding includes a complete rebuild of the Western Avenue corridor, which includes Boston Street and is what the mayor referred to as the "backbone of the city."

All of the city's union contracts are up this year, including police and fire.

While McGee  said it wasn't appropriate to get into specifics in terms of union contract negotiations, it was important to come to a deal that was fair for both sides, as far as keeping the city's financial state in mind.

McGee said officials will have to be "open to outside of the box thinking" in terms of ways to address the deficit, highlighting a project that is slated to begin soon on converting all of the city's streetlights to LED lights, for an annual savings of $400,000.

A key piece in moving the city forward and helping its financial state, even if not immediately, is economic development, McGee said, highlighting the 10-story, 259-unit luxury apartment development that broke ground on Munroe Street this fall, and the anticipated spring groundbreaking of the redevelopment of the former Beacon Chevrolet site into 332 market-rate apartments.

In addition to development bringing in revenue — the Munroe Street project is expected to produce $5 million in new tax revenue over a seven-year period — McGee said those developments are leading to other people looking at Lynn as an investment opportunity.

"It's a great city," McGee said. "We have great opportunity. We have substantial challenges we face, but the opportunities are substantial. You almost go back and forth between those — the challenges and the opportunity."
Another opportunity is the potential sale of the former Thurgood Marshall Middle School on Porter Street, which city officials hope will be redeveloped into affordable senior housing. School officials are asking for $4 million, but potential developers have floated sale prices far below that figure. Proceeds from the sale would go toward the school department for capital needs, such as a future school or school repairs.

Looking ahead, McGee said there needs to be significant capital investments made in the community, which includes upgrading aging school buildings and other city buildings, infrastructure needs of roads and sidewalks and investing in new vehicles.

The city is working with the Edward J. Collins Center from the University of Massachusetts-Boston to develop a five-year capital plan to identify its capital needs and how to address them. McGee said an exact figure will be released in the next several months, but projects that the city has hundreds of millions of dollars in capital needs over the next five years.

The city can't address those needs until its budget deficit is addressed. He cited the five-year capital plan as important to the city's efforts to try again on replacing Pickering Middle School after last year's failed vote for two new middle schools and the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) rejection of a proposal last month for a new Pickering.

McGee said the rejection was likely due to the city's financial state and is hopeful the plan will result in approval from the MSBA when another proposal for replacement is submitted.

"As we climb out of the financial hole we're in, we understand the capital needs are just as important as the operating budget. It really does go hand in hand," McGee said. "If we get our hands around the operating budget, but we don't address these capital needs and then more time goes on where we don't maintain or rebuild, costs will escalate."

Other long-term planning efforts include working with consultants to develop a revised Waterfront Master Plan and Open Space Master Plan, which McGee said are working hand in hand to develop the waterfront. He said the vision is for a different Lynnway that will enhance opportunity for development, knit the community together and provide open space for all residents.

As he was during his time serving in the state legislature, McGee is focused on improving transportation in the city, which he cited as being key to Lynn's economic opportunity.

He's working to procure a boat to bring ferry service back to Lynn -- in 2016, the city was awarded a $4.5 million federal grant to purchase a dedicated vessel for long-term ferry service, but the state has to prove it can operate the ferry, or prove the benefits associated with it before getting the money.

McGee mentioned the MassDOT's efforts to develop a Lynn Transit Action Plan Study, which includes a renewed focus on extending the Blue Line to Lynn.

He cited continued progress toward the expansion of the Northern Strand Bike Trail into Lynn, which will allow people to bike to the sea as a "gamechanger."

"I've been honored to be able to serve the city," McGee said. "There's tough decisions to make and sometimes people don't like those decisions, but every day we work to do the right thing and move the city forward."

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