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Santa Claus
Former Haverhill Mayor Jim Rurak

For the last three years, city officials gave us one excuse for everything they didn’t do, namely, the Hale debt. What they, and more specifically, what the mayor failed to tell us is how in fact they made the annual 7 million dollar Hale debt payment each of these last 3 years. The answer is “Santa Claus” also known as Rep. Brian Dempsey.

I want to applaud his successes but also sound an alarm. It’s the same one Councilor Hart sounded at the recent budget conference, namely, that things are not so rosy as the mayor portrays them; his budget surplus is built on thin ice.

Thin ice is an image in keeping with the season and I’m going to run the risk of pushing seasonal imagery a little further by organizing this article in this way. Brian Dempsey succeeded in getting the city a bundle of money over the last three years because he could argue that the city got into financial difficulty because it had once been “nice.” It sponsored a regional hospital that was a vital link in the health care chain for the commonwealth, and, was the essential health care provider for the region’s poor. Hence, the state should give the city some financial assistance, some breathing room, to pull itself together financially after the municipal hospital went belly-up.

But, because the city has done little on its own in these last three years to develop recurring, not one-time, revenues, it has been “naughty.” So it’s not likely that the city will get, next Christmas, a gift like it did this year.

Here are the facts: of the seven million dollar annual Hale payment, almost six of it each year came from actions which Brian led through the legislature. Add these up:

An average of 2 million per year for fiscal years ’04, ’05, ’06 in “hospital aid;” an annualized savings of about 2.7 million due to early retirements (legislation that Dempsey sponsored); over a quarter of a million average each year in additional lottery assistance; about one half million dollars each year from the energy grant (Brian helped pass the legislation that authorized this). This already totals 5.5 million annually for the last three years. Add to this, the taxes now being paid on the old Hale and Glynn, the sale of which Brian also helped, and you get to 6 million dollars annually for the last three years; that’s 18 million of the twenty or so the city has owed against the Hale.

And you could also add here money from the federal government that reimbursed the city for some of the care the hospital gave for free to the poor. All this Brian got because he led the local delegation (and they also deserve credit) in the cheer that the city deserves help because it had once been nice and it took a risk to save its hospital, a hospital that remains an essential component in regional health-care services.

But the city was supposed to come with ways to fill in the gap over the last three years and in the years going forward. In fact, the city has been “naughty.”

The ways that it filled the gap for the last three years it now cannot use for the years remaining on the debt. I’m talking about the sale of city lands. Over the last three years, the city sold about 8 million dollars worth of land and buildings. Unless city hall’s for sale, there’s not much left to sell. It took the quick and naughty route to pay its bills and it now doesn’t have a plan for the future.

This is what Councilor Hart meant when he said that the mayor was misrepresenting our financial prospects and, in fact, things would get worse before they got better. That’s why it’s going to be hard to ask Santa again. And, although Brian has been a Santa, he doesn’t have Santa’s unilateral power. He has to sell his story to his leadership and colleagues. I hope he can, but it won’t be easy. It would have been easier if he could have said that the city had done a lot to meet its so-called structural deficit, that it used the 18 million in additional assistance to put together a long-range plan. Instead, however, it flittered it away. It was naughty not nice.

But this is also a season of hope. Maybe if things begin to really change next year, if we take steps to increase revenues without raising taxes, and if we find ways of being more efficient and cost conscious, then Brian can argue that the city deserves a bit more financial help. I hope so because as I see it we’re REALLY going to need Santa next year. For all he’s done so far, however, let’s all thank Santa right now.

Jim Rurak is a professor at Boston College and is the former mayor of Haverhill. Email your comments or questions to Jim Rurak at JARandKAS@comcast.net

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The December Edition of the Valley Patriot
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