Senator: Lawrence making progress

Your article, “Lawrence on the mat,” in CommonWealth’s spring issue painted a misleading view of the city of Law­rence, which I represent in the state Senate. Author Gabrielle Gurley claims that “there’s a desperate urgency to fill the city’s leadership void” and blames city officials for failing to attract new businesses to the area and provide a coherent vision for Lawrence’s future, thus perpetuating the poor economic base and transient population. I strongly disagree with this assumption.

Gurley is mistaken in asserting that there is no coherent group of leaders working systematically to address the issues faced by Lawrence and to articulate an economic strategy for its future. The story failed to pick up on a large number of residents, businesses, organizations, and government officials that are deeply committed to the well-being and future of the city. There is a coalition that is growing in size and strength that is determined to bring positive change to Lawrence.

First, let me be clear that I do not think the problems in Lawrence are insignificant or that they have simple solutions. However, our city’s position is not unlike the other 23 Gateway Cities in Massachusetts. All Gateway Cities continue to struggle with persistent unemployment, concentrated poverty, and high crime levels. These are real issues, and ones Lawrence must work to address, but, unfortunately, they are not unique to Lawrence.

Progress is being made on a variety of fronts. Arson, auto theft, and auto insurance fraud have fallen dramatically. The city moved all of its employees into the state’s Group Insurance Commission and, as a result, it will see about $23 million in savings. The City Council took a very tough vote last April and adopted a meals tax. Lawrence also contracted its trash collection operation to a private company in 2009, a measure that saves roughly $500,000 a year. The city is currently working on a plan to install parking meters—as noted by Gurley—not a popular decision, but a necessary one. The city has also worked to achieve concessions from public unions, a deeply difficult process for all involved.

According to financial overseer Robert Nunes, overall fiscal discipline in managing the city’s budget by the mayor and the city council has led to Lawrence accumulating a $5.4 million budget surplus. It was the first positive certification of a surplus by the Department of Revenue in six years. These changes are evidence Lawrence’s elected officials are willing to take difficult votes and make difficult decisions.

New small businesses are cropping up around the city, specifically Café Verde and Terra Luna on Essex Street. Gurley mentions Northern Essex Com­munity College’s new $27-million allied health and technology center on Essex Street, but misses the crucial role this new building will play in the revitalization of downtown.

Gurley does mention the mayor’s successful courtship of J.S.B. Industr­ies and their Muffin Town location in the city—this did not happen over­night or just by the persuasion of one person. The Merrimack Valley Cham­ber of Commerce, a group consistently working with the administration and small businesses to build crucial networks, as well as the state and federal delegation, all played a part in this venture. Solectria Renew­ables is another example of an expanding business in the city fostered by a coalition of proactive Lawrencians.

Gurley recognizes the award-winning work being done by Lawrence CommunityWorks but failed to see all of the other community organizations committed to the city, including Mill Cities Community Invest­ment, Groundwork Lawrence, and 10 very active neighborhood organizations.

There is still much work to be done; however, the idea that no one is working to improve the current condition of the city is simply untrue. There is, in fact, a coalition of dedicated and concerned stakeholders working together, a coalition that in­cludes the City Council, the Patrick administration, the state and local delegation, local business leaders, community-based organizations, and, while there can be conflict, city departments like the police department. This group is working together toward a common vision—one that is shared by the people of Lawrence —and our best work is done when we work together in unison toward our goal of revitalizing these seven square miles.

Sen. Barry Finegold

New priorities needed

In his Real Talk piece, Michael Jonas recycles the advice to public sector unions that Northeastern University professor Barry Bluestone has been dispensing, in The Boston Globe and elsewhere, for several years now (“Labor’s Love Lost: How public sector unions became the bête noire of uneasy times,” Spring ’11).

The Bluestone-Jonas message is that “the squeeze that public sector unions are putting on public coffers” must end. “Cash-strapped states” and municipalities must be granted contract concessions by teachers, social workers, firefighters, and other public employees in order to maintain vital services. Any “hidebound” trade unionists who don’t get with this austerity program ASAP are just making themselves “look more like a threat to the middle class than a guardian of its security and quality of life.”

As a 40-year trade unionist, who spent three decades representing Massa­chusetts workers in both the private and public sector, I think this is very myopic framing of “solutions to the problems facing public budgets.” Let’s take the reported deficit facing Massachusetts state government in 2011—$2.7 billion—as one such problem. During 2011, Massachu­setts taxpayers contributed nearly twice that sum—$4.9 billion—to pay for our ruinously expensive occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for “union-friendly liberals” like Blue­stone (or MIT’s Tom Kochan, another academic quoted by Jonas) to argue for an end to both Mideast wars?

Our Bush/Obama interventions now carry a total (direct cost) price tag of $1.05 trillion, over the last 10 years. US withdrawal would free up several hundred billion dollars a year that could be devoted to “quality of life” improvements here. 

With new federal spending priorities, we could fund social services, balance public sector budgets at all levels, and continue to pay government employees what they deserve.

If public sector unions need a knuckle-rapping, it should be over their failure to mobilize their own members, the citizens they serve, and the public officials they bargain with in a much bigger and stronger national campaign for new priorities.

Steve Early

Doesn’t walk the walk

Ed Glaeser’s book (John Schneider review of The Triumph of the City, Spring ’11) joins a large body of literature by urbanists who have long argued that cities are sustainable, profitable, and fun. But we won’t understand what policies are necessary to promote urban living until we understand why this passionate advocate chooses to live on the most remote bucolic edge of the leafiest of suburbs of the city he credits with holding up Massachusetts. And since he sends his kids to private school, his suggested remedy of “school choice” to improve urban schools is evidently not the answer.

The reviewer glosses very briefly over the fact that Glaeser lives in the suburbs, but misses its importance. The message that dense urban living makes us “richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier” is obviously not enough to attract “smart people” like Glaeser, who will talk the talk but will not walk the walk. Is he really saying that cities are only good for ambitious poor people who, benefiting from urban settings, may aspire to one day flee to the suburbs with him and the rest of the middle class?

Mr. Schneider might interview Glaeser and ask him what no reviewer of this book seems to have asked: Why does Glaeser choose to live in Weston?

Shirley Kressel

It’s class, not race

Regarding “Boston NAACP moves to recapture relevance” (Spring ’11), I grew up with the Civil Rights Move­ment happening all around me. I was in Boston during busing and had a pretty good seat for the goings-on in the street and behind the scenes. In today’s Boston, I have begun to get a really bad vibe, but it’s not race that’s driving it. It’s class. I read the papers, the opinion pieces, and the reporting and I am feeling very manipulated by people who are above the fray and those who are ignorant of the social history of Boston. Boston can only have a discussion with itself and among the people who love the city if the issue and history of class is part of the conversation.

Sarah Wenig

Balanced Winslow piece

Very well done piece about Dan Winslow (“Who does he think he is?” Spring ’11), balanced and seemingly unbiased. It should be interesting to see where his enthusiasm leads.

Barbara Shea