By Charis Anderson
NEW BEDFORD — In a wide-ranging State of the City address, Mayor Scott W. Lang acknowledged the economic woes facing the city but also looked to the future, highlighting a proposal for a revamped city employment model, as well as SouthCoast rail and school building projects.
“An economic downturn … or worse will not and cannot deter this city or its people from attaining the goal of being a place where we can safely and proudly live and raise our families,” he said.
Lang delivered his fourth State of the City address to a crowd of about 500 at Cafe Funchal on Thursday afternoon.
The speech, which ran about 49 minutes, was hosted by the New Bedford Chamber of Commerce, and the room was packed with people ranging from local business leaders to representatives from UMass Dartmouth and Bristol Community College, from faith leaders to city councilors.
Lang said that while the city’s financial status is stable, it is in the midst of challenging times.
The city had to absorb a mid-year cut to local aid that forced layoffs of municipal employees, and it is facing an additional local aid cut of as much as $10.6 million in fiscal 2010, he said.
For future city employees, “health insurance and pensions must be tied to the financial feasibility of paying for the benefit and begin to reflect the reality of our economic circumstances.”
The city is juggling unfunded liabilities in its pension plan and potentially in health costs, and “future layoffs will be necessary” to cover those costs, he said.
“I’m counting on the unions to lead in this discussion,” he said after the speech.
In response to the speech, City Councilor Kathy Dehner said she thinks the mayor’s proposal will take a lot of negotiation and communication with the unions, “but I think it’s feasible.”
Beyond a new employment model, Lang said, the city also needs to focus on a range of economic development activities.
“On behalf of the people of New Bedford, I state that the time to build the SouthCoast rail project from New Bedford to Taunton and Fall River to Taunton is now, today,” he said in his speech.
According to Lang, there is targeted federal funding available, and Gov. Deval Patrick supports the project: “Let’s seize the moment, expedite the federal and state permitting process, and start laying track.”
All the route options go through Taunton, according to Lang; building north from New Bedford and Fall River will allow time for questions on the route and issues on the permitting to be resolved by the time the rail construction reaches Taunton, he said.
In remarks after the speech, James Aloisi, the state’s Secretary of Transportation, suggested a rail line should be connected to Lakeville now, and then the Stoughton route can be constructed in the future.
“I’d like to figure out a way to introduce some kind of service for New Bedford and Fall River in the short term,” he said. “It would give people a flavor of what SouthCoast rail will mean.”
Lang also focused on the city’s educational system in his speech, detailing several school building projects slated to get under way soon that are focused on upgrading the city’s aging elementary school buildings.
The city is working with the Massachusetts School Building Authority to replace the Lincoln School and to build a new school at the current Hannigan School site, according to Lang.
Ninety percent of the construction costs for both projects will be paid for by the state, he said.
Finally, within two years, Lang said, construction will begin on an addition to the Sea Lab building, which currently houses the Hannigan Elementary School.
Overall, the mayor’s address “was somewhat positive under the circumstances” and was “uplifting” to the city’s residents, said City Councilor Brian Gomes.
“It’s a matter of us all pulling together,” he said.
Dehner, the Ward 3 councilor, agreed about the positive tone of the speech.
“It’s refreshing to have a mayor who’s so optimistic about our city — and realistic,” she said.
Councilor-at-large David Alves, however, said he would have liked to hear more about where the city is going next.
The mayor’s plans also seemed very reliant on state and federal funds, which is a cause for concern, Alves said.
“We need to expand (the city’s) tax base,” he said.
Standard-Times staff writer Jack Spillane contributed to this report.
Contact Jack Spillane at email@example.com.
March 20, 2009
Source URL: http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090320/NEWS/903200346
By Charis Anderson