Monday, October 24, 2011

An American Mayor asks for United Nations financial assistance

Click to see this story on (Daily Item of Lynn, MA)

Lynn Mayor Judy Flanagan Kennedy at the Daily Item.
(Item Photo / Owen O'Rourke)Mayor seeking UN aid for immigrantsOriginally Published on Monday, October 17, 2011

LYNN - Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy is planning to head to Washington to ask the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees why exactly it has made Lynn a haven city for immigrants and how it plans to help.

“It is our plan to get a delegation together with representatives from the School Department, the Police Department and the Housing Authority, to go down and say, ‘if you’re going to be placing people here you’ve got to help us out financially or stop placing people here,’” Kennedy said during a recent editorial board interview with The Daily Item.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established in 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly and its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. Kennedy discussed the ever-growing number of immigrants — legal and illegal — in the city during the interview.

The flood of immigrants into Lynn is taking its toll on the city and in particular on the schools, Kennedy said.

She estimates there have been 819 new students that have moved into the district since June. She said she would never deny any student the right to an education, but she also called the influx “a huge burden” on the district.

Kennedy was quick to note that Lynn has always been a welcoming city and a city of immigrants, but said that status is getting more and more expensive.

Some students come from tribes that have no written language, others have never been in a formal school setting, she said. A program was developed on the high school level to give older students that have never set foot in a school building a crash course in high school life. Programs such as that cost money, Kennedy noted.

“You’re not going to find programs like that in Lincoln or Sudbury,” she said. “You’re only going to find those kinds of problems in big urban districts.”

It was School Committee members John Ford and Rick Starbard who, Kennedy said, came to her and essentially said, “we have to stop this.”

“A generation or two or three ago, when my grandparents came here, it was learn English or get out of the way,” she said. “Now the city has so many mandates it’s become a financial burden.”

The financial burdens in the School Department don’t end with immigrants however. Kennedy said the district has also struggled to keep up with the federal No Child Left Behind act, which placed a number of unfunded or partially funded mandates on communities under the auspices of providing every student with an education. Like the immigrant issue, Kennedy said NCLB puts an undue burden on urban districts like Lynn.

“Under the law we are responsible for half of a (homeless) child’s transportation cost to and from school if their last known home was in Lynn,” she said. “They don’t even have to live here now.”

Kennedy said the district is currently paying $25,000 for a child who lives in Newburyport and goes to school in a nearby community, only because the child’s last known home address was Lynn.

She said she also just signed a contract for an Special Education Individual Education Plan (IEP) that will cost the community $308,000 per year.

“And that’s for one child,” she said. “SPED (Special Education) transportation cost is 25 percent of the school’s non-salary budget.”

Kennedy however did have some good news regarding the city.

She swore in three new firefighters Tuesday and a grant could put one school resource officers in each of the three middle schools before the end of the year. The Department of Public works received $305,000 from Kennedy specifically to purchase new snow plowing equipment in order to be ready for the coming winter.

“We have a 1962 (model year) grader that we’re using and only two people in the city know how to operate it,” she said with a laugh. “We have to bring them out of retirement to use it.”

Kennedy also said she is committed to installing air conditioning in City Hall’s Veterans Memorial Auditorium.

“A grant for the air conditioning is in the hands of the Massachusetts Cultural Council and I’m pretty confident we’ll get it,” she said. “It will probably require matching funds of around $400,000 but we have that.”

Kennedy said she would use a portion of the $7.4 million in free cash she has saved to match the grant. If the grant is denied, she said she will pay for the entire $750,000, the estimated cost, through the free cash account.

Happy with the growing number of bookings for the auditorium and that it is turning a profit, Kennedy said, “I am committed to doing this.”

Along with cooling off the auditorium, Kennedy said she is also exploring a design that could allow for air conditioning inside City Hall offices as well. One particular plan would add duct work that would branch off the auditorium when there’s no shows going on and into City Hall offices. Kennedy said the idea is that when the auditorium isn’t being used, a switch could be thrown that would close off the air ducts into the auditorium and force the cold air into City Hall offices instead.

“It’s just a theory,” she said. “But it’s worth looking into.”

Kennedy also touched upon the two latest issues affecting City Hall, a call by City Councilor Daniel Cahill to abolish the Off-Street Parking Commission an revelation by an independent auditor that three pension accounts have been overpaid by a total of $42,000.

Kennedy said she still supports Parking Director Jay Fenton’s reorganization of his office that saved the city $26,000 and a position despite the fact the savings was accompanied by three healthy raises for the remaining employees.

“Anything that saves the city $26,000 and a body,” she said.

Kennedy pointed out that eliminating a position goes further than saving a salary, it also saves the city on health insurance and pension payments.

The question of sending a home rule petition to the legislature to abolish the commission was tabled during Tuesday’s City Council hearing, but Kennedy said she would hear the council out on the matter.

When asked who might take the fall for the pension overpayments, Kennedy said “It really depends on where we point the finger.”

However, she also said it’s too early to tell where the blame will be laid because it’s yet to be determined who made the error, the city treasurer, comptroller or Retirement Board.

She said she recently hired A.J. Saing as her Southeast Asian liaison, but he is only part time in large part, she said, because the “we can’t afford to keep bringing bodies in.”

Two years into her term Kennedy said she feels she has done much of what she set out to do and when asked if she planned to run for reelection in 2013 she laughed.

“Too early to tell,” she said before adding, “if I’m having as much fun (in two years) as I’m having now — absolutely.”

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