Mayor Takes Aim at Gang Violence, Budgets for Specialized Police Unit

City man Nike Colon was confirmed as the 20-year-old victim in Thursday's deadly drive-by shooting in Haverhill's Mount Washington neighbhorhood. (Jay Saulnier photograph for WHAV News)

The Washington Street murder of Nike Colon last week underscored the need to prioritize public safety, Fiorentini told the City Council Tuesday.

Stemming gang violence and improving schools are the two priorities driving Mayor James J. Fiorentini’s $194 million budget for Fiscal Year 2019.

Fiorentini at the memorial for Nike Colon (Courtesy photograph)

Fiorentini intends to hire a police lieutenant to run a four-person gang unit and contract with a Lowell-based group, UTEC, that will put two workers on the city’s streets to reach out to young people who are in gangs or in danger of joining a gang.

As happens nearly every year, additional funding from the state and federal governments will likely make its way to Haverhill during the course of the year, Fiorentini said.

“I suggest to the council that all additional resources go to the police department,” Fiorentini said.

Fiorentini made it clear that even though the largest increase goes to the schools, public safety is the top priority.

The proposed budget adds $5 million in school spending out of a total $7 million increase over this year’s $187 million budget.

Fiorentini said he is proud that education funding will increase by $5 million for the second year in a row.

While the other Gateway Cities in Massachusetts — including Lowell, Lawrence, Brockton and Springfield — will cut programs next year, Haverhill will add programs and staff.

But Dr. John Maddox, the school district’s physician and an advocate for education, said a closer look at the numbers paint a less rosy picture.

“With all due respect,the mayor stood here and said we’re doing all we can do. And with all due respect, I don’t believe that is true,” Maddox told the council.

According to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Haverhill ranks near the bottom of all school districts for per-pupil spending.

Maddox pointed to state reports showing Haverhill is 302nd in per-pupil spending, at roughly $13,000. Salem, the home district of Haverhill’s new superintendent, Margaret Marotta, spends $18,000 per pupil.

Of the Gateway cities, Salem is ranked number one, Maddox said.

“Most disturbingly, among the 26 Gateway cities, Haverhill is dead last,” Maddox said.

Councilor Colin F. LePage pointed out that Haverhill is able to increase its education funding by such large amounts because it under-funded its schools for years.

“The reason we can be increasing more and more is because compared to the others we’re so far behind,” LePage said.

Facts and figures can be manipulated to sound better than they are, Maddox said. For instance, Fiorentini pointed out that Salem increased school spending by only one half of a percent this year.

“It can be hard to reconcile some of these numbers and what the mayor was saying,” Maddox said.

He argued that increasing school spending can have an effect on an entire community, as well as an individual student.

“Kids who drop out can end up in gangs,” Maddox said.

Fiorentini’s budget proposal uses $4.85 million of the city’s store of free cash, leaving $4.5 million.

A public hearing on the budget will be scheduled during the first week of June, the mayor said.