Analysis: Haverhill Election Boils Down to ‘Old’ vs. ‘New,’ But Meanings are Confusing

Developer Larry Smith displays sample house designs for his proposed 30-unit, over 55, community, that went down to defeat in 2018. (WHAV News photograph.)

97.9 WHAV FM presents live election coverage with Tim Coco and Marc Lemay in studio, beginning at 8 p.m., tomorrow night. They will be supported by in the field by Allison Corneau, John Grant and Jenifer Cosgrove. Results will appear on-air first with recaps published at as time permits.

Tuesday’s Haverhill election boils down to “old” Haverhill vs. “new,” but the terms may not mean what most voters think.

Old sometimes means the city’s old guard—life residents, middle-age and above and typically frugal. But some of the natives in the mayoral, City Council and School Committee races embrace new ideas and want more spending even if this means higher taxes.

New can mean more recent residents, younger, more likely to spend tax dollars and dismissive of the old guard’s accomplishments. Many of them want Haverhill to be more like Newburyport, for example.

Some candidates defy such easy definitions. There are old-timers with a pent-up appetite for new spending and newcomers who know the city budget isn’t a bottomless pit. At issue then is whether the city should spend more—and how much more and how fast—in police and firefighter staffing and salaries and building new schools.

‘Old’ Haverhill

“Old,” in some circles, means keeping Haverhill affordable. Haverhill’s generally lower home buying prices and lower taxes over the last decade played roles in attracting the “new” Haverhillites.

Old Haverhill has arguably served this city well—holding the line on spending, like Mayor James J. Fiorentini did when the city-owned Hale Hospital collapsed, putting the city deep in debt. Few thought in 2001, the city would recover without state oversight or worse. But, it did with Mayor Stingy holding the line from 2004 on. Old Haverhill also built the Ward Hill Industrial Park, among other business parks, when the construction of Interstate 495 was underway. It also fought unsuccessfully in the 1960s against “new” thinking such as the urban renewal wrecking ball that took out at least a third of downtown and left a “dust bowl” for many years.

An entire generation is not aware of the Hale collapse or the 2008 recession that, combined, forced Haverhill to lay off dozens of workers, defer building maintenance and underfund the Haverhill Public Library. Many also pay little attention to the fact another recession is long overdue if history is any guide.

Besides Fiorentini, “old” Haverhill is represented this year, in ballot order, by City Council incumbents Joseph J. Bevilacqua and challengers, former School Committee member Shaun P. Toohey, former Councilor Kenneth E. Quimby and Mark’s Deli owner Stavros Dimakis. School Committee candidates in this group are incumbent Scott W. Wood Jr. and possibly Toni A. Sapienza-Donais.

‘New’ Haverhill

A relative newcomer remarks she bought a home in Haverhill because she couldn’t afford to buy in Marblehead. Now, however, she’s disappointed Haverhill isn’t Marblehead in terms of school scores, violent crime and aesthetics. She sums up a large portion of new Haverhill.

In recent years, this resident and others have noticed city surpluses ranging from today’s about $5 million to what has been as much as $13 million. They also observe Haverhill has been taxing under the Proposition 2 ½ cap—not raising local property taxes high enough to grow the police force and make a dent in such overdue projects as school maintenance and new school buildings. It was this issue that killed Fiorentini’s budget proposal two years ago and nearly derailed it last year. In 2017, President John A. Michitson and members Melinda E. Barrett, Andy X. Vargas, Colin F. LePage and Michael S. McGonagle defeated the budget, calling for a greater increase in police officers. In 2018, a tentative budget vote found Michitson, Barrett, LePage and Jordan in opposition over more school money and more police officers.

“New” Haverhill is represented, in ballot order, by mayoral challenger Daniel S. Trocki, incumbent Councilors McGonagle, Michitson, Barrett, Timothy J. Jordan and LePage and challengers Douglas W. Edison, Nicholas J. Golden and Joseph P. Sherlock. On the School Committee, they are incumbents Sven A. Amirian and Gail M. Sullivan and challenger Thomas W. Grannemann.

The Less Predictable Compromise Mix

Despite the rhetoric, there is not enough of a city surplus or borrowing ability to pay the more than $100 million in capital needs. The state School Building Authority will pick up most of the tab for new schools, but not as quickly as most would like.

Even as the majority voted to add more police officers, Police Chief Alan R. DeNaro hasn’t been able to find recruits fast enough anyway.

There’s an anti-new housing component that believe—perhaps, with a bit of truth—its serves to bring in a poorer, less-educated and transient population. Almost every apartment development downtown—arguably, what has revitalized downtown—needs some form of subsidy. Even so-called “market rate” projects like JM Lofts on Washington Street received Tax Increment Financing to lower local property taxes for five years, and others have benefitted from the state’s Smart Growth Housing Trust Fund.

Yet, an over-55 housing complex proposed by developer Larry Smith went down to defeat last year. His proposed 30-unit project for a former sand pit off East Broadway would have brought a dramatic increase in annual property taxes, but without subsidies or the costs of additional students in public schools, street maintenance, trash collection and snow removal. It was opposed by Michitson, Bevilacqua, William J. Macek and Jordan.

As evidenced by budget votes, Council Vice President Thomas J. Sullivan and Councilors Macek and Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien have gone toe-to-toe with Fiorentini, but supported most new initiatives while being more pragmatic on budget issues. Others possibly in this category are council challenger Fred A. Simmons and School Committee challenger Stephanie Lyn Viola. The generally poor quality of forums and debates this year did not unearth much.

Tomorrow’s voting may shed light on whether new or old Haverhill sets the agenda.

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