Fiorentini Declares Lack of Housing a Moral Crisis in Final State of the City Address

The “Heights,” 160 Merrimack St., Haverhill. (WHAV News file photograph.)

Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini presented his final State of the City Address last night, tracing his nearly 20 years as mayor from financial crisis to “moral” housing crisis.

The address, held at Haverhill City Hall and heard on WHAV, was presented to a room full of current and former state and local officials and other residents. The mayor began by presenting a short video comparing the state of the city in 2003, when he first took office, to present day.

“As you saw in the video, back then most of the old shoe factory buildings were abandoned and off the tax rolls, but the worst of it was our finances. Because of the collapse of the municipal hospital, the city’s finances had collapsed and we were left with the largest municipal debt in the history of Massachusetts,” he said.

The mayor said because of the situation, residents lost hope, and Haverhill was expected to go into receivership, where the state takes over the city’s finances and management. That did not happen, however, because of a group of hard-working city employees and civic leaders who believed Haverhill could be saved.

He said the first task was to balance a budget, which was in the red to the tune of $3-5 million per year. This was done by consolidating departments, cutting salaries and putting every expense out to bid.  Additionally, taxes had to be raised.

“We also had to raise revenues. We raised taxes to the limits allowed by Prop 2 1/2.  We increased fees. We put in a meals tax, which today brings in $1.2 million a year in revenue,” he noted.

Fiorentini said, while these measures helped in the short term, the long-term solution was to expand the tax base. He credited his economic development team, led by William Pillsbury Jr., with having the foresight to see the city’s abandoned factories as a potential means of increasing revenue by changing zoning requirements to allow for housing. The mayor said one of the keys to making that program a success was to reduce the number of parking spaces required per unit, a move that helped attract developers. The end result, the mayor said, was a $65 million increase in downtown property values.

With the increase in revenues, Fiorentini said the city was able to provide better services to its residents.

“We re-opened the Bradford Fire Station. We kept the library open. The increased revenue also gave us the ability to expand funding to our schools. We spent $110 million on fixing the infrastructure of our schools,” he added.

Additionally, the mayor pointed to miles of new sidewalks, improved parks and playgrounds and other improvements that have taken place.

The mayor also pointed to zoning changes as being responsible for bringing new businesses, such as Amazon, into the city and bringing in 1000 new jobs.

The mayor admitted not everything was a bed of roses, however, pointing to the city’s housing crisis which he called a moral issue. “This isn’t a sectional issue, dividing one section of the city against another. It’s not an economic issue. This is a moral issue,” Fiorentini declared.

The mayor said providing homes for people is critical to keeping businesses provided with a workforce or they simply will not stay. He noted that last year, for the first time in five decades, the city lost population due to a lack of adequate housing.

He said the city’s masterplan calls for the construction of village centers throughout the city, which will not only provide more housing, but will make, in essence, a walkable community for its resident where all needs can be reached within 15 minutes.

In closing, the mayor said while there are still challenges to be met, he believes the city’s best days are still ahead, the future is bright and the city is strong.

Fiorentini confirmed recently he will not seek an 11th term as mayor.

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