Kennedy: Lynn working with Athanases

April 20, 2011
By Chris Stevens/The Daily Item

The city has softened its stance on taking Anthony's Hawthorne Restaurant by eminent domain.

Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy said Tuesday she has met with the Athanas family and is hoping a deal can be struck regarding use of the property.

Economic Development and Industrial Corporation Director James Cowdell said the idea of pursuing eminent domain has not been abandoned, but the move is on hold while the city pursues another tact.

The building, located at 380 Washington St., is part of Olympia Square and both Cowdell and Kennedy have said developing the area is key to the downtown's revitalization.

Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy speaks with members of the Daily Item staff at the downtown Lynn office Tuesday. (Item Photo / Reba M. Saldanha)

The EDIC announced in March it planned to take the property, which has sat empty for more than a decade, by eminent domain. However, in a meeting between representatives for the Athanas family and the EDIC, it was agreed that the city would be allowed to conduct soil testing to discover the scope of a possible clean-up. Cowdell said until the soil testing is done he is putting the eminent domain issue on the back burner.

In an interview with editors and reporters at the Daily Item Tuesday, Kennedy said she has suggested to the Athanas family that if it isn't ready to develop the property then perhaps it would consider offering a 99-year lease to a company that would like to take on the project.

Kennedy said Tuesday she has been grappling with a variety of issues during her first 18 months in office, including the eminent domain battle, ballooning healthcare costs and a city gaining the reputation as a destination for the needy.

On the plus side, Kennedy said she believes she may have a slight budget surplus at the end of fiscal 2011, June 30.

"I think we'll finish up with a five-figure surplus," she said.

Looking at figures for the end of March, Kennedy said she expected to see that she'd spent 75 percent of her budget but, in fact, she's only spent 62 percent.

She said she would like to use the surplus, cobbled together with grants, to fund air conditioning for Veterans Memorial Auditorium at Lynn City Hall, which Kennedy says is a must now that it is a money-making venue.

Her biggest concern at the moment, however, is burgeoning healthcare costs. Kennedy said she has been meeting with union leaders in the hopes of coming to an agreement on concessions that would put the brakes on a possible 8.5 percent increase and keep the city out of the state's healthcare program, the Group Insurance Commission. Kennedy said the unions do not want to join the GIC and neither does she.

"I'm in the minority of Massachusetts mayors," she said. "I'm trying to stay out of the program."

Lynn is self-insured, which has worked well for the city until this year.

"The City has one provider, Harvard Pilgrim...They administer the plan, but we're self-insured, so we're at the mercy of the claims," she said. "We were having a very good year this fiscal year and then, in the month of December, we had, I think, four different claims in excess of $200,000. And that's just a big slam. We're not used to getting that kind of one-month uptick in claims."

Kennedy and the unions are about $1.4 million apart in where they need to meet on healthcare concessions. If a deal cannot be worked out she'd be looking at health costs in excess of $40 million, which would wipe out the $7.7 million she has tucked away in free cash.

Other concerns she is looking at include unfunded retiree healthcare liabilities and cell phone use.

Kennedy said she has not been able to determine what the city pays in cell phone costs because no one can come up with a current contract. She is also trying to put together a list of who in the city has a city-funded cell phone. Renegotiating the contract, she said, could net the city a significant savings.

"Even if we save $10 a month per phone," she said. "That adds up."

When it comes to creating true change in the city, Kennedy admits there is no quick fix.

She said the city needs to shake its image of being a destination for the needy. With its inexpensive rents and abundance of social service organizations, Kennedy said Lynn has become a popular place for refugees.

She is optimistic that that can change. With the Lynn Auditorium taking off, plans to open up the waterfront and continuing work aimed at growing the downtown area, Kennedy said it can be done. However, she cautioned, particularly in terms of the waterfront, that the city needs to be patient and wait for the right project to come along.

"I've always said it would take a decade, not a year," she said in terms of developing the waterfront. "I'm a very patient person."

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