LAWRENCE — Embattled Mayor William Lantigua, weeks after announcing his reelection bid, said Tuesday during his State of the City address that his community has seen a marked improvement during his tenure.
Before a crowd of more than 50 in the City Council chamber, Lantigua strode to the lectern and stared silently at the councilors for a few seconds, sipping from a bottled water before launching into his speech.
His 45-minute address touched on a number of areas he said are getting better, including improved schools, cleaner streets, better fiscal health, and a steep drop in crime.
“Crime has dropped to the lowest level in nearly a decade,’’ said Lantigua, 57, who wore a gray suit with a blue-and-white checkered tie. “A decade is 10 years, for those who might choose not to know what that is.’’
He also said he is proposing a weapons upgrade to the police force to protect the public, in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings.
The mayor said that because officers currently risk being outgunned by criminals with higher-capacity firearms, he was submitting a proposal to the council to equip every cruiser with a “high powered rifle to safeguard [the] cruiser and residents alike. I ask for this to be taken up immediately.’’
That proposal was met with skepticism by Councilor Daniel Rivera, who is running against Lantigua in the upcoming mayoral election.
“Prioritizing rifles over more police officers to me is maybe questionable,’’ Rivera said.
Lantigua came under fire early in his term for laying off a significant number of police officers, which he said was necessary due to budget constraints. Some funding for the department has been restored, however, and Lantigua vowed on Tuesday to make public safety a continued priority.
“The public safety budget will not be compromised as long as I am in office,’’ he said during one of the few applause lines in his speech.
Seven new firefighters will also soon be added, the mayor said.
In addition, Lantigua touted what he said were improvements to the city’s public school system since coming under direct control of the state.
And, Lantigua said, two major bond rating agencies have recently upgraded Lawrence’s fiscal outlook to stable, and more businesses are seeking to invest in the city.
After the speech, Rivera noted that the city’s fiscal health improved following a cash infusion from the state, which continues to oversee city coffers.
“It helps when we borrowed $35 million,’’ he said.
He also suggested that Lantigua was being disingenuous in touting the educational improvements since the state assumed control of the school district.
“He was one of the reasons they came into the city,’’ Rivera said. “He didn’t ask them to come.’’
The political and legal problems facing Lantigua’s administration have been manifold.
His first term has been marked by several controversies, including state and federal investigations, two recall attempts, and the indictments of two of his close allies on political corruption charges.
In late-December, Lantigua said he would run for a second term, stunning critics but galvanizing supporters who say the mayor has pointed the mostly Latino city of about 75,000 in the right direction.
He has also been accused repeatedly of using city operations for personal gain, charges he has vigorously denied. Lantigua has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
During his speech Tuesday, the mayor did not mention the various corruption allegations that have dogged his administration.
Rivera, however, said he believes they have taken a toll on the mayor’s agenda and the city as a whole.
“I think, really, people just can’t see past his toxicity,’’ Rivera said, adding that he wishes Lantigua well and does not know enough about the investigations to say whether he thought the mayor has committed any crimes.
Another councilor, Marc Laplante, also took aim at Lantigua’s administration during an earlier public comment period on Tuesday.
He said the mayor has done little to address declining property values, police staffing shortages, and high unemployment, among other issues.
“In 2012 he has continued hiring unqualified supporters’’ to key public works jobs, Laplante said. “Stop making our government the laughing stock across this state.’’
Lantigua, however, remained relentlessly upbeat during his speech.
“Lawrence is on the rise, and Lawrence is moving forward,’’ he declared.
Roughly half the attendees clapped for Lantigua when he approached the lectern to begin his speech. As he exited the chamber, about three quarters of them applauded.