Left In Lowell

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April 4, 2014

Hire a Pol to Hire a Pro?

by at 10:49 am.

I know I’ve been relatively silent lately. Mostly, I just saw us marching into the inevitable City Manager hire and knew there was nothing to stop the crazy train, so it seemed like while there was a ton of things to say, there was really nothing to say. So now, we’re on the other side of the predicable ending of our tale, and have to deal with the aftermath. All righty, then. I still own a home here, and I still vote here, so I’m still an interested party to the future of Lowell.

So why does this not surprise me? “Retired Cambridge manager Healy will serve as Lowell consultant” reads the headline.

Incoming city manager Kevin Murphy plans to hire former longtime Cambridge City Manager Robert Healy as a short-term financial consultant soon after Murphy becomes manager.

Ostensibly, the excuse is, “because we don’t have a CFO yet.” But a real pro, someone like Bernie, could handle the first month without a CFO, instead of hiring a high-priced (albeit very competent) consultant. Had we hired one of the folks who are themselves experienced in managing a budget, this would probably not be necessary.

So that’s the zero skills side of the new CM hire. What about the hack side?

Well, people are worried. Will Murphy, who has a lot of enemies, start “cleaning out” city hall? We’ve already lost so much talent, both coincidentally and because of the loss of Bernie Lynch. Other cities and towns are actively recruiting Lowell city staff because they know they probably want to jump ship. I won’t say there will be vendetta firings at The Castle, but I won’t rule it out, either. Too many people in the know seem to be worried about it to dismiss the notion.


Here are some of my predictions after mulling over recent events and getting lots of input:
1. Kevin Murphy, or KMurph as some of us have been taken to call him, will be here precisely three years. The exact amount of time it takes to boost one’s pension (the pension is based on your top three years’ salary). Mark my words, in precisely three years we’ll be here again, hiring another City Manager. Anyone who thinks this is not at least a lot about the money is adorably naive.

2. This last “change election” won’t hold in 2015. Anecdotally, I have been hearing a lot of anger over Bernie Lynch leaving (directed at the new Council). But that seems to be nothing compared to the anger I’ve heard around KMurph’s hiring as his replacement. Apparently, KM has made a lot of enemies. Some, I’m sure, are a natural result of being a lawyer across the table from many other local people of various types and perhaps being good at his job. Others…I’m not so sure. He is not a beloved local notable. I don’t even think he’s a polarizing figure - the comments seem to be quite skewed towards disgust and not support. Maybe that’s the circle I run in, but my circle runs in lots of other circles and they’re hearing the same thing.

So, any of the people directly associated with obvious pre-picking of KMurph over all possible professionals will be in trouble in 2015. Any anger which remains and/or is stoked by KM as CM will be directed at them. Anecdotally, I hear of a lot of people who voted Belanger or Rourke because they knew them, only to be pissed off at the ousting of Bernie, and the hiring of a hack politician who has lots of enemies as CM. I don’t know how many voters that translates to, but they lost some. I suspect there will be an “enthusiasm gap” for GOBs (Good Ol’ Boys) next time around. The self-aware GOB will still show up, as they always do, but maybe not all their infrequent voter friends will. Ask the national Democrats what an enthusiasm gap looks like…

As a corollary, the traditional anti-GOB heroes have taken a tarnishing on their shiny hero shields. Big disappointments all around for such notables as Bill Martin and Jim Milinazzo, as well as - I hate to say it - Dick Howe Jr. Love ye, Dick, but I really do think you have a blind spot here. The fact our new CM has to hire an actual professional right off the bat, wasting our taxpayer dollars to fill in the total lack of skills he has for this job, already shows how bad of an idea this is. Do we really think KMurph is going to learn enough this budget season to be able to produce one to the level of a Bernie Lynch or a Robert Healy next year?

I mean, yes, sure, at least KMurph seems to know he’s totally unprepared for the job by hiring Healy; but the fact it’s even necessary shows a complete misreading of what Plan E is supposed to look like.

3. We get a grace year or two to coast on Lynch’s 7+ years of success. If KMurph really only stays three years, and he doesn’t totally eff it up, we might be sort of OK. Granted, there’s some serious pipers to pay in the next few years, as Lynch had pointed out - instead of little moderate rises in taxes over the years, Lynch had put (thanks to the pressures of the Council) all of his pretty amazing budgetary efficiencies into keeping the tax rate the same most of the time. KMurph will not find the same level of budget efficiencies - both because a lot of the low-hanging fruit is picked, and because KM is guaranteed not going to be anywhere near as skilled as lifelong muni manager Lynch was at the task.

So, a good predictor of which path we’re taking - We’re Totally Screwed vs. We’re Treading Water So At Least We Won’t Drown - is whether or not the tax rate goes up moderately to address all the costs going up over time with no efficiencies to offset it, and/or we start eating into free cash and reserves this year or next.

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