Member of the reality-based community of progressive (not anonymous) Massachusetts blogs
Who here is a fan of the HBO series, Game of Thrones? The world of the books/series revolves around the utter instability and chaos, war, and madness that is brought about by Westeros’ sudden and not-quite-accidental regime change. King Baratheon might not have been the smartest or the best king ever, but his demise heralds the end of the relative peace of the Seven Kingdoms, with his queen’s non-Baratheon bastard children vying with other contenders for the Iron Throne, and the whole countryside erupting in war. Other families take advantage of the chaos to carve out and reclaim their little kingdoms which had been absorbed long ago. Still others just like to party by judicious use of castration and torture, mostly for fun.
Well, folks, take away the castration and violence (but not the drinking) and you have Lowell city politics right now.
Every decision made in the last seven years by past City Councils and the former CM is up for grabs, apparently. No matter how stringent the public involvement in deciding on plans for various projects in the city, be that the very preliminary, not-our-goddamned-decision high school reno or rebuild, or the much-lauded plans for the historic South Common, or any Master Plan element of bike paths or city street realignment or other projects already in the works.
I wouldn’t be surprised at this point if this City Council wanted a redo on the Appleton Mill artist lofts or the Early garage. I mean, hey, we could tear down or repurpose those things and hand them over to your buddies, right?
Supposedly, we have high level experts on the Council now on economic development. What I want to know, is how running a dive bar makes one qualified to build a high school? Or decide that street parking should have less turnover by not enforcing the meters? To me, every word that comes out of Corey Belanger’s mouth showcases a total and absolute lack of understanding of economic development and municipal management. Far be it for experts to have an opinion; Corey is on the job now, so Lowell is gonna make a turnaround. A renaissance. All of the downtown vacancies will be filled by the time his first term is over!
Or, wait. Businesses - small ones, and large ones - like stability when they make their business decisions. They like to know that the plans that were carefully made by transparent and open means, by a crew of amazing (now mostly fled) Planning and Development officials, will be carried out in a timely fashion. It’s no big secret that a lot of plans in Lowell were on hold during the Cox era and were put back on the front burner by the Lynch administration. Now, we’re going to reverse years worth of planning, public participation, and decision making because Corey Belanger wasn’t fucking paying attention during all of that?
Plans can change. Don’t get me wrong. We should be flexible. And I do not have a horse in the very silly race about the high school staying in or moving from downtown. There are merits on both sides. However, my understanding of the process as outlined by a state agency called Massachusetts School Building Authority is that they are the entity that gets to weigh all the factors. What the local idiots on Council can do, by waffling, is take us off the shortlist, which we cannot afford. The high school is in need of either rebuilding or renovating, soon. And “soon” is relative, since getting on the MSBA’s short list means it’ll still take years to go through final decision making. And oh yeah, they, not us, make that final determination about renovation vs. building a new building elsewhere. Based - GASP! - NOT on whatever private developer wants to build something (god knows what, they have yet to say) on the existing high school site, BUT…based on what is best for the students and their education.
I know, shocking.
So who wins in this Game of Postpones? Well, not the students, if Corey Belanger gets his way as an apparently honorary member of the School Committee and of the MSBA. PS - apparently, Mistah Mayah also has an extremely short memory, since all of this planning and participation and discussion happened while he was a City Councilor. So, either he’s dumb and doesn’t remember, or he never really paid any attention to what was going on in the city for the last seven years. Neither explanation is encouraging.
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.
I wanted to take a moment to teach our new Mayor some things he already ought to know about the city’s money reserves, about saving taxpayer dollars, and proper budgeting. Since he thinks he knows better than a professional city manager who has taken us from negative $4.5M in reserves to a cozy but not complete positive, and all of that negative drawdown of free cash and then some happened on Rodney’s watch during the Cox years, I figured maybe he just doesn’t really understand budgets. I mean, he claims to all the time, dubbing himself a fiscal watchdog, but every time he opens his mouth, he belies this supposed expertise.
I hope he finds this primer informative! I certainly look forward to his better understanding showing itself in future discussions. Click to read more: (more…)
I’m watching the School Committee meeting, where Conway had a motion about the net school spending deficit, and of course Rodney had to have his say, stepping off the podium to foam at the mouth (I’m only slightly exaggerating). In fact, he claims that all this money being socked away into the rainy day fund was overly excessive and we should have been putting money towards the schools!
He wants to claim this net school spending problem lies at the feet of the last Mayor and Bernie Lynch. Oh, how quickly we forget (bold mine):
UPDATED: 10/17/2011 10:31:02 AM EDT
The councilor said his proposal still leaves $500,000 for Lynch to spend on other pressing needs.
Councilor Patrick Murphy has filed a motion requesting Lynch consider the city’s adopted strategic and fiscal management goals for property-tax relief, as well as net school spending, minimum reserves and snow-and-ice removal budgeting when deciding how to use the additional local aid.
Murphy said it is difficult to determine the exact amount of funding that should go toward limiting the increase in property taxes before the city determines its other financial needs, but he believes tax relief should be a “significant part” of any plan Lynch devises for using the local-aid money.
Putting money toward snow-and-ice budgeting will reduce the size of the snow-and-ice deficit for the next budget cycle, and placing some of the funding in the city’s reserves would boost the city’s long-term fiscal health, he said.
“One thing listed as a way to boost our bond rating was putting aside some reserves,” Murphy said.
Councilor Rodney Elliott, chairman of the council’s finance subcommittee, last week said he would like Lynch to put all $1.5 million toward reducing the planned tax increase because taxpayers are struggling to pay their bills. Elliott was the lone councilor to vote against the budget because of the tax increases it included.
Lynch told The Sun last week he would like to use “several hundred thousand dollars” to reduce the planned tax hike, but he is reluctant to use all of the new state funding for tax relief because of the one-time nature of the funds and other needs in the city.
The council voted last week to approve Elliott’s motion asking Lynch to develop a plan to put potential savings from any health-care agreement he works out with the city’s unions toward reducing property taxes.
Lynch said he is negotiating with city unions and hopes to reach a health-care agreement with them by mid-December to reduce the city’s health-care spending next fiscal year.
That negotiation with city unions on health care produced the savings that was looked for. I have yet to find the article where Rodney complains about putting that money into tax breaks, and not towards net school spending.
So the first prize is done, and the winner from last week has picked her prize out so I will be starting on it forthwith, but, there’s a chance to win every week! If you made it through last week’s marathon Council meeting…well, you are a trooper. Hopefully you had the cool beverage of your choice to keep you company.
We have some weird ones this week - the mayoral portrait issue is back, in an unfathomable motion to require that the mayor’s portrait be completed within the first three months of a term. Huh?
Of course, the school budget thing is back. We’ll be hearing about this for weeks. Apparently, some people think it’s Bernie’s “audit letter” which is patently absurd, but then again, absurd is the name of the game…funny, these asshats were never so concerned about some *decades* of past school net funding shortfalls. I’d be surprised at the hypocrisy but, who’m I kidding?
So, same rules as always. One guess per person, one person per item, and the more obscure or surprising the Blowup is the bigger the prize. Discuss!
1 MAYOR’S BUSINESS
1.1 Citations - Jack Trottier and Paul Sickinger, Seniors at Tyngsboro High School, for their community service work in collaboration with the Lowell Fire Department to collect winter coats for the homeless and those in need.
2 CITY CLERK
2.1 Minutes of City Council Meeting February 11th, for acceptance.
3 CITY AUDITOR
3.1 Communication – Paid vacation and sick leave from 1/1/2010 – 2/12/2014.
4 UTILITY PUBLIC HEARINGS
4.1 National Grid/Verizon NE – Request pole location at 59 South Whipple St.
5 COMMUNICATIONS FROM THE CITY MANAGER
5.1 Communication Summary
(A) Motion Response - ShotSpotter
(B) Informational - MCC Flier - Lowell Crit Infrastr Forum of 2-24-14
(C) Informational - Resignation Letter
5.2 Communication-Accept Resignation of Troix Bettencourt (Hunger/Homeless Comm)
6 REPORTS (SUB / COMMITTEE, IF ANY)
6.1 Economic Development SC 02-18-14.
6.2 Wire Insp. - National Grid - Electrical Main installation on Industrial Avenue and Stevens Street.
7.1 Claims (1) claim for property damage.
8 CITY COUNCIL - MOTIONS
8.1 C. Leahy – Req. Rules SC consider as a recommendation that the Mayor’s portrait be completed within the first 3 months of his or her inauguration.
8.2 C. Kennedy – Req. City Council and City Mgr. discuss the letter dated January 31, 2014 from the Mass. Commission of Elementary and Secondary Education regarding School Budget shortfall.
8.3 C. Kennedy/C. Leahy – Req. Mayor create a City Council SC dedicated to working with merchants and property owners to enhance and improve the commercial environment in the Central Business District.
8.4 M. Elliott – Req. City Council discuss setting up a joint Ad Hoc SC with City Council/School Committee to initiate discussion of high school and facility assessment report.
8.5 M. Elliott – Req. City Council discuss making Galligan Rd. a one way street.
9 CITY COUNCIL - EXECUTIVE SESSION
9.1 Executive Session to discuss and release minutes of Executive Session meeting on January 21, 2014 and any other minutes that should be designated to be made public from executive sessions.
9.2 Executive Session regarding litigation report, public discussion of which could have a detrimental effect on the City’s position.
10 Time for meeting to stand adjourned.
So Jack put forth the notion that elements of the City Council could act like a strong mayor, and they could eyeball the provision that allows the mayor, and if not the mayor, the city council, to submit a budget to the state if the city manager cannot or will not. (Given that hiring a city manager is the damn job of the City Council in the first place, if they use this provision they should take 100% blame for getting into that situation.)
Reportedly, Warren Shaw took up the notion on his radio show today, stating that the council could do this budget because they have people like Rodney Elliot there, or something to that effect.
Let’s examine the clusterf**k that would be, shall we?
First, I’d love to hear from Groton on Elliott’s tenure there. I hear it was short. A couple of years is the timeframe I’ve heard. The job is in his official bio:
Prior to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he served as the Administrative Assistant for the Town of Groton, Massachusetts, serving a three-member Board of Selectman. He was responsible for the operation and management of the Town’s $12 million budget.
Wonder if Elliott would be all right with us going to the folks in Groton and finding out just how he did there? The lowdown I hear generally is, not great. But, notwithstanding the somewhat speculative view on Groton, we have some track record here in Lowell to examine. Does anyone remember “across the board” Rodney? (Bold is mine.)
“If you voted for the budget, then you are responsible for the tax increase,” Elliott said, adding that he thinks further budget cuts should have been made.
He said, however, he did not have any suggestions for cuts.
Councilor Kevin Broderick said that simply saying that you didn’t vote for the budget and are therefore “off the hook,” is “not an option.”
During budget deliberations, Elliott suggested an across-the-board cut of 2.5 percent to every line item, which Broderick said is not feasible.
“We cannot just not pay 2.5 percent of our utility bills,” he said. “It doesn’t work. What are we going to do, not plow the streets?”
I can’t stress how much it disturbs me to think someone who has such a lack of fundamental knowledge of budgeting might come within 5 miles of the process. Before you even get to whether or not to cut, let’s review how local muni budgets actually work: a large portion of a city budget’s line items are not within the control of the city. How much we spend on schools has a minimum, for instance. Or our debt service for capital investments. So once you leave out all the non-discretionary items in the budget, a 2.5 reduction in total city funding turns into a much larger percent of the parts of the budget you can legally cut. Maybe police? Or fire? Plowing? I don’t know, because Elliott had no suggestions on where to cut.
And remember…Elliott made a lot of political hay over public safety issue last campaign season. So, which officer slots would he cut, I wonder? Does he think that’ll help public safety?
I don’t think it takes a genius to see the disaster Elliott and his ilk would make of our city budget. Think of how few City Councilors this term actually have the ability needed to make those huge line-by-line budget decisions! Nor should they have to. Which is not only an argument against Warren’s Shaw’s ridiculous assertion today on the radio, but also, against a strong mayor/Plan A charter in general.
In a diary, down blog, CM Lynch responds to considerations/perceptions of LiL commenters. I’ve pulled the Manager’s comment, out & up, to give it broader presentation. Of course, in a stand alone fashion, it is a bit out of context. So, if you’d like, please click HERE to get the full scope.
Suffice to say, the CM’s remarks are engaged in the topics currently floating in the Bubble, as the City election approaches, Nov. 5th. #GOTV
Staying out of all of the other back and forth that I shouldn’t be involved with….to Joe’s points which I think are legitimate. First the quick one, I’m not aware of anyone in the professional municipal management world that has moved into the world of finance (e.g. Wall Street) though I am aware of a couple that went to a rating agencies but that was more for their knowledge of municipal finance as they were Treasurers. Career Managers pretty much stay till retirement and/or go into consulting, teaching, interim work, or doing government relations. On the issue of how big should reserves be…the standard is between 5-10%, though some communities go beyond. I’d like Lowell to get a bit higher than our current level but certainly not at the expense of services that are required. A more pressing issue is our OPEB liability, retiree health insurance. We just put $8 million aside for this but we still have an unfunded liability of about $500 million. We really should be on a funding schedule for that or we’re simply passing the burden of payment onto future taxpayers. Unlike capital debt which should be paid overtime as future taxpayers use the facility retiree benefits are paid out now, or in the near future. Its the biggest ticking time bomb for most governmental entities.
I would have hoped that people would see that the administration is willing to spend money and take other steps to make for a better community….which career managers are also judged on. We’ve built reserves back to a good level and held the line on taxes but also invested in infrastructure (I think at this point over $170 million), increased spending on schools, increased spending on maintenance, expanded recreation programs to pre-2000 levels, leveraged resources for social service and cultural programs, become more supportive of community and organizational diversity, and I could go on about the administration’s achievements. Which, by the way, are the results of great work by department heads and employees. AND, we have invested in public safety, both fire and police. We’ve added resources to both. We never laid off uniformed personnel and in fact after the crunch of the recession started adding positions back into departments. We’re currently reviewing all of the information on this and hope to have a full report out within the next week which explains this. Some civilian grant funded positions have gone away but even there we are working to reinstate with other grants or city funds. These positions allow our police department to be more effective and keep patrol officers on the street. Finally, on the much debated use of OT, the philosophy we have used is to use added overtime resources to target officers into certain areas at specified times for maximum effectiveness. This notion of “smart policing” is being adopted in numerous communities that have recognized that a single officer only provides limited coverage during high activity times while that same level of funds buys coverage many times over meaning more officers on the street. That said, there is a place for added staff in a a carefully planned and managed manner to insure we get the best people not just more people. For instance, we have 11 new patrolmen coming on within the next month.
In the end, we need to recognize the perceptions of the community regarding safety but we shouldn’t fan it. We do need to look at the numbers to see how we’re doing and how we should be using our resources and developing our strategies. On the numbers we have made great progress in knocking back crime over the past several years. But, lower isn’t as good as none, which is what we need to strive for. Plus, we see trends that need our attention now rather than waiting for the problems to become less manageable…and, the police are working at that with their use of resources and strategies, and with their requests to me for added resources and supportive policies.
Thanks for letting me weigh in…..
Do you know where we are going, if we follow Councilor “Punk” Elliott’s path (keep taxes artificially low, blow through the reserves) to fiscal sanity?
Been there! Done that!
Gerry Nutter laid it out, by the numbers. (I’ll provide graphs, below the fold.)
Additionally, during those years that City Manager / Administration proposed and the City Council approved the use of about $17.87 million in one time money in Free Cash, nearly $6 million per year to sustain spending levels as opposed to making necessary cuts.All while being supported by the Editor at the SUN.
In October 2006 after removing that City Manager and with the appointment of a new CFO the City discovered that the budget that was now 1/3rd under way, was rife with miscalculations. Free cash to pay for services was estimated to be $3.5 million but in the end it was -$2.2 million, a difference of $5.7 million. Other local receipts were over estimated by about $2 million. The FY06 budget ran out of money for utility bills and they were moved into FY07 for payment making the already inadequate utility account doubly so
That is all fact, it supports and highlights the need for professional management along with a strong balanced council. Combined with the positive numbers I showed last week highlighting the upward direction the city is heading, why is this election being focused on stupid, petty garbage like OLD vs. New Lowell.
This week’s “The Column” opted to be cute by half with this treatment.
MONTHS AGO, outgoing Mayor Patrick Murphy held an event at The Old Court. Those who attended, including one veteran politician, observed that Murphy packed the room with young, exuberant 20-somethings whose apparent desire to get involved in politics signaled a “new Lowell,” an awakening of sorts.
I’ve heard the WCAP ‘infomercial’ try to lay the coining of this meme at the feet of Dick Howe, Jr. Of course, JMac only looks in the mirror, so he really won’t know where the phrasing comes from. Gerry Nutter puts it on an attention seeking local media, which includes us ‘big mouthed bloggers.’ I concur. The ‘new/old’ meme has been floating around for several years now. It spun off the chatter about ‘blow ins & grow ins,’ etc. It’s clear, from the way The Column above sidesteps it, that they didn’t do their homework. But, opted, rather, to parrot JMac’s empty headed contortion. JMac & Campi come up short. Funny, in my mind, was the word choice, ” veteran politician,” by Campi. Who hates Dick, Jr. only a little less than he hates Kendall Wallace, to the point Campi will only admit the existence of Dick’s Blog, if he absolutely has to.
Dick, btw, has given witness to Gerry Nutter’s framing of the corporate; desperate to survive, via, bargain basement fire sale journalistic ethics; local media:
In his Sunday Notes today, Gerry Nutter says that all the negativity about city government coming from the Sun and WCAP is designed to suppress voter turnout on November 5. I agree.
About those City Finance graphs:
I hate to say this, I really do, but I am
pretty underwhelmed utterly disgusted with the city’s new website. On several levels, unfortunately.
Let’s begin with the aesthetics. The site looks 10 years out of date, design-wise. I know that a municipal website doesn’t have to be all Web 3.0 with tons of bells and whistles and hipster giant fonts and illustrated icons, but at least keep up with the times visually. The Pollard Memorial Library comes to mind, their new site looks excellent. In addition, I’ve checked the new city website on my smartphone and it has zero elements of responsive design. Responsive web design is when your site changes its look and layout and interface, at least a little bit, to accommodate different screen sizes and devices. This can be achieved at a pretty primitive level with the use of relative widths rather than fixed (a percentage of the screen instead of specific pixels) and the way you lay out your columns in a page, etc. There are also far more advanced ways to effect responsive design (up to and including eliminating unnecessary content or simplifying the navigation). (more…)
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