The meeting opens with the City Manager introducing the new Superintendent of Police, Bill Taylor. Says Taylor was an early advocate of community policing but also is a leader in the use of data to drive police work.
Supt Taylor says he is honored to have been selected and is also humbled because of the other candidates for the position. He’s also excited because if everyone works together we can make Lowell a better place to live.
The swearing in ceremony for Supt Taylor will take place next Monday at 10 am.
City Manager Items
For the first time in the city’s history, all inspectors are fully certified.
There are a couple of votes to transfer money from the Free Cash account into two specific accounts. One transfer would put $3 million into a Pension Assessment Stabilization Fund; the other would transfer $850,000 into police overtime. These amounts were all that were left of Free Cash after $200,000 were set aside for a recent court judgment and another $80,000 for paving.
Under questioning by Councilor Kennedy, the City Manager explains that the pension transfer is in anticipation in a major spike in the amount the city will have to put into its Pension Fund next year. Without this transfer, that would require a tax increase in excess of 2.5%. Councilor Kennedy asks that the money will just sit there anyway so why not leave it in free cash? Lynch explains that free cash can be drawn down by the City Manager without any active oversight and demonstrates a more disciplined approach to municipal finances. The timing is because the free cash was just certified and it’s better to get this issue addressed now rather than as a surprise at budget time. Kennedy seems to be criticizing the process more than the substance of this, saying that it would be preferable to provide the council with more information about this in advance of such a vote. The manager says that he knows of no other mechanism to bring an issue before the council. [The dance going on here is whether the city manager should call city councilors individually and explain a proposal in a private conversation rather than having a full discussion about it for the first time on the floor of the city council].
Councilor Martin quotes the manager as saying there will be a $2.9 million increase anticipated in pension funding liability for next year. CFO Moses says the increase might be more than that. That includes the standard annual payment but also is a big jump that is anticipated happening next year that is mostly due to the dismal performance of the stock market in 2008. Councilor Mendonca: This FY we budgeted $16.9 million for our pension assessment anyway but there’s also an increase to help pay down the pension fund deficit. That extra increase is about $500,000 per year which is normally funded out of the regular budget. With the new studies, the estimate for next year’s increase overall is about $20 million which is the extra $2.9 mil need for next year. You then have to keep funding that because it’s not going down; it will always go up. The City Manager wants to use this transfer to be used from year to year to smooth out the spike. He doesn’t want to use the entire transferred amount to pay down just this year’s increase because that will just cause a substantial increase in the following year.
Councilor Mercier says she was uneasy about this vote because of a lack of information. She also doesn’t like locking the money into a pension fund where it can’t be used for anything else. She suggests delaying this vote and sending it to the finance subcommittee for a more detailed explanation of why the money should be transferred now. Councilor Leahy seconds this motion and says he would like more information. [Many of the councilors have alluded to the possibility of future needs that for things like public safety and other “targets of opportunity”]. Council Mendonca points out that putting the money in the pension stabilization fund isn’t the same as putting it into the pension fund; you can still utilize the money for the annual pension contribution that comes out of the regular budget. By using the stabilization fund in lieu of the normal assessment, you can then use the normal pension assessment for some other purpose. Councilor Elliott asks if we were just taken by surprise that this latest actuarial study suddenly saying we needed an extra $3 million? City Manager says that ups and downs in the stock market influence the assessment. A chunk of the money is due to a cost of living increase that the council voted for retirees last year. Councilor Elliott asks for a detailed explanation for the reasons for the increase. CFO Moses explains that the local retirement board has no say in the investment decisions; the money is all given to the state and the state invests it. Councilor Lorrey asks what if the state invests poorly and are we protected? CFO Moses says we have no recourse because that’s what state law requires. The substitute motion passes by voice vote.
Next vote is to transfer $850,000 from free cash to satisfy a court judgment ($200,000), to do more paving ($80,000), and for police overtime (the balance). CM Lynch says the paving requirements of the city are so dramatic that it would take $5 million per year to keep things stable. The money to the police department will be used to pay for members of other police departments to transfer to the Lowell Police Department. The City Manager says besides the eleven new officers that are now in the academy who will fill existing vacancies, he wants to add 5 new police positions next year. He’s reluctant to hire more than that in any one year because you might be forced to go to the bottom of the list and not get the best candidates. Plus, hiring a bunch of people at the same time means they will all retire at the same time.
Councilor Elliott says he’s very troubled by the transfer to the court judgment fund, saying the manager is trying to deceive the city council. He says that even though the city knew it had to pay this judgment at the start of the fiscal year, the full amount to be paid was not budgeted as it should have been (the appellate decision came down in 2011). The manager concedes that he should have told the council about it back in 2011 and that the failure to include it in this year’s budget was an oversight and not intended to deceive the city council. Elliott says “it’s a little bit more than an oversight” and it begs the question what else the council doesn’t know about. Lynch says hopefully there are none. He also says he had no reason to hide it from the council since he wasn’t the one who initiated the appeal (that was done by a prior city manager) and so he had no reason to cover it up. Elliott alleges that Lynch intentionally hid it so that he could use this year’s free cash to pay it. Councilor Mercier asks what happened between the resolution of the appeal in 2011 and today? Lynch says that we sought a further appeal at that time and that effort was denied in 2012. He says that’s when he should have told the council. City Solicitor O’Connor explains that this appeal took an extraordinary amount of time primarily because the trial transcripts were lost and had to be recreated by the parties, something that she says she’s never seen happen before. Motion to accept this transfer passes unanimously.
Public Safety Subcommittee Meeting Report
Met tonight. Report by chair Bill Martin. They welcomed new Supt Bill Taylor. Taylor wants to reinvigorate the community policing model that’s been used for years. He also wants to reorganize the patrol force and explains the changing nature of gangs in Lowell (they’re older and more experienced in committing crime). The police academy class has graduated and the new officers are about to join the force.
A long discussion about problems with National Grid and its unwillingness or inability to make timely repairs.
Councilor Kennedy: Request City Manager remind LHA Director of providing monthly reports regarding current audits. Passes on voice vote.
Councilor Lorrey: Request City Manager have proper department look into the feasibility of 30 minute parking in front of 599 Central St. Passes on voice vote.
Councilor Elliott: Request City Manager report on police cell block policy and procedures. Councilor Elliott says he filed this motion because he was very disturbed by the incident where a woman died in the police cell block. He wants to be sure there are policies in place to prevent this from happening again. Passes on voice vote.
Meeting adjourns at 8:39 pm.