Communications from City Manager
Report on Shot Spotter technology referred to Public Safety Subcommittee. (Three year subscription for 1 square mile would be $235,000; 2 square miles would be $340,000; 3 square miles would be $415,000).
Vote to authorize third amendment to development agreement between city and Trinity Financial for Hamilton Canal District. This would establish new dates for work that remains to be done. CC Belanger asks about Trinity officials addressing the council. One is present, Abby Goldfarb, a VP of Trinity. Trinity can’t market the full project until the transfer of the parking lots from the National Park to the city is completed. Talks about the Appleton Mills building now filled with artists. Latest work on stabilizing the 110 Canal St exterior which is now done so the focus is now on leasing it. They have passed up a number of tenants who have expressed interest but who don’t fit the “brand” that the city wants to have with that building. The theme is that Lowell is the “original innovation district” and they are holding out for the right tenant. They are in negotiations with a tenant and hope to have an announcement soon. CC Belanger thanks her for being here tonight. Also thanks them for the two full page color ads they recently placed in the Lowell Sun. Abby G finishes by saying what a great loss it is for Bernie Lynch and Adam Baacke to be leaving. That their efforts are admired around the country. CC Martin asks the status of the parking lot swap with the Feds. CM Lynch says it’s tough working with the Federal bureaucracy, asks Adam B to speak to it. Adam says initial view was that those parking lots were much better off as part of the development than as “suburban style parking lots.” Federal law prohibited outright transfer to city so it has to be a swap. It’s tough because the National Park does not make it easy to transfer land to developers. The city must identify the “replications locations” that would be granted to the NPS. City envisions the parking component would be replicated in the new garage for the Hamilton Canal District. It should be set in another 18 months. This is critical because the parking lots are the prime commercial sites and they need to be part of the picture to market the entire site. Passes unanimously (CC Samaras absent tonight).
Vote to transfer $2mil from Chapter 17 funds to school department to make up half of the net school spending shortfall for FY13. CC Kennedy motion on same topic taken up at same time. Kennedy asks manager to address quotes in newspaper attributed to CM Lynch that one reason for the shortfall was the city council pressuring him to keep the tax increase at zero in last budget. Kennedy says that is not the reason for the shortfall. Lynch responds that the story is more complex than what Kennedy describes. Points to votes taken by councils before Kennedy came on the council. There were a number of factors besides holding the line on taxes. One is the reduction in health insurance costs for retirees. That was a mysterious area. For current employee health reductions it actually gave the school department more money to spend on the classrooms. As for the retirees, we assumed they would stay with the more expensive plans; they didn’t so we had unexpected savings. The other item is energy costs. Our projections were conservative but we saved much more money than we expected. The tax issue arises – I’ll “take the blame if you will” – we had some reservations of keeping the increase at zero but failed to bring those reservations to the council as aggressively as we should have. He recalls past councils rejecting his recommendations that some money be devoted to the schools in favor of reducing overall tax burden. Kennedy “takes issue” with assertion that the shortfall is the council’s fault. Lynch says he fell victim to the “irrational exuberance” that we could continue without raising taxes. He says as he’s ready to leave he’ll go back to his advice when he was first hired that a modest tax increase each year is a healthy thing.
CM Lynch begins his presentation on this proposal. From FY09 to FY11, city spent nearly $10mil above the requirement for net school spending. Because of this when first got this shortfall letter, thought it might be revised. Historically, the city exceeded net school spending through FY97 but starting then through FY07 the city routinely was close to 5% below net school spending on a routine basis. Goes through history of the State projecting that the city would be short but actual figures showed city greatly exceeding those projections which is why he believed the FY13 projection was wrong. So how do we solve the problem? Transfer $2 from c.17 fund which was put in place by control board and therefore has a requirement to be replaced. That will force this money to be replenished in FY15 from free cash and other sources such as charter school reimbursement. Also proposes $800K in additional school funding for FY15.
In FY13 it’s a $3.8mil shortfall. By amending our reports we can reduce that by about $500K. That will carry $3.3mil shortfall over to FY14. The FY14 shortfall is estimated at about $400K. That will make total shortfall $3.7mil. Thinks other savings can reduce that to $3.1mil. This $2mil transfer would reduce that to $1.1mil. Then for FY15 the state is projecting us to have to increase our contribution by another $2mil. Describes sources of revenue to get that number back to zero.
Kennedy says he’s please to hear that Lynch plans to have a proposed budget for the council before he leaves. He asks why is he recommending it be taken out of chapter 17 and not the stabilization fund. Lynch says doing that shows fiscal discipline by the city (because the money must be put back).
CC Rourke asks about balance of c.17 fund (now it’s $4.2mil). Rourke asks why not take the full amount from that fund all at once. Lynch says it would be too hard to replenish all of that as is required by law. Lynch also points out that the school department really wouldn’t be able to spend $3.8 million all at once because it’s only 1 time money. They’d be better able to spend $2mil this year on things like technology.
CC Milinazzo asks why there was such a large difference between the projection and the actual numbers. Lynch says the health insurance for retirees was a huge savings, maybe $3mil more than expected. Energy savings were much larger than expected. Then the $1mil we put in to net school spending now seems like not being enough, but back then we were more concerned about not increasing taxes. Milinazzo asks why no one noticed from quarterly reports that these numbers were way off. Lynch says they don’t get picked up to their full extent until after the books were closed.
CC Leahy says the schools could easily spend the full $3.8mil on things like computers but thanks the manager for the quick response. When I became city manager, no one was talking about hitting net school spending. That wasn’t a priority of the city. If we just kept things as they were, constantly being below the line, we wouldn’t have this problem now (but we also wouldn’t be adequately supporting the schools).
CC Kennedy points out that there’s only 4 months left in the FY in which to spend the money. Then asks if we are tracking health insurance now. Lynch says it’s now tracking close to budget. FY13 was so far off because it was the first year and no one knew what the numbers were going to be.
CC Mercier asks if Jay Lang (school business manager) will be able to alert us to these discrepancies earlier in the future. Lynch says sure but also that the real shame of the discussion over the past two weeks is that it ignores the tremendous improvements the city has made in the support it provides to the schools. Mercier says to not underestimate the ability of the school committee to spend all the money you can give them. Lynch points out that many of the things needed are recurring costs and that this is only one time money that’s available for four months. Where do you get the money to pay for them the next year.
Mayor Elliott relinquishes the chair to speak. Says he’s not sure when the manager was going to tell the council about this which is why he brought it forward right away. He says the manager kept the council in the dark on this. Feels “we were misled.” And the idea that this council is not concerned about meeting net school spending is not accurate. We did get a report from Mr. Lang. The city’s cash contribution has gone down from $18mil to $11mil. If the council knew about this shortfall in a timely manner we would have been sure to fund it.
CC Rourke asks manager why he came up with $2mil. Lynch says there’s only 4 months left in the year and so I had some discussions with school department about what they needed for technology.
CC Martin says he’s been sitting there for a few years and understands it takes a few years to gain a full understanding of the formulas. During the 20 years of education reform, the legislature to its great credit has kept its promise to the students in Massachusetts. Despite the recession that’s been a huge upward trend. Same is true in the city. We see the benefits of that in top national test scores. We’re benefitting tremendously from that spending but it is going up every year. The city’s contribution sometimes has gone down. In the recession, the Feds added more money when the city could not. But as the state increases school spending, it puts stress on the city to come up with its share because the state doesn’t assist the city in the same way. One thing that should not be lost is the tremendous progress the state has made in funding education in cities particularly. It’s harder to educate students in cities. I just want everyone to understand that there have been increases in overall school spending every year despite this discussion.
Mayor Elliott moves to approve the transfer. Transfer approved 8 to 0.
Report of Zoning Subcommittee – met tonight discussed possible compromise on the Rogers St rezoning proposal. Will meet again in a couple of weeks to continue working on this. (Some councilors say there are good indications of a compromise but I watched the subcommittee and if you really listened to the citizens who spoke, many say they are open to compromise but then they go back to their original position so my sense is this won’t be as clean or cordial as the councilors would like to believe).
CC Mercier suspends the rules to allow the City Manager to explain the city’s energy choice program (notice of which came inside the city census form that arrived yesterday). CM Lynch says this is a novel program. We’re buying electricity in bulk. We got approval from Dept of Public Utilities. We’ve discussed it at city council meetings. Buying in bulk for all residents gets us a better rate than National Grid provides. For the average resident this can save $20 per month over National Grid. This is all renewable energy which advances our desire to be a sustainable community. We’ll be the only community doing this in the Commonwealth. We hope down the road to get access to the conservation money that National Grid charges. People won’t get a separate bill from this. It will be the same National Grid bill but this will be included in it. If residents are more comfortable staying entirely with National Grid, send in the opt-out card (the legislation mandates opt-out rather than opt-in). Urges people to just ignore the opt-out card. National Grid is the transmission company so if there’s an outage it’s their responsibility.
By CC Leahy to have Mayor’s portrait completed within 3 months of becoming mayor. Would like Rules Subcommittee to consider it. It makes sense that the portrait should be hung while the mayor is in office (so he or she is able to admire it while still in office). Passes without discussion.
By CC Leahy for update on methadone clinic on Steadman Street. Passes without discussion.
By CC Leahy & Mayor Elliott have city and school personnel meet jointly about snow removal. Combines with CC Kennedy motion on removing snow from central business district. CM Lynch says they will revisit the strategy for snow removal downtown. One problem is where to dump the snow when it’s removed. CC Kennedy says city needs to be friendlier to downtown businesses. CC Milinazzo concurs with Kennedy saying he’s been disappointed in quality of snow removal this winter.
By CC Leahy and Kennedy to have mayor appoint subcommittee to enhance businesses (solely) in downtown. Leahy says he wants to work with CC Belanger’s “economic development task force” but wants to focus on downtown. He says it will also affect other neighborhoods. Goal is to define what downtown looks like for next ten years. CC Belanger says his initial reaction was this might be a bit repetitive but then CC Kennedy spoke with him about it. It does differ from the Task Force that is business leaders who put forth ideas at public forums. There are some similarities to my motion but thinks it’s a good motion. CC Milinazzo says there are many organizations that focus on downtown so this subcommittee would work well with them. Motion passes without opposition.
By CC Kennedy request CM and Acting CM to begin process of hiring (a temporary) Chief Financial Officer until a permanent CFO is hired by the new CM. CC Kennedy says rather than wait until March 10 (day Lynch leaves) the city should start now to have someone to assist in the finances
By CC Kennedy to CM to explain why didn’t put the ambulance contract out to bid. Dave Daly is registered to speak (he owns a competing ambulance company). Daly says he’s a lifelong resident of Lowell and a business owner. Expresses consternation about contract extension of EMS services. It’s not about the current provider but about the process. A major concern of mine is the timing of this contract. I can’t help but notice that this process started after the current CM said he was leaving. The current contract does not expire for four months. What’s the rush. I was on vacation so I only saw the proposed contract Sunday night and I have some grave concerns about this contract. My major concern is that the fire department is the department that works most with the current provider (hereinafter Trinity), and in December 2013 the fire chief wrote a letter (praising Trinity) but says there are questions about response time. Says fire chief recommends going out to RFP. Wants to ask the City Manager who is leaving in 3 weeks why he is extending the contract for three years. CC Kennedy interrupts saying he should have been allowed to speak on his own motion first. Daly says to Lynch that you tout yourself as an open and transparent city manager why you’re renewing the contract four months before it is due. Lynch points out that the letter Daly cites predates his decision to leave. He says Daly’s assumption that he’s doing this as he’s leaving is false. Lynch says the board of health is the agency that makes this choice. The board of health hasn’t given me their decision yet. They are doing that work based on the excellent track record of Trinity which is a local business that meets the specifications that the city has always used for this contract. It’s important to have experience with 911 calls and Trinity is the only one who can say that in Lowell. They’ve also been asked to assist the police department to assist in reforms of holding cell reforms. With all of that, it makes abundant sense to act on the contract now. Lynch also cites the news in the Lowell Sun that Chelmsford just renewed its contract with Trinity. Daly goes on to point out items in the contract at length. Lynch says he will follow-up with the items raised. CC Kennedy now has the floor and says it simply asks why there was not an RFP. It’s not a criticism of the current contractor. He sees value in continuing on with current contractor with a service like this. However, there is four months left and it’s being done as you walk out the door so in the interests of transparency we should have an explanation of why there is not an RFP. CC Mercier says at first she wasn’t going to say anything because we have “two outstanding companies” that provide services. Both help the city. I’m thankful to God that this council isn’t the one that has to make this decision. I heard Mr. Daly say he wasn’t here to support an RFP that he’s just here to raise concerns. Mercier says it’s like saying which one of your children do you like the best. One company is saying there are some concerns but the council isn’t the one to address that; it’s the board of health. I just want to say that one company will get it; one won’t. That’s not to say it is fair. I wish we could do something like the towing contracts but we can’t. I just have to say I’m grateful to both companies for all that they do. CC Martin says the current provider serves on the board of director of a client of mine but I filed a disclosure. CC Belanger asks Lynch about ALS services; whether hospitals have any input or do we “just force feed them.” Lynch says hospital have the job of being hospitals. There are many ways people get transported to them. Some communities use the fire department others use private ambulances. Some hospitals provide these services as a business proposition of them. Belanger says that both of these providers are outstanding people but in the public eye we want the best deal for the city. Belanger believes the council is powerless to do anything about this. It’s now in the hands of the health department tomorrow night. Maybe we can do it differently the next time. A difficult situation to be involved with “two great men” (meaning Daly and the owners of Trinity, I guess). Lynch responds to the idea that the city should get the “best deal.” He says we do that with other things but we can’t do it with ambulance providers. What the health department looks for is the best set of conditions and the best performance. It is a very sensitive topic. If you hire a new trash contractor and it doesn’t work out you can hire someone else. With an ambulance contractor, if you don’t have the right experience, the right personnel, the right equipment, then tragedy can result. Belanger asks if it’s possible for the council to split ambulance service in two. Lynch says no, you can’t. This is not like tow trucks. Mayor Elliott relinquishes the chair. Elliott says current contractor has done a very good job for many years. Elliott’s concern is not putting out RFPs despite the law not requiring it. Says it’s always a cleaner process when there’s a public participation process. It just doesn’t look right, especially when you’re leaving in two weeks. It’s not a reflection on the company. Some good points have been brought up tonight that hopefully will be addressed by the board of health. Putting out an RFP “is the professional thing to do.” Lynch says the mayor made some good points but points out that there is definitely a public participation process here it’s just with the board of health. Motion passes.
[We’re back to snow removal; excuse me for skipping this].
Still several motions plus executive session but it’s 10pm. Motion to suspend rules to continue past 10 pm. Kennedy and Martin vote no. Two no’s on a motion to suspend rules causes motion to fail Meeting over.