Lowell City Council Meeting: May 16, 2017

FY2018 Operating Budget

City Manager Murphy formally presents the FY2018 budget to the council and asks that it be scheduled for a public hearing on May 30, 2017. Challenges include increased contribution to the pension fund, a continuing deficit in snow and ice fund, and increased amounts for contractual raises, charter school assessment, and health insurance. Property taxes are only 37 percent of the budget which is far below the state average. The majority of the city’s expenditures goes to public schools and public safety. There is a slight tax increase of 1.5 percent. He says the city has had to take $2mil from reserves to balance the FY17 budget. However, there is a plan to replenish that amount in the reserve account. Says this is a very tight budget.

School Superintendent Khelfaoui speaks. He says in real terms, the city’s contribution to the school budget has gone down. He says the increased amount paid to charter schools is subtracted from the public school budget. Costs of transportation have also gone up. He says these equate to a $3mil decrease. He explains that there has been a nearly $7mil increase in special education costs this year. He asks the city to increase the cash contribution to the schools by $3mil.

Next to speak is School Committee member Jackie Doherty. She thanks the council for its support of the schools and recalls past years when the city did not meet its minimum contribution. She explains that the schools have never recovered from some of the cuts required back then. She says the even with the reported increase to the schools, the city’s cash contribution is $3mil less. She asks the city to increase the contribution at least enough to cover the increased transportation costs.

School Committee member Connie Martin speaks next. She echoes Ms Doherty’s comments. Both say they support the downtown option for LHS but urge the council to not eliminate any options at this stage.

Amy Bisson, a retired elementary teacher, thanks the city for meeting the minimum state funding requirements, but says that amount is inadequate because the funding formula does not recognize the challenges faced in an urban school system. She also urges the council to adopt the resolution coming before it later tonight urging the state legislature to fully fund charter school reimbursement.

Marianne Dumont, a retired Lowell teacher with grandchildren now in the school system, says despite the great challenges, the Lowell school system is one of the best performing urban school systems in Massachusetts. She urges councilors to support the resolution calling for full charter school reimbursement.

Paul Georges, president of Lowell Teachers Union, says there is great work being done in Lowell schools but there is a need for additional resources to continue moving forward.

Noelle Creegan says there is great momentum in the public schools right now. Cites two-thirds of the schools being level one or two as evidence. She says now is not the time to “stop putting gas in the tank.” Doesn’t want the system to regress due to inadequate funding.

Councilor Samaras says he was a member of the Lowell school system for many years and has seen the ups and downs of the budget process. He commends Manager Murphy for meeting net school spending, but he also recognizes where the people from the schools are coming from in their requests for additional fund. He urges the manager to have his team review the school department’s budget to see if they can assist.

Councilor Mercier reminds everyone that councilors cannot add money to the budget, but she urges the budget writers to revisit the budget for ways to make more money available. Manager Murphy says the city budget team will constantly monitor and assist the school department’s finance throughout the fiscal year, but he reminds everyone that the school department in this budget is to receive $4.2mil more than it received last year.

Mayor Kennedy points out that the school committee tomorrow night has a motion by Connie Martin asking that the finance subcommittees of the council and school committees meet. He assumes it will pass and he believes such a meeting will be very helpful.

Council refers the budget to a public hearing on May 30, 2017.

Motion taken out of order:

  1. Rourke/C. Mercier – Req City Council have discussion on Eminent Domain pertaining to 75 Arcand Drive and have a roll call vote pursuant to an Order of Taking.

City Solicitor recommends that the council refer this to the city manager and the law department for a recommendation on the steps to be followed at the appropriate time, rather than discuss this motion substantively tonight. Motion is referred as recommended by the city solicitor.

Geo-Environmental Findings on Possible Lowell High Sites by Novis Engineering.

Manager Murphy explains that at Cawley, there are two issues: At former US Petroleum there was a storage tank that caused some ground water contamination, however, that would have migrated towards the existing Cawley parking lot, so that’s not a great concern. The other concern is that north of the Martin softball field, they used “urban fill.” Tests disclose some items of concern, but they could be taken care of at the time of construction.

At the existing LHS site, along the railroad tracks there is arsenic (now fenced off). Further research indicates they have to excavate about a foot down and replace that soil. That will cost less than $50,000 and will be done once DEP agrees to this. Then on the Fr Morissette Blvd side, there is “urban fill” and any issues there can be abated if construction is done there.

The engineer says that there is not an obstacle to construction at either site. There is a range of cost because anything that is there, can be removed, however, they don’t know exactly how much stuff needs to be removed.

The engineer also says that the cost of soil remediation will be cheaper at the downtown site than at Cawley Stadium because there are existing buildings with foundations downtown, so there is less potential soil that would have to be removed and disposed of downtown than at Cawley.

Amar Deeb, a hazmat consultant. Spent a month and a half surveying accessible hazardous materials within the Lowell High building and sent them to independent laboratories. Their report includes the location of the material and the worst case scenario of the cost of removing (this would involve the full destruction of the building). If the building is to be reused, then the cost would be substantially less. Based on what they found, the school department has maintained the building in excellent condition. Cites a 1988 law regarding asbestos management. 99.9 percent of the material they found in the building is “non-friable” which means it will not crumble and get into the air. There is absolutely nothing that we found that would require an immediate action to protect health. Says if the shell of the building was to be retained and only the interior renovated, the cost to remediate it would be about half of the cost cited. Says that the money spent in 1990s renovation was money well-spent because almost all the asbestos was removed then.

Reiterates that the worst case cost for remediating asbestos would be $1.4mil for the 1922 building; $2.4mil for the 1980 and field house buildings; and $600,000 for the freshmen academy. These low costs are due to the good work that was done in the 1990s renovation.

Next is the traffic study.

Traffic will be an issue at any site. The report has some great suggestions for remediating the traffic. Traffic engineers make a brief presentation. Currently, 440 staff and 3300 students but that could go up to 500 and 3500. High school only adds 10 percent to downtown traffic. There is congestion at arrival and dismissal, but it is not long-lasting. For Cawley, there are existing traffic issues. Andover St and Clark and Douglas Roads already have a lot of traffic. There are also fewer access points to this neighborhood than there are to downtown. The city would have to develop a bus program to get students to this site. There will be increased delays, but they also will be of short duration. Recommends sidewalks be installed on both Clark and Douglas Roads for their entire length to make it safe for students to walk to the school. Councilor Milinazzo asks if a dedicated turn lane on Rogers St and for sidewalks on Douglas would require land takings. Engineer says that is likely. Milinazzo asks Manager Murphy if there are any cost projections for this necessary work. Murphy says his staff is developing that and will have it before the vote is taken. Councilor Belanger asks the consultant to elaborate on the length of the sidewalk needed on Douglas Rd. Consultant says there are no specific requirements other than on the footprint of the building, however, the city will give a cost estimate for full sidewalks on both Clark and Douglas from Andover to Rogers on both, a total of 12,000 linear feet of new sidewalk. The Cawley site would have 850 parking spaces.

Council accepts reports and places them on file.

Vote filing special legislation re charter school reimbursement.

Councilor Elliott says it is important to send to Beacon Hill this resolution which calls for 100 percent reimbursement for charter school costs. Says whatever your position on charter schools, the city should be fully reimbursed for the amount the city pays for their operation.

Finance Subcommittee Report – Given by Councilor Elliott. The city has ample bonding capacity to pay for a new Lowell High School.

Council Motions

  1. Samaras-Request the City Manager have proper department install crosswalk at corner of Fletcher and Bower Streets.
  2. Samaras – Req. City Mgr. have Superintendent Taylor (LPD) address City Council regarding current problems that have occurred in the City over the past several weeks; in addition have Supt. Taylor inform Council of crime prevention strategies during the summer months. Several councilors commend city and police response last Thursday and Friday to murder and manhunt.
  3. Leary/C. Leahy – City Council request the City Manager to provide a list of work that needs to be done in a timely manner at Lowell High School. Councilor Leahy says the incident of the classroom being condemned last week was overblown, but it proved that the city can get the repairs done promptly if it wants to. Manager Murphy says that starting tomorrow there will be a team assigned fulltime to Lowell High to address all of the problems that have been identified.
  4. Leary -City Council request the City Manager provide an update regarding sidewalk crossing Chelmsford Street and Inland Street. In addition, provide an update regarding the improvements planned for Inland Street.
  5. Leary – City Council request the City Manager provide an update regarding the feasibility for combining the Public Works and Lowell Public Schools Custodian departments into a Maintenance Department. Leary asks that this be sent to the facilities subcommittee. Says this maintenance issue is a repetitive one that requires us to rethink how we do building maintenance for all city buildings. We have the same conversation about this over and over for decades. We need to do it differently.
  6. Kennedy-Request the City Manager have the proper department add Sparks Street to the re-pavement list.
  7. Kennedy – City Council request the City Manager provide the City Council with a report regarding the process for appealing unusually high water and sewer bills.

Meeting adjourns at 9:07 pm.

3 Responses to Lowell City Council Meeting: May 16, 2017

  1. TJ McKiernan says:

    “Based on what they found, the school department has maintained the building in excellent condition”

    Mr Amar Deeb mustn’t be aware of the 1100 open work orders or the condemned classroom at LHS…he needs his eyesight checked and a polygraph test.

  2. Joe Boyle says:

    Discussion of site contamination and asbestos were raised by the Cawley people in the belief that the studies would help their cause.

    Whoops.

    Ultimately, those own-goals are just expressions of the underlying problem: the unexamined assumption that of course the suburbs are better than the dirty old urban core. Well, no.

  3. TJ McKiernan says:

    Joe – I think the majority of Cawley supporters are more for a new school and less concerned about the location, I know I certainly am.

    Location aside, how can you defend Deeb’s statement: “Based on what they found, the school department has maintained the building in excellent condition”?

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