Lowell City Council Meeting: August 8, 2017

Communications

Communication from Lowell Sustainability Council asking Mayor to join with other mayors in committing to the Paris Climate Accord. Also take up Councilor Samaras motion requesting City Council adopt a resolution entitled “The road to 100 percent clean renewable energy for the years 2035.”

Jay Mason, chair of sustainability council, speaks on both matters. He explains role of council is to promote citywide sustainability and innovative solutions. Both these matters, the nenewable energy by 2035 motion and supporting the Paris accord, fit that mission. Adopting both of these measures will send a positive message to companies thinking about locating here. He explains how many other cities, states and colleges have supported this renewable energy resolution.

Second speaker is Marissa Shea, lives in Highlands and teaches math and science at Daley School. Speaks in support of the motion to have Lowell us all renewable energy by 2035. (A number of students are at the meeting). She tells a story of showing a film about climate change and having her students come up with an action plan to develop the first completely solar-powered classroom in Lowell. But that’s not enough, it must be at a much bigger scale and the City Council has the power to have the city do more.

Councilor Samaras cites extreme weather events hitting the country. Says whether you believe in global warming or not, you have to admit that something is going on and we have to move towards renewable energy. He links support for this motion and resolution to attracting more companies like Kronos and Markley to the city. Councilor Milinazzo says he will support both motions, but tells of an experience in Revere installing solar energy in which the bill for electric went from $55,000 to $34,000 for the month of July. Says that besides being good for the environment, this could also save the city considerable money in energy costs.

Motion and resolution passes 8 to 0 (with Councilor Rourke absent).

Subcommittee Report on Double Telephone Poles

Councilor Leary reports that the subcommittee met with representatives of Verizon, National Grid, and Comcast, who are all at this meeting. They believe they have reached an agreement in which National Grid will put poles in and Verizon will take them out (the poles are jointly owned and the electric has to be installed first which is why National Grid is installing the poles). Representative from National Grid says there is an unusually large number of double poles, mostly because of all the new service that had to be installed for the Markley Group. They are cutting down the inventory of double poles.

Public Hearings

Create two part time clinical recovery specialists to be paid by federal grant. Approved.

National Grid to install new pole on Rogers Street. Referred to Wire Inspector.

Communications from City Manager

UMass Lowell update on work in Perkins Loft property. Councilor Milinazzo asks about the makeup of residents who will be living there. DJ Corcoran says that it will be primarily upper classmen (juniors and seniors) with a few freshmen. There will be about 100 graduate students serving as RAs. The University also met with the condo association at the adjoining condominium complex, had a positive meeting, and is addressing the issues that were raised.

Status of TIGER grant bridge project. Councilor Leahy asks about the timeline for completion.

Plans for crosswalks on Andover Street. City engineer says these will be impacted by the coming changes to the Lord Overpass which will extend all the way to Andover Street. The traffic layout now is a result of 1960s planning with a “circulator” pattern with inbound cars going on Green and Middlesex Streets and outbound cars going on Church and Andover Streets. The new design will have Church street be two way for its entire length. Once the road is two way, it would be appropriate to install a crosswalk. Now with it all one way and three lanes wide, a cross walk would provide a false sense of security for someone walking across because it would be unlikely that drivers in all three lanes would see and stop for the pedestrian.

Council denies license agreement with Bar 74 for overhanging sign at 74 Merrimack Street.

Motions

Councilor Elliott: Request City Manager report on status of zoning amendments relative to marijuana cultivation and distribution.

Councilor Elliott: Request City Manager report on process of bidding of school bus contract and provide report on initiating busing of Lowell High students this year or next year. Councilor Elliott says that “this year” should be stricken because it’s already August, but he would like a report on plans for busing for next year for high school students. Comments on having only one bidder in the recent bus contract, asks if there’s any way to make it more competitive. As for the longer term cost of bussing high school students, Councilor Leahy says that the school system is always short of funds and he fears we’ll be laying off teachers and cutting other educational purposes to pay for bussing. Councilor Mercier says we should look at more neighborhood schools to reduce the overall number of students being bused. She also says that the city should look at paying for LRTA bus passes for high school students rather than hiring a private bus company. Councilor Milinazzo says he agrees with looking at more neighborhood schools and also studying the impact on the LRTA of taking all Lowell High School students off of them. He believes this will be devastating to the LRTA’s Lowell ridership numbers. Councilor Leary says that the demographics of many neighborhoods have changed since the consent decree so it might be possible to change school assignment policies without violating the decrees. Councilor Elliott says neighborhood schools could reduce busing costs and strengthen connections between student families and the schools. Regarding this motion, Councilor Elliott says busing has to be a bigger priority because it addresses attendance and safety. He doesn’t think this needs to be a huge added cost, but minimizing cost requires a great deal of study and analysis.

Councilor Samaras: Request City Manager provide information from Comcast as to charges for services in Lowell versus charges in surrounding communities.

Councilor Milinazzo: Request City Manager provide an update on fines collected this year for trash violations.

Mayor Kennedy: Request City Manager, together with City Auditor, engage an independent third party auditor with appropriate credentials to provide the city council with reliable cost estimates for the construction of the new high school and all associated ancillary costs. (with Vice Chair Rourke absent, the senior councilor, Councilor Mercier, takes the chair’s position for this motion). Mayor Kennedy says he has lost confidence in the cost estimates that come from Skanska and Perkins Eastman. He cites several errors, a mistake of $10 million; and the initial plans that showed only one elevator in the new high school. Kennedy says every member of the council, and every tax payer, has the right to know what this is going to cost. He says that rather to rely on Skanska/PE estimates which have been shown to be unreliable, the city should engage its own auditor to come up with independent cost estimates.

Councilor Leahy says he’s not sure about this motion. He agrees that he has lost confidence in this company. Asks about a recent email that says the swimming pool will be in its own building, apart from the main high school building, says Perkins Eastman should have known about that.

Councilor Belanger says he understands the frustration with Skanska but says this motion sounds like it will be very costly. If the SBA in two weeks does approve this, then we will get a more detailed schematic design. Why should we hire someone to duplicate that.

Councilor Millinazzo says he will support the motion. He believes having a set of independent eyes looking at the numbers coming out of Skanska/PE is a good thing. He brings up the news today that if there is to be a pool, it will be in a separate building, but the reason Option 5 is up to five stories is that the site won’t support a larger footprint of a building with fewer floors.

Councilor Elliott says he’s not going to support this motion. He’s never heard of anything like this before. He says months ago the city hired Skanska and Perkins Eastman in accordance with the procedures set out by the MSBA. When these companies were first hired, there were glowing reports about how good they were. The MSBA will oversee the cost estimates because it’s the MSBA’s money. He says the decision has already been made and this is just an attempt to delay. He says if you don’t like the answers you’re getting, you might not like Skanska, but he feels they are doing a good job. We should focus on saving costs not spending more money.

Councilor Leary asks if the pool issue would apply to Option 3, as well. Manager Murphy says yes, that the only time the pool would be grandfathered in would be in Option 2 which was the full renovation.

Councilor Leary says he was skeptical of the initial cost estimates but they kept explaining the cost estimates would be refined over time. He’s become convinced that that is the case. He says the $10mil issue wasn’t a mistake, but was a correction. Leary says this motion might have been appropriate much earlier in the process but since a decision has already been made we should follow the established process. He says he would like to support this as an olive branch to the people who voted for the option that lost, but he doesn’t think this is the way to do that.

Councilor Milinazzo says he is not trying to derail anything, but when he hears the City Manager say that he has lost confidence in Skanska, I think we have to do something about that. Councilor Leahy again criticizes Skanska for not letting the councilors know earlier that a pool at Cawley would require a separate building. He says he’s not so much interested in the cost as he is in knowing what we’re going to bid on.

Councilor Samaras says Skanska does a good job in getting the building up, but they have done a poor job in conveying information. It’s critical that we get correct information. He says their explanation for the elevator issue is poor. Whichever site you are for, you should want correct information because we’re talking about a lot of money.

Mayor Kennedy says he understands that the MSBA won’t fund a project that has a swimming pool, period. That means if you want a swimming pool, it has to be completely separate (and paid for by the city). He says no one knows the cost of an auditor to this. Also, this is not about downtown versus Cawley; it’s about how much Cawley is going to cost. That’s something we should be interested in. The tax payers certainly are interested in it. It’s about how much is this project going to cost for the city. We’re talking about a lot of money, swimming pool or no swimming pool. Do we know how much? No. But we should.

Councilor Milinazzo says even if this motion loses, the city manager should examine the Skanska contract regarding errors and omissions. Perhaps we could get them to pay for an independent auditor.

Councilor Leary suggests that be made as a substitute motion.

Councilor Mercier asks Mayor Kennedy to resume the chair so she can speak on the motion. She says it would not be fair to look just at the cost of Cawley because there is a group that is pursuing a referendum to have the high school stay downtown. The cost of that should be examined too. She then says the council previously voted unanimously to pay Perkins Eastman and Skanska $2mil to do this work. Maybe they don’t give the best presentations, but they have an excellent reputation. She wants transparency. She wants to know about hidden costs. She asks the City Auditor if he’s taken part in any part of the LHS project. He says no. She asks him if he knows an auditor. He says the best person to assess the cost would not be an independent auditor but some kind of construction design firm. Councilor Mercier says she has no idea of the cost of such an auditor. But she is concerned that if she votes against this motion, she will be accused of not caring about the cost. She attempts to amend this motion to get more specifics about how much it will cost to get this additional information. She thinks we can ask Perkins Eastman to be more clear in the information they give us. They probably don’t realize we’re unhappy with them. She thinks this motion is a little premature and not defined.

Councilor Elliott says he doesn’t understand what we’re auditing. Skanska has been very clear this it’s all be conceptual to this point. Only now are we getting into specifics of design. Now, there’s nothing yet to audit. He says he’s all for scrutinizing the cost of things but this isn’t the way to do it. Right now, Skanska is the only one who can come up with these numbers.

Councilor Belanger concurs with Councilors Elliott and Mercier. Says the MSBA has not confirmed the city’s decision. The process is still ongoing. He says the city is looking at approximately $150mil of city funds for the Cawley project. Once the MSBA gives us the OK, we can get specific designs with specific costs. So we can’t have a more accurate cost now until schematics are completed. He says this motion is premature.

Mayor Kennedy says no one has any idea of what this is going to cost. The reason for this motion is that he doesn’t trust Skanska. He has no confidence in their numbers. Plus no one has any idea of how much the sidewalks, the drainage, the infrastructure costs are going to be. I think we have an obligation to get that information. And by going around the city recently, the one thing everyone wants to know is how much this is going to cost. This motion doesn’t call for it to happen tomorrow, but it puts in motion a process of confirming Skanska’s numbers, which he doesn’t trust right now.

Councilor Leary says he will support this as an olive branch to get things moving but he still doesn’t see the point of it.

Motion passes with Mayor Kennedy and Councilors Leary, Leahy, Milinazzo and Samaras voting yes; and Councilors Elliott, Belanger, and Mercier voting no.

Meeting adjourns at 9:04 pm

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