Unfinished business from last week:
Councilor Belanger moves to delay executive sessions from tonight to the next council meeting. Unanimously approved.
Motion by Mayor Elliott to set up joint subcommittee of council and school committee to assess recently completed Lowell High School facilities assessment report. Unanimously approved.
Motion by Mayor Elliott to discuss public participation in deciding on location of any contemplated city recycling sites. Sent to neighborhood subcommittee.
Some discussion of the ambulance contract in response to a communication from the City Manager in response to a motion by Councilor Kennedy. The board of health meets on the issue tomorrow night. Councilor Belanger stated that he disagrees with having the Board of Health select the ambulance provider. While he understands it cannot be changed at this point, he wants to change it so that the Fire Department makes the selection for the next contract. Mayor Elliott criticizes Health Director Frank Singleton for purportedly saying that the Board of Health had to act quickly before the city manager left. (The board rejected that alleged urging by delaying the vote). In response to a question by Kennedy, City Manager Lynch says he wasn’t at the meeting, he read in the newspaper what the Health Director supposedly said but Lynch says that the newspaper has been wrong before. Lynch also says that the board of health has proceeded in a deliberate, professional manner. Lynch points out that most communities do ambulance contracts administratively (like having the fire chief or town manager make the selection) while Lowell’s system, with an appointed board making the decision, the process is more open and involves public input and participation.
Proposed budget. City Manager Lynch presents a draft FY15 budget to the city council. This is based on assumptions that may change (like the amount of state aid). It’s a “level service” budget which means the same services as this year but no expansion of services. Even with that, it’s dependant on a 3.5% tax increase. It includes an increased contribution to public schools to meet net school spending. A big issue is the charter school. State government needs to step up and take some action on meeting the charter school formula. Chapter 70 education money is 42%; prior tax levy is 35%; new growth of $1.8mil; and the 3.5% increase in the tax levy. Local aid and receipts are about 8.5%. Despite increasing state revenues, the governor proposed level funding unrestricted state aid. State aid to education will likely increase. That’s good for the schools but tough on the city because it will increase the amount to be paid in net school spending. Lynch says revenue projections he uses are conservative. He cautions against increasing those projections because that’s what got the city in trouble in the past. He says the city has one of the lowest rates of residential taxation in the state. Lynch repeats his comments from last week that he regrets not pushing for a tax increase in last year’s budget.
As for expenditures, most money goes to the schools then the police and fire department. Health costs had been rising 9% but with the changes Lynch negotiated the increase now is closer to 2%. All new positions are grant funded and any positions that have been vacant for long periods of time have been eliminated. Overall there’s a 2% increase in personnel costs that include negotiated contracts. Lynch specifically addresses the cost of adding a large number of additional police officers. A more reasonable approach (of both the manager and police superintendent) would be to add five new officers this year and next. The cost of this isn’t included in this budget. If the council chooses to do it, it would cost about $360,000 to add 5 officers. This could be paid for by local aid, by increased property taxes, or to cut other services. There is no capital plan included in this document. He hopes to have one in the next few days. Lynch says he doesn’t believe in holding onto free cash. He advocates putting it in stabilization funds or using it for one-time expenses. He also sees excess levy capacity as a type of reserve because you draw upon it at any time you need it. Lowell has the largest excess levy capacity in the Commonwealth at about $12mil.
Lowell has total reserves of about $12mil plus reserves associated with pensions and retiree health insurance. Lynch urges the council to maintain a healthy level of reserves. Not doing so inevitably leads to financial distress.
Recommends returning to a policy of consistent, moderate tax increases; maintain reserves equal to at least 5% of annual operating revenues; continue best practices like long term forecasting, capital planning and investment in infrastructure; and using data not anecdotes to drive decisions. Good bond rating is critical because it costs less to borrow and it makes the city more attractive to investors.
Council unanimously appoints City Clerk Michael Geary Acting City Manager.
Council unanimously appoints Assistant City Clerk Angela Gitschier Acting City Clerk.
Council unanimously appoints Karen O’Beirne Acting City Auditor.
Councilor Rourke gives a report on the Public Safety Subcommittee meeting held earlier tonight. No details other than to say it was well attended and well received.
Councilor Kennedy motion on why City Manager hired an outside law firm as a hearing officer on the police discipline matter regarding cell block death. Kennedy suggests it would be better to have new manager appoint the hearing officer and questions why someone outside the city should be doing it. Lynch gives background on the law firm (Koppelman and Page) and the individual lawyer selected. He says this should move forward expeditiously while still protecting the rights of the police officers. He says it’s a very important case for the city so it’s (1) better to have someone from the outside and (2) needs to be done properly by someone with experience doing it.
Councilor Rourke motion to have Lowell Fire Department consider possible use of Narcan (opioid overdose antidote) given frequency of heroin overdoses. City Manager Lynch says this has recently been discussed by the Health Department. We’d like to see it utilized in the city but the state department of health has some issues on its distribution. Should hear more on this in the coming months.
Mayor Elliott motion regarding trains idling in South Lowell. Says it’s a recurring problem for many years. The company (Pan Am, formerly known as Guilford) is a difficult one to deal with and this involves Federal regulations. Lynch says he sent a letter to Guilford last week. Agrees it’s been a long standing problem.
Mayor Elliott moves that council receive report on police cell block death. Says he has seen it reported in the media. City Solicitor says it is a public report and it was an oversight not providing it to council which will be done.
Mayor Elliott requests update on “service zone plan” which involves deployment of emergency resources by the city. Says it was supposed to be filed with the state by 2006 and there’s still not one in place. Asks Lynch why the city does not have one in place. Lynch says a number of other communities don’t have them either. Says state requires the city to have a number of plans. Says it is the Fire Department’s responsibility but they have encountered issues that make it complicated. Says he’s had several meetings to push it along. It was finally filed with the state but was returned for some clarification. Lynch agrees it should have been given a higher priority.
Council Martin motion to thank City Manager Lynch for his service. Says Lynch left the city in a better place when he’s leaving than when he arrived. Highlights budget and financial management. Often overlooked are difficult policy decisions that are built into the budget. It’s not just about being good at math. Acknowledges contributions in the JAM Plan which is one of the most important projects in the city’s history and is off to a good start given the economic environment we’ve been through. He appreciates the efficiency Lynch brought to city operations.
Council Milinazzo says Lynch has done an outstanding job. Also on behalf of the business community, particularly the Lowell Plan, greatly appreciates Lynch’s support through tough economic times. Says Lynch will be missed and he hopes he stays involved in the city.
Councilor Samaras says he appreciated Lynch’s efforts for the city and it was the idea of working with Lynch that helped him to decide to run for council (only to have Lynch announce his resignation at his first meeting).
Councilor Rourke says congratulations and best of luck. Councilor Leahy says he first met Lynch when he was his professor at UMass Lowell and complemented him on his efforts on behalf of the schools. Councilor Belanger thanks him for his accomplishments and for having appointed him to the Board of Appeals. Presents him with an “Elect Corey Belanger” pin as a memento of his service. Councilor Kennedy says Lynch will be remembered as the manager who did provide the city with sound fiscal footing which was especially impressive because of the great recession. Mayor Elliott wishes Lynch well and thanks him for his service. Says they’ve had healthy debate on many issues. Says healthy discussion makes better policy. Congratulates him on the budget he left them with.
City Manager Lynch thanks the council for their comments. I am very proud of my time in the city. We have made tremendous strides, emphasizing the “we.” I appreciate all of the comments about finances because that’s the core of getting things done. But they’re just a tool that allows us to invest in the city and its infrastructure that will benefit generations to come. We’ve done very well with economic development. Perhaps small businesses feel put upon by costs but overall we’ve tried to assist all businesses. Certainly the larger projects that have come in produce jobs and bring people into the city. We’ve tried to make city government more accountable. Citizens feel that when they come to city government they are treated well. It’s not about who you know; everyone is treated the same. People indicate that’s a change from before. We’ve changed the culture at City Hall by empowering employees. We have tremendous employees, especially our department heads. I always found meeting with department heads uplifting, especially after tough city council meetings. Collaborations we’ve done with institutions, especially the University have been very good. I made a commitment to stay in touch with the neighborhood groups and we’ve kept that commitment. We’ve also been involved in regional organizations and many organizations in the city. Through all of that, I was hoping to build a sense of community. Lowell is a great city. Every place can become a better community. Hopefully that came through. That we act like a business but retain our humanity. I’ve had great support from the city council. I’ve been very fortunate that as I walk the streets of the city, the response I get is almost always very positive. The people in the city who have expressed appreciation has really been heartwarming. I’ve said that I fell in love with the city in the 1970s when it was at its low point and am fortunate to close out my relationship when the city is at a high point.
Meeting adjourns at 9:50 pm