Lowell Week in Review, March 9, 2014

The week began with a special City Council meeting on Monday to establish the procedure for choosing a city manager and a city auditor now that all the applications are in. For city manager, the councilors had until Friday, March 7 to submit the names of their five “finalists” to the city clerk who will tally those votes to find the entire council’s top five candidates. This is the procedure that was followed in 2006.
The council then took up the issue of citizen input. The input sought is general characteristics or traits desired in the next city manager and not specific names or titles. A public hearing was scheduled for this coming Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 7 pm at the city council chamber. Here, any citizen may approach the microphone and share his or her thoughts on what the council should be looking for in a new city manager. Immediately after the public input is given, the city clerk will announce the names of the five finalists.

As some of those commenting on the post I wrote about this special meeting observed, if the council was truly interested in the public’s opinions on the characteristics of the next city manager, the council would have held this public hearing before the council actually decided who the five candidates to be interviewed will be. Having public input after the council has already made this decision seems a bit patronizing to the public, like the council is just going through the motions of soliciting the public’s sentiments. On the other hand, it’s quite likely that the top five candidates will be pretty clear to anyone looking at the applicant pool in a reasonable manner.

As I’ve said several times this week, this process wasn’t set this past Monday; it was decided back on Tuesday, November 5, 2013. Elections do have consequences.

Last weekend I spent some time watching the 2006 city manager interviews. Back then, the five finalists were Paul Cohen, Diana Prideaux-Brune, Frank Keefe, Bernie Lynch and Ed Kennedy. The city councilors were Mayor Bill Martin, Kevin Broderick, Bud Caulfield, Eileen Donoghue, Rodney Elliott, Armand Mercier, Rita Mercier, Jim Milinazzo, and George Ramirez. There was a strange juxtaposition of Councilor George Ramirez questioning applicant Ed Kennedy while this year we may have Councilor Ed Kennedy questioning applicant George Ramirez. During the coming week I’ll try to post some video clips from the 2006 interviews to give everyone a sense of how they went and what might be expected this time.

Tuesday’s council meeting was the last one for Bernie Lynch as City Manager. He presented a proposed FY2015 city budget which called for a 3.5% tax increase to maintain “level services” meaning that services provided this year would be provided next year at the same level with no increase in personnel or services. This budget did not include increasing the size of the police force by adding more officers. Hiring more police officers was a campaign pledge made by some city councilors so Lynch did address this by recommending hiring only 5 new officers in the coming fiscal year and 5 additional ones in the next. Every five new officers, he estimated, would cost the city an additional $370,000.

The council will have a tough time with this budget. Several councilors have established a “new normal” of no new taxes but that can’t be sustained indefinitely. The cost of services always increase so to just maintain what you already have costs more. Through good management on things like health insurance, energy costs, municipal contracts and just general belt tightening, Lynch was able to provide the same services with the same revenue for several years. That’s clearly not sustainable, however. People will want the same level of services or more but they won’t want to pay extra for them. That’s the council’s dilemma. In the past, this is when councils have dipped into reserves and have played fast and loose with revenue estimates and other book keeping techniques, typically with disastrous consequences. So once the new city manager is on board, the next act of the never ending drama of Lowell politics will be the FY15 budget.

This being Bernie Lynch’s last meeting, he offered some poignant and insightful remarks on Lowell and his tenure as manager. Here’s a sample:

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. Hearing from 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.

Co-blogger Paul Marion highlighted these sentiments by Lynch in a post “Bernie: Ideas Matter” in which he quoted the above remarks by Lynch and went on to explain how he, Lynch, and UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan were all at UMass Lowell in the 1970s taking political science courses with the same professors. Here’s what Paul identified as the long-term take away from that experience:

Representative democracy, our system, can’t work without a sense of community among the citizens. If people don’t have a stake in public life, they are less likely to participate, minus a crisis. Political science as a social science has no soul without a commitment to humanity. That humanity is expressed in the countless decisions made every day by people who make the government work in any city. I was glad that Bernie Lynch framed his efforts in high-minded terms. It is noble work to be in government, even if it doesn’t look like it sometimes. With the chaos and coarseness that are part of our messy but indispensable democracy, the big fundamental ideas sometimes get crowded out or twisted for short-term gain.

Lynch expanded on these sentiments on Thursday night at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center at a Thank You reception for him hosted by UMass Lowell and the Lowell Plan. I’m not sure if his remarks that night were recorded but they should have been. Perhaps after a decent interval passes, Bernie will put some of his thoughts on the challenge of cities in post-industrial America in writing and share them with us. What he would say would have much value to we here in Lowell and to city-dwellers across the US.

8 Responses to Lowell Week in Review, March 9, 2014

  1. Joe S. says:

    There is some degree of freedom in handling increasing costs without a tax increase, but that would require a level of “new growth” at a significantly higher rate than has been the case historically. And some of that growth would have to be vertical, as Lowell is a small city area-wise, and the land is nearly fully developed, and what land is remaining may be best left undeveloped. Mayor Murphy posed an interesting question that has been left unanswered – could a tax system split between land and buildings be used to put what land we have to better usage? That better usage could translate to “new growth” for the tax base.

  2. Bob Forrant says:

    One of the things I take away from Bernie Lynch’s time as city manager is his being open to thinking about new and different ways to get Lowell moving. Assuming office with a messed up city budget, just as the national and state economies went to hell posed serious challenges in terms of getting a variety of development projects going while determining how best to deal with the foreclosure crisis in the city and how abandoned properties would affect neighborhood quality of life. At the same time the council’s forever reluctance to raise taxes meant that he had to figure out how to hold the line on lots of ever escalating costs, like health insurance for municipal employees, snow removal, and the upgrading of a rapidly aging city infrastructure. He juggled all of this and made it work as the city’s current fiscal condition demonstrates. By hiring lots of very talented people and being willing to have a coffee with folks who had ideas about what to do, he’s set a high bar for the next city manager. How to generate employment growth, how to get the Hamilton Canal Project further along, what to do about the aging high school, how to attract more retail into the downtown, and how to provide a high level of city services absent some sort of revenue infusion, and how to further integrate the ever-expanding UMass Lowell into the fabric of the city are a few of the items a new CM will wrestle with. The city will not work well should parochial interests come to dominate the dance that is city administration.

    Thank you Manager Lynch.

  3. Joe says:

    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.

    I think the city manager had done a GREAT job and I do not mean this to be a criticism of him or his accomplishments. That being said I would not call Lowell’s current condition a high point. The city is in much better shape for sure but we are nowhere near where we could and can be. This brutal winter is the only thing slowing down gun violence in the city and that is soon to change. Merrimack street is our Main Street and the out of business signs are starting to pile up. These problems aren’t new to Lowell and anyone blaming Bernie Lynch for them is most likely a partisan with a personal or political ax to grind. I just have a much higher standard for the term “high point”.

  4. Joe says:

    Sorry for going off topic with this comment but I wanted to thank Mr Howe for posting some older lowell political videos on youtube. It’s incredible that 20 years have passed yet if you watch the clips from the 1993 city council race you realize that most of the names change but the issues are almost the exact same issues we have today. Public safety, the economic struggles of downtown and of course Fred Doyle screaming about the city manager. Great stuff, thanks again for posting them.

  5. DickH says:

    Joe – to be fair to Bernie, I’m not certain he used the exact phrase “high point.” My notes try to capture what was said but aren’t necessarily a 100% accurate transcript. Bernie’s closing remarks at the meeting were very important, so at some point I’d like to go to the LTC site and transcribe exactly what he said. His point was that he was able to leave the city in better shape than he found it when he was hired and I think most everyone would agree that’s an accurate assessment.

    And thanks also Joe for the plug for my YouTube site. There’s a lot of good stuff there but I also have several boxes of VHS tapes of old city council meetings. I hope to start digitizing the “highlights” from them. The old videos are a great resource for young people and those new to the city because you really can’t assess today’s politics without some kind of historic context.

  6. Joe says:

    Thanks for clarifying the “high point” comment. Bernie Lynch has earned all the praise that he is receiving as he leaves but that comment just seemed a bit off to me. If it was more of a general statement for your recap then maybe I just read too much into it.

    One of the people running in 1993 was Leo “buckles” Nolan. It must be because of his nickname but his name has always stuck with me. Was he ever elected or was he more of a Lyndon Larouche type of candidate?

  7. Brian says:

    @Joe S The land value tax(LVT) is very interesting. By taxing the land more than the building or home you would induce development on unused land. This would free up money for property owners to make improvements to their existing structures without fear of their property taxes going up. Right now property owners are penalized(higher property tax) for improving their property yet a landowner might not have any incentive to improve their land AND can make a huge profit by selling the land because of the improvement or investment in that area by the community at large. The land value tax can capture that publicly created value to be used to fund other public projects or induce the development of the land.
    Downtown Lowell is somewhat dense but needs to be a lot more dense to truly be bustling. And I agree we need to build up up up. I’ll point out the Athenian corner parking lot, Drs Athanasoulas & Pappey parking lot, Enterprise bank parking lot, corner of Warren and Central St, Haffners parking lot, and many parking lots on upper Merrimack St. that have a ton of potential. How many short and long term jobs could be generated by developing those lots?

  8. DickH says:

    Joe, Buckles Nolan ran several times for council and while colorful was always a fringe candidate. He often spoke at city council meetings and sometimes dressed in costume – the Lone Ranger and Batman were two I remember. Once the fire department had to pull him out of one of the canals when he floated away in an inflatable raft while trying to make a political statement of some type. He wasn’t a bad guy; just one of the characters who made Lowell Lowell.