George Ramirez interview

March 26, 2014

George Ramirez opening statement

Begins by reminiscing about his time on the council eight years ago. He applied for several reasons. Lowell is special to him. 40 years ago Lowell welcomed him and his family from Columbia. Went to school, married and has lived here ever since. Feels deep gratitude to city and wants to be part of success story going forward. Believes he’s qualified for the job. Ran a law office for 8 years then joined the Patrick administration as general counsel to secretary of economic development. Past 4 years has run day to day operations at Devens. Closed as Army base in 1990s. Since then it’s been an economic enterprise zone. It’s a beautiful community that is still growing. He manages a DPW, police and fire, utilities, environmental and recreation departments. Handles collective bargaining and budgets. He says Lowell is a destination city but it could be better by being a safer city. Without public safety you won’t have businesses investing, people buying homes, students coming to schools, etc. Public safety is the backbone of the neighborhoods. Supports community policing. He knows economic development. Definitions vary. He believes economic development more than just creating jobs. It’s private industry that generates economic development. The city’s job is to “set the table” for private businesses. You need strong DPD director. Must have predictable, fair and transparent permitting. Need safe neighborhoods. Lowell needs to market the city. City Manager must value education. Child can get a great public education in Lowell from pre-k to PhD. Neighborhoods are key. Must work with Lowell Plan.

Councilor Samaras: Question – Would you cut the budget or raise revenue and how would you communicate this to the city? Everything is on the table. Managing is not a formula and it’s not a science. Look at cost containment on daily basis. Much of budget is fixed so there’s not much flexibility. Question – Crime statistics say “safe city” but there’s been a spike in violent crime; how do you see your role in dealing with this? Work with police chief. It’s my job to be a walking, talking public relations person. It’s tough to counter a Boston TV story on crime but we need to let people know everything we’re doing. Question – Regarding Lowell Plan, how would you use them? I would participate in all of its meetings. The business community should be at the table but I would be there as the representative of the council and the city. Question – What strategy is effective in collective bargaining? It’s been limited to the fire union at Devens. I go in with an open mind, trying to be fair but keeping an eye on the bottom line.

Councilor Belanger: Question – about different tax rates for residential and business; your thoughts? Lowell has one of the highest commercial tax rates in the state. We have to make the case to businesses that other things are more important like affordable housing, great education, great services, etc. Question – How would you incorporate higher ed institutions with our economic development? I go back to setting the table; if we’re able to do that . . . UMass is in a terrific growth spurt. Look at the hockey team. They’re known across the country. We have to work with UML and strengthen that relationship. Question – Talk about 2007 to 2010 time in Mass Economic Development? Talks about “growth district” grants. A program that had development going on near public space, housing, etc. We wanted to reward communities that were doing a good job by getting them grants. Gives examples such as JAM Plan and Thorndike Street developments. Question – Talk about Mass Development job at Devens? I applied for the job just like this one. Question – Devens is like a small city; it’s one thing to carry on development already in place but it’s another if you did it yourself. Which were you responsible for recruiting? A lot of these businesses at Devens contacted me about availability of space. I can honestly tell you that I did not go knock on their door and invite them. They contacted me. Except New England studios because I know some people there and I invited them to check out Devens. Question – Have you seen the city budget? Any observations? It looks like a level funded budget. Prior administration did a good job fending off requests from department heads. I’d like to sit down with a CFO and really scrutinize the budget. All department heads add flexibility to their requests. Would look to cut those. Also look for consolidation. Question – Do you think we’re marketing the city properly? I’m not 100% award of how it gets marketed. We could piggy back on UMass Lowell. We should think of our biggest employers, find out who their potential employees are and target them.

Mayor Elliott – Question – How many employees at Devens? About 80. I contract out police with state police. They serve as the police force. Question – What are the sources of revenue that you have to project in your budget at Devens? We collect local receipts, state aid, fees, the difference between our expenses and that amount is what we have to raise in taxes. We set our own tax rate. [talking details of budget creation process at Devens]. Back to Lowell, says you really need 5 police officers and you’ll either have to take the money from reserves are raise taxes. Thinks there has to be incremental increases in next few years. Question – What’s your position on the amount of city reserve funds in face of mounting budget pressures? There needs to be a rule of thumb. Enterprise funds should be 5%; general fund at 5% to 7%. Reserves speak for themselves. I don’t want to go too far down the road or I’ll get lost. Have to deal with unfunded pension liabilities. Question – your experience with code enforcement? At Devens we have one-stop-shopping for all regulatory matters but it might not be as challenging as Lowell.
Councilor Kennedy: Question – Would you take the job without a contract? I would prefer one but I’d keep an open mind about it. Question – How to you see the manager’s relationship with the council? I have not forgotten my time on the council. I have enormous respect for the job you do. Refers to a question Councilor Mercier asked the applicant last night about his strongest trait. Says his is communications. He’ll be the best communicator there has been as city manager. Question – explain your position of Vice President of Mass Development? Mass Development is a very big agency with many responsibilities. The management team is the Executive Director and 5 executive VPs. I’m one of them. I’m answerable to others but I run Devens like it’s a city. Question – are you the chief of police? I’m the chief public safety officer. Question – population of Devens? About 4000 residents and people who work there. Question – last night’s candidate mentioned having a separate marketing arm in the city; what do you think about that? I take things on case by case basis. I’d have to review how DPD does marketing to decide that. I do think we need to concentrate more on marketing. Question – what about downtown development and vacant storefronts? There’s no magic formula. Most mid sized cities are struggling with downtown. The internet has really harmed downtown retail. Downtowns should be a “place and an experience” where people enjoying coming to. I’d like to coordinate all the groups promoting downtown. Downtown businesses want “clean and safe” streets. There’s a lot of residents there now. Question – Are growth district grants from the state still available? Yes, it’s geared towards housing, transportation and infrastructure. Question – Your biggest accomplishment at Devens was the studio? I was certainly involved in that but all those companies have contributed to Devens. Question – what has been the real economic impact of the studio? Not yet able to measure it. I understand that they just signed their first movie.

Councilor Leahy: Question – Can you explain your interpretation of the bond rating? Bond ratings are very important. It helps you borrow money for big projects. But I don’t chase the bond rating. If we do our job the bond rating will take care of itself. Question – what would be your approach to hiring the CFO? I would work with HR to update the job description. I would try to find someone who has experience working in a like city. Managing finances in Lowell are critical. Municipal budgets are a cottage industry. Question – We face a tax increase but also want to hire more police and fully fund education? It’s not unique to the city. School spending is a requirement you have to fulfill. Question – what would your approach with neighborhoods be? Same as when I was a councilor. I would attend their meetings. Question – describe your first week on the job? Enjoy day one then roll up sleeves and get going.

Councilor Martin: Question – Your resume refers to consolidation of 911; does that have any application here? I started the move to regionalization. Tells how he obtained funding for regional 911 center from state. Question – The notion of a marketing director; what are strategies you’ve used to fill vacant space at Devens? We have a communications office in Boston. They send out blasts to newspapers and social media about everything going on. I created a monthly report, the Devens Buzz, intended to get us in the newspaper and TV once per month. Question – recruiting for jobs? Many long term employees.

Councilor Mercier: Question – Who is the president of Mass Development if you’re the VP? A person named Marty Jones is the president then there are four exec VPs. I’m one of them. Question – Why want to leave Devens? My wife has asked me that. It’s what I said in my opening. I love this city because of what it did for me. Question – Did you consult with Bernie Lynch to prepare? Yes, I spoke with him a month ago. Question – How do you add to the racial and ethnic diversity in the city? I’ve never seen you at the Columbian flag raising in the city? I hope to be the face of the city. I hope to be the a role model and mentor. I attended that flag raising when I was a councilor but haven’t sense. Question – what is your rapport with the state house delegation? I have a good rapport but I look forward to strengthening that. Question – Let’s say there’s an upsurge in crime, as city manager what would you do? I’m not considered a first responder. I will be on the phone with the police chief. I’m going to live the job. I’ll ingratiate myself in every part of the process.

Councilor Milinazzo: Question – Are you familiar with the Jeff Speck plan from a couple of years ago? What’s your position on implementing that plan? I wouldn’t stop it on day one but if after talking to businesses and walking around I would come to the council and ask to change the plan. Question – Would you continue the partnerships between the city and UMass Lowell and MCC? Absolutely. Question – We have to increase recycling, could you explain your efforts at Devens with recycling? At Devens the communities are very small and people were just dumping hazardous waste in open space. I organized a number of communities to contribute to a regional recycling facility. Regionalization at every turn is the way to go for cost containment. Question – regarding budget and capital plan, if council decided not to raise taxes how would you balance the capital plan with essential city services and not enough money for both? That’s a loaded question. Short answer is capital budget is in many ways deferred maintenance. You look at capital budget to see what you can hold off on. I would look at the reserves and balance the need for the reserves to close the budget gap. Question – What’s your position on enterprise funds? It’s good to have the separate so they can cover your costs. If you make money, you can use for other purposes.

Councilor Rourke: Question – How has the scale of new growth been at Devens? It’s been fantastic. Every one of those projects are new. Question – What do you see as Lowell’s biggest challenge? Try to make this one of the best mid-sized cities in the country. Make sure the pipeline of economic development keeps working. What is the next level and how do you get there? Question – How would you rate Lowell’s k-12 education system? We have to fund them. I want them to succeed. The way to do that is to work together. Question – Under what circumstances would you advise council to use reserves? We might be looking at one. You want to fund schools and hire police but if you don’t raise taxes the only way to do that is to take the money from reserves. Question – Lowell is a city of immigrants but we struggle to get our newest residents involved in the process, how would you do that? Symbolic events like flag raisings are good opportunities to meet new arrivals. UTEC is a good way to meet kids. We want to convince them to stay here.

Closing Statement: Talks about gutted mill building at Mass Mills along the river. That should be dealt with. That bothers me. I have enormous respect for the job councilors do. I’ve heard communications is an issue. To me, communications is key. I’ve sat on many boards and interviewed many talented people but at end of day it’s a hope and a prayer that you’re getting what you want. George Ramirez is a hard worker. I want to be part of Lowell’s success story. I hope you give me the job.

3 Responses to George Ramirez interview

  1. Joe says:

    I enjoyed this interview. I thought there were lots of good questions and I think that Mr Ramirez handled himself well. Thanks as always for the incredibly fast recap.

  2. Sean David says:

    What’s the point of certain councilors asking questions if they’re not relevant to the position? Pretty obvious Mercier isn’t a fan of Ramirez – attendance at a flag raising, now that’s a tough question! – or maybe Leahy?

  3. Brian says:

    I thought Mr Ramirez did well besides this exchange with C Millanazo.
    Councilor Milinazzo: Question – Are you familiar with the Jeff Speck plan from a couple of years ago? What’s your position on implementing that plan? (he also mentioned turning most one-way streets downtown into two-way streets) Ramirez: I wouldn’t stop it on day one but if after talking to businesses and walking around I would come to the council and ask to change the plan.

    Does this mean HE thinks the plan is bad? Or is there a sentiment among some councilors that think the plan is bad and he’s trying to win THEM over?

    Either way I’m a little concerned.