City Council Meeting: April 1, 2014
Councilor Leahy is absent from tonight’s meeting.
Council grants permit to National Park to move NPS Law Enforcement operation to the Market Mills Building at 246 Market Street. This will provide more law enforcement visibility in downtown.
Councilor Belanger comments on city manager report on income produced from increased meal tax; city has taken in $3mil during past few years. Belanger thought part of the money would be used for marketing the city but it turns out all the money was used for the general budget. He says the city’s bond rating is excellent but we’ve paid the price for that by neglecting other things. He says now is not the time to do anything about it but he wants to alert councilors that at budget time he will advocate for more city money being spent on marketing the city. CM Geary points out that the amount has risen every year which is good because opponents had warned it would harm city restaurants. Geary also points out that the tax can’t be specifically earmarked without special legislation and that since it was tough budget times so the money was spent for other reasons. Councilor Samaras says it was understandable to use the money for the general fund when there was a budget crunch but now that the city is in better fiscal health, he wants to refer this to the economic development subcommittee to come up with a strategy that would funnel this money back to the benefit of downtown businesses.
Councilor Milinazzo points out another communication that says traffic lights will soon be installed at the intersection of Church and Lawrence Streets. This should aid pedestrians crossing Church Street.
[A number of fairly routine matters including street acceptances, budget transfers].
Votes to submit “statements of interest” to state’s school building authority for renovations/construction of five city schools (Daley, Robinson, Rogers, Wang and Lowell High). Councilor Mercier reports on a relevant subcommittee meeting. The school committee will vote on this tomorrow night. After that there will be an in-depth study of feasibility and cost. Councilor Belanger, who attended the meeting, adds some clarification he gained from the meeting. He says that when Jay Lang was before the council a short time ago he erroneously stated that once the application is submitted the city would still have some leeway in identifying the priority project. Belanger says the priority program must be identified now. Councilor Kennedy asks if the mayor knows what the school committee will choose as its priority project. Superintendent Franco who is present says that her recommendation to the school committee is to make Lowell High the priority project. The committee will vote on that tomorrow night. She says a factor in that was the inability to bundle all of the middle school projects into one project. Council passes all five statements of interest.
Police Superintendent Bill Taylor speaks in support of changing the purpose of a grant the city has already received but not spent. This October 2013 grant was received from the Executive Office of Public Safety and was intended to hire three civilian employees, however, it since became apparent that these funds could be used to fund five additional police officers. The granting authority has authorized the change in the grant. Taylor says that if the officers are hired at the end of June of this year, the grant will pay for them through the end of October and then the city would pick up their salaries from the regular city budget for the balance of the year (which would be about $165,000 for the rest of the fiscal year) and then the city budget would pay their full salaries for future years. Council approves the change.
[more routine votes, transfers, etc.]
Councilor Rourke on the revenue derived from parking kiosks recently installed on Fr Morrissette Boulevard. Council comments suggest they have little patience with this effort since it is not being used. It will be taken up again in the future.
Two similar motions by Mayor Elliott/Councilor Kennedy and by Councilors Belanger and Milinazzo urging the school department to consider moving administrative offices into a downtown building “above first floor retail” when it vacates the Rogers School this summer. (The school department headquarters had been in the Bon Marche building up until a few years ago but due to a budget crunch and declining enrollment in middle schools, the school department closed the Rogers as a middle school and moved their offices into that school. Now rising enrollments require the Rogers to come back online as a fully functioning school so the administrative offices must move). Mayor Elliott vacates the chair to relate information he obtained from Jay Lang today. The RFP for space has been finalized and will be released tomorrow with responses due May 2. It seeks 40,000 square feet of space in a central location with 4,000 sf of that on street level for the central enrollment office and the rest on upper floors. The new site is needed immediately to accommodate the availability of the Rogers for the start of school in September. (With Vice Chair Leahy absent, Rita Mercier takes over as chair presumably because she is the senior councilor).
Motion by Mayor Elliott that the City Manager provide a comprehensive report on all marketing efforts undertaken by the city including the amount spent, where it is spent, and who is responsible for it.
Council votes to go into executive session and to adjourn when that is completed.
Public portion of meeting ends at 8:38 pm
8 Responses to City Council Meeting: April 1, 2014
Isn’t money fungible? So meals tax is meals tax and money spent here or there is facilitated by the meals tax, but also by parking meters. It seems that trying to earmark revenues is just an invitation to trouble, down the road.
Reards —  Cliff
Very good points. And, the reality is that the meals tax money doesn’t actually cover all of the marketing related costs of the city such as direct marketing, CVB, MRT, auditorium operations, auditorium capital, Folk Festival, Winterfest, COOL, etc. Further, when the tax was approved it was presented to cover these costs for one or two years only and then to be used for capital expenditures. But this is where your observation of fungible is important.
Although it was a relatively quiet meeting last night, two things struck me as significant for the upcoming efforts to balance the FY15 budget. The first was the authorization to use a previously received public safety grant to hire five new police officers even though the grant will only pay for them for about one-third of the year. The city budget will have to pick up the rest. If we were going to hire them anyway, using the grant as a contribution to the cost is a wise move, but there’s still a substantial cost to the regular city budget and no one talks about where that money is coming from. The second item from last night was Councilor Belanger’s statement that he wants to increase the amount of money spent marketing the city. That’s fine, but where is the money coming from? He said the amount raised by the meals tax increase, but that revenue is already paying for something. What will replace that? When outgoing city manager Lynch presented a proposed FY15 budget, it required a 3.5% tax increase just to sustain what we were already doing. Will this council support an even bigger tax increase to finance the new police officers and additional marketing? Or will they cut a comparable amount from someplace else and if so, from where?
Further, on Dick’s point, let’s not forget the City Council’s commitment to the fulfill Lowell’s Net School Spending requirement 100%. As our friend Cliff is fond of saying, “There is no free lunch … or free shipping.”
The good news is, based on his comments on WCAP (Link), newly appointed CM Murphy is pondering a fiscal strategy that buffers big, intermittent tax increases, by having a steady, programmatic approach.
I see a possible conflict on the horizon, on one hand people are touting the leadership qualities of Kevin Murphy, but on the other hand some of the councilors who selected him want to be driving the discussion. The budget is not the only area where there may be conflict, as decisions on parking philosophy and high school re-building could be in for considerable debate.
This will be the first test of Kevin’s leadership abilities. The “something for nothing mentality” when it comes to government spending and tax policies is endemic in Lowell and several councilors are representative of that mindset. The challenge for the new city manager will be to keep the budget discussions grounded in reality, to commit only to the things we are willing to pay for and to not fall into the trap of paying for them by playing games with the numbers or tapping into reserves. The new city manager, whomever that might be, could have all the municipal experience in the world and use that to make a compelling case to do the right thing, but that assumes a majority of the council would act in a rational way. That’s a big assumption. Because Kevin already has a large store of credibility with the councilors most likely to start that fiscally reckless stampede, he is the one best able to put on the brakes and force a reality check in the very short time available to complete the budget. Whether and how well he does that will be pivotal to his tenure as city manager.
Dick, with regards to the five officers….I had already provided the Council with a strategy to pay for the police officers. Prior to March 10th but after my delivery of the draft budget we learned that health insurance costs would only increase by 1% as opposed to the 2% that had been projected. This freed up about $265k of the $350k needed. After I stepped down I learned of the House and Senate agreement to increase local aid over the Governor’s proposal. The draft budget anticipated some increase over the Governor’s number….$400k. The Legislature plan increased Lowell’s amount by about $610k. I communicated this to the Council with a recommendation that this increase would fully fund the police officers and that the remaining money and any additional funds be used to reduce the amount being drawn from the pension reserve account in order to have some funds available in FY16 to offset the pension assessment increase of that year. The availability of the grant money should likewise be used to reduce the amount being drawn from the pension reserve fund.
Thanks for the clarification and further info on the funding of the police officers.