Lowell Week in Review: June 1, 2014

Budget Matters

The City Manager’s proposed FY15 budget will be presented to the city council at this coming Tuesday’s meeting so there will be much to scrutinize there because the allocation of funds will show the priorities of the new administration for the coming year. A budget-related matter came up last Tuesday when Manager Murphy sought permission from the council to transfer surplus funds between departments in the FY14 budget without prior approval of the council. The council authorized this after only a brief period of questioning and a loose caveat that councilors be specifically notified of any transfers in excess of $20,000.

This continues a trend in streamlining the budget process started when the Lynch Administration began bundling all non-personnel expenditures for departments into a single line item in the budget which allowed transfers of money within the same department without council authorization. This latest measure allows the manager in the closing months of the Fiscal Year to transfer money that is not being used by one department into another to make up a shortfall or to allow for the strategic use of such funds. This approach will tend to undercut the bureaucratic mindset that all money appropriated to a department must be spent otherwise the department will be punished by a reduction in the coming year’s budget. This attitude penalizes good management and encourages frivolous end of the year expenditures made for the sole purpose of zeroing out that departments budget allocation.

By granting the authority to make such transfers to the manager, the council has delegated some of its control over the budget back to the city manager. That’s not always a good thing because oversight of the budget is one of the prime responsibilities of the council. In this case it seems reasonable and also a reflection of the comfort level the council has with the new city manager.

City Banking Business

Also on Tuesday the council adopted a joint motion by Dan Rourke and Corey Belanger requesting a report on how the city decides on which bank holds the city’s deposits. Rourke was pretty clear that he was interested in getting the best return on the city’s funds but Belanger was emphatic that he was willing to take a lower rate of return on the city’s money in return for depositing the money with local banks that are generous in the donations they make to public events and causes in the city.

I’m pretty sure that such banking decisions must be made pursuant to a public bid process and while the city is not always bound to take the entity that offers the highest rate of interest, the standard still is “best value” for the city. I’m not sure that donations to WinterFest are relevant to that determination, however, that’s not an opinion shared by some city councilors as was apparent Tuesday night. On this issue and countless others, councilors often cite a proponent’s “generosity” in rationalizing a decision in favor of that proponent. These explicit “pay to play” acknowledgements undercut public confidence in local government and also devalue true generosity by treating it as another line item in a business’s marketing budget.

Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association

Congratulations to CMAA on its choice of Souvanna Pouv as its new Executive Director. Souvanna came to Lowell at young age and is a graduate of Lowell High and Middlesex Community College. Through prior work and volunteer efforts, he has been involved with UTEC, the Angkor Dance Troupe, the Merrimack Valley Sandbox and many other community organizations.

CMAA came into existence as a refugee assistance organization, however, with few refugee’s from Cambodia now arriving in Lowell, the organization’s mission is evolving. With his broad contacts in the community and the deep respect he has earned during his time here, Souvanna should be able to provide the executive leadership needed to help CMAA move into the future.

Cambodian American voters and the 18th Middlesex District

As last year’s city council election approached, I did a study of the city’s voting list to try to determine the number of individuals with Southeast Asian surnames who were registered to vote in each of the city’s 33 precincts (I did this with the assistance of individuals within the Southeast Asian community). Based on an August 2013 voter list, we found that 13% of the city’s voters (7,038 out of 54,955) had Southeast Asian surnames. For the twelve precincts that comprise the 18th Middlesex Representative District, that increases to 22% (4,122 out of 18,697). Here’s a precinct by precinct breakdown:

Ward 2, Prec 1 has 1,221 voters with 86 SEA names (7%);
Ward 2, Prec 2 has 1,760 voters with 203 SEA names (12%)
Ward 3, Prec 1 has 1,518 voters with 187 SEA names (12%)
Ward 3, Prec 2 has 1,390 voters with 458 SEA names (33%)
Ward 3, Prec 3 has 1,422 voters with 474 SEA names (33%)
Ward 4, Prec 1 has 1,730 voters with 602 SEA names (35%)
Ward 7, Prec 1 has 1,416 voters with 243 SEA names (17%)
Ward 7, Prec 2 has 1,516 voters with 379 SEA names (25%)
Ward 7, Prec 3 has 1,243 voters with 597 SEA names (48%)
Ward 8, Prec 1 has 1,504 voters with 179 SEA names (12%)
Ward 8, Prec 2 has 1,815 voters with 462 SEA names (25%)
Ward 8, Prec 3 has 2,162 voters with 252 SEA names (12%)

Just because a voter is a member of a certain ethnic group is no guarantee that such a voter will select a candidate from the same ethnic group, but ethnic loyalty in elections is a great American tradition, so it will be interesting to see how a Southeast Asian candidate will do in the multi-candidate Democratic Primary for the 18th Middlesex District.

Initially it appeared that voters would have two candidates of Southeast Asian descent from which to choose, Rady Mom and Paul Ratha Yem. When Paul Ratha Yem submitted his nomination papers to the Secretary of State’s office, a technical defect in how he had filled out his papers caused most of them to be rejected, leaving him with too few to qualify for a place on the ballot. That means that Rady Mom would be the sole candidate to appear on that Democratic ballot in the September 9 primary along with fellow Democratic candidates Jim Leary, Brian Donovan and Dave Ouellette. (Mike Sheehan has chosen not to run and Fred Bahou qualified as an unenrolled candidate so he’ll only be on the November final election ballot).

There is a new twist to this race as of last night when Paul Ratha Yem announced in a press release that he would continue his campaign as a sticker candidate. Here’s a portion of Yem’s statement:

After serving his community for many decades in numerous roles, Paul Ratha Yem will officially kick off his 2014 campaign for the Democratic nomination for State Representative in the 18th Middlesex District on Friday, June 6th, 6:00 p.m. at 851 Middlesex St., across from Clemente Park. The event is free and open to the public. Due to a technicality, Yem’s name will not be on the Democratic ballot during the State Primary Election on September 9th. Determined to make sure the issues he cares about are not ignored, Yem has decided to push forward with a sticker campaign to try to secure his place on the November ballot. The campaign’s slogan is “Stick(er) together for Lowell” and the committee will do extensive outreach about the topic of campaigning through this alternative method.

In other campaign related news, Dave Ouellette’s committee is hosting a fund raiser on June 19th from 6:30 pm until 8:30 pm at the Olympia Restaurant (suggested donation of $10). Also this week Jim Leary and Brian Donovan were campaigning door-to-door in my neighborhood. I’ve only seen a Brian Donovan bumper sticker thus far and no lawn signs yet.

Real Estate

Two items of real estate news of note this week. Late Friday afternoon the sale of the property at 1857 Middlesex Street was finalized. I believe this is the future home of the Lowell Collegiate Community Charter School which will be part of the SABIS School Network.

The seller was Middlesex Partners Limited Partnership which purchased the property back in 1988 for $1.25 million. The buyer was Commons Wealth LLC, a Springfield Mass based limited liability company that lists Jennifer Stefanik as its manager an Raipher D. Pellegrino as its resident agent. The purchase price was $2,575,000. Pellegrino is a Springfield area lawyer turned developer. Presumably Commons Wealth will do the renovations of the site and either transfer ownership or rent to the charter school.

The other item of note was a Notice of Mortgagee’s Sale of Real Estate published on Tuesday that announced a foreclosure auction for June 26, 2014 at 11 am at the former Prince Spaghetti facility in South Lowell. The owner is Prince Avenue Associates LLC and the foreclosing lender is the Lowell Five Cent Savings Bank whose mortgage secures a loan of $8 million made back in November 2000. While the parties may still find a resolution to this loan default short of a foreclosure auction, this news is significant in at least two respects: the first being the size of the loan in default – $8 million; the second is that this property has been promoted by some as a possible future site of Lowell High School.