City Council Meeting: June 10, 2014

Mayor Elliott introduced Hannah York, the new City Auditor. She says she’s delighted to be here and everyone has been wonderful, especially the staff in the Auditor’s Office.

Public Hearing on Proposed FY15 Budget

Councilor Kennedy congratulates City Manager Murphy on the budget document but says because it proposes a 3.5% tax increase, it’s important for the council to closely scrutinize the entire budget and not just approve it out of hand without any discussion. He says that even if it is not cut further, questioning it is a valuable exercise and promotes confidence in it and the process.
Councilor Mercier agrees with Kennedy. She says she spoke with several other councilors who said they thought it was a good budget and were ready to vote for it. She says she’s not opposed to the tax increase because if you want good services and quality education you have to be willing to pay for them. She says she’d probably be hard-pressed to find cuts but wants another week to scrutinize it.

Councilor Samaras asks CM Murphy to explain the budget process. Murphy says this is the first thing he tackled upon becoming city manager. He said the preliminary budget did not fully fund net school spending nor did it fully fund five new police officers. He said he went to all department heads and asked for budgets that would deliver expected services without increasing personnel or other costs. He says increases are all for negotiated raises. It does address net school spending and public safety which together he believes will promote economic development. Says kept tax levy as low as he could.

Mayor Elliott opens public hearing for those willing to speak in favor. No one does but Councilor Martin says the public hearing should not be formally closed. Instead, they recess the public hearing until next Tuesday night (June 17) at 6 pm.


Proposed local ordinance prohibiting fireworks – under a suspension of the rules, the council discusses a proposed ordinance to impose a local prohibition and fine on using and possessing fireworks. The manager explains he just asked the city solicitor this morning to draft such an ordinance. It was completed before tonight’s meeting so that it could be sent to a public hearing on June 24 and possibly be enacted before July 4th.

City Manager appointment of Joseph Mullen of Bunker Hill Ave to Election Commission to fill unexpired term of Gerry Nutter. Unanimously endorsed by city council without discussion.

Vote to award contract for ATM and other banking services at City Hall, the Senior Center and Lowell High to Jeanne d’Arc Credit Union. Councilor Mercier questions the process of awarding the contract. City Manager Murphy says it was pursuant to an RFP issued by the city. Councilor Mercier would like more information to ensure that other city banks had an opportunity to have participated in the process. The vote is withdrawn pending a report to the council from the city manager.

Parks Subcommittee report by Councilor Mercier. Topic of meeting was Concord River Greenway which has an estimated completion date in October 2014.


By Councilor Kennedy for a report on RFP process at Water and Waste Water Departments, especially for consultants. He says in light of all the attention paid to the water department especially, these departments should be scrutinized more closely. Kennedy expresses concern that consultants already under contract by these departments may be participating in the formulation of RFPs that their firms then bid upon which he believes would be improper. Passes unanimously without further discussion.

Councilor Kennedy requests update on former Butler School site. No apparent activity there for some time. Passes unanimously without discussion.

Councilor Milinazzo requests report on process of notifying neighbors when National Grid is about to open streets for construction projects. Passes unanimously.

Councilor Rourke requests copies of any audits performed on Water Dept during past five years. Passes unanimously.

Councilor Rourke asks for a report on the percentage of estimated water readings in the city. Councilor Belanger asks City Manager what recourse
people who receive suddenly high water bills. City manager says a report he expects to have completed tomorrow will set out an appeal process. Passes.

Councilor Rourke request Executive Director of UTEC and Police Chief to come before the council and discuss their partnership. Passes.

Councilors Leahy and Rourke request report on noise levels and duration of events at Holy Ghost Park. Passes.

Mayor Elliott requests a report on cost and process of selecting outside legal counsel. Mayor says story about $200K in legal fees to defend employees in library discrimination suit. Troubled also that being billed at $425 per hour and that inadequate efforts have been made to settle. Says it’s reckless use of tax payer money. Says it’s a troubling pattern by the law department, citing the Alvarez case, the Keeley case, of letting award and fees pile up. Says it’s an issue ripe for review. Says free spending on professional funds needs to cease immediately. He wants a report on the policy of using outside council, who makes the decision, the cost of the attorneys over the past five years, the rate of pay and how that rate was determined. Also a list of payments on the library cases and what they were paid for. Also wants to make sure no further such payments are made. Councilor Kennedy says it’s a matter of policy. He doesn’t blame the law department but the prior city manager. Says we need a review of the entire policy. Says this issue has come up in executive sessions so no one should say it comes as a surprise. Mayor Elliott responds by saying we learn of costs after the fact. Yes we hear about it in executive session but it’s already done. Says this year’s budget has a proposed increase for professional services. Wants to know the policy. Is it the law department, the manager, a combination? Kennedy replies the motion is one that should be brought up but says if fingers are to be pointed, it should be at the prior administration, not the city solicitor. Agrees it’s out of control. Says the Alvarez case is more egregious than the library case. Motion passes unanimously.

Mayor Elliott requests reports on cost and process of surveillance conducted on city employees and business. Says council is not informed of how much is spent and why. Wants to know what the policy is. Funds should not be spent without oversight on what in my opinion are witch hunts. Kennedy says it’s a good motion. Says the former city manager was “less than transparent” on how much was spent on surveillance. Passes unanimously.

Meeting adjourns at 8:21 pm.

4 Responses to City Council Meeting: June 10, 2014

  1. Brian says:

    The delay of the Butler School site may be a blessing in disguise. From what I can see in the drawing of the development shows a surface parking lot in between the Gorham St sidewalk and front of the buildings(see link). This isn’t good planning for the neighborhood or the city. We don’t live in Dracut or Tewksbury and need to start demanding development that reflects that.

    The front doors of the buildings should be flush with the sidewalk. Short term metered parking should be permitted along the sidewalk to provide cover for pedestrians and long term free parking should be hidden BEHIND the buildings.

    This would not only create a more valuable property for the owner and increase taxes for the city but could also help revitalize and increase business for the other shops on Gorham St.

    Who’s job is it to ensure that suburban development models aren’t allowed in our urban business districts? Planning? Zoning?
    Just because someone has some money to build something doesn’t mean we should say “yes”.

  2. DickH says:

    Good points, Brian, but this site has a somewhat unique story. First, the city is guilty of “demolition by neglect” for ignoring the state of repair of the old Butler School which previously sat on that lot. It was allowed to decay so much that it reached “do not resuscitate” status and had to be torn down. More timely maintenance would have given the city and developers a choice of renovations or demolition.

    That said, a big part of the RFP (because it was city owned land that was being sold) was demolition of the building. My recollection is there were only two responses. The one not chosen actually offered to pay more for the site but didn’t include access to the road behind the site rather than just onto Gorham St. The city opted to go with the lower bid amount because that design which included rear access would benefit the area behind this parcel. To the extent the city could influence design, that seemed to be the priority but there wasn’t much to pick from.

    Since the lot was sold, the buyer had some legal difficulty unrelated to this transaction so while the old school was demolished, work on this site has been stalemated for months. Hopefully this request for a report will stimulate some activity.

  3. Joe S. says:

    As to Brian’s point, I agree that a parking lot contiguous to Gorham street would be a major error, although it is not clear from the pictoral that is the case. There should be an access road through the site that would provide alternative access to parking that would be less detrimental. Hopefully the DPD in conjunction with the Planning Board influences the final design to be something that works well for the area.

  4. Brian says:

    I hope you’re right Joe S.

    If the city doesn’t have the right mechanisms or regulations to influence design we’re in big trouble. Many smart cities, like Stamford CT, have banned new storefronts from having parking lots that separate buildings from sidewalks.

    This reminds me of home developers who come before the planning or zoning boards and want to put a box on lot with minimal windows, no porch, etc. The boards then make conditions to add windows and a front door overhang.
    The same developer comes back 6 months later and does the same thing, knowing full well what the conditions will be. Around and around we go.

    It’s a sick game where developers and city make a quick buck. A generation later the house is falling apart, bringing neighborhood property values down, and isn’t owner occupied.

    I don’t blame developers because the city lets them get away with it. Am I wrong?