Lowell Week in Review: November 27, 2016

Police Department Update

Earlier this month (on November 14, 2016), Lowell Police Superintendent Bill Taylor visited the Highlands Neighborhood Group meeting and shared his thoughts on crime and the opioid epidemic. Here is what he had to say:

Taylor opened by saying that the police department today is “doing remarkably well.” A big reason for that is the financial support given by the city council to the department which now has 250 officers. He also thanked Rep Rady Mom for his assistance in obtaining a number of state grants which pay for things like overtime and programs like the Shannon Grant that help keep young people from joining gangs.

The chief said that last year saw a 50% decrease in shooting incidents, and an overall 10% decrease in crime. If that trend continues this year, it would be three consecutive years of double digit crime decreases. He did emphasize that “there is always room for improvement.”

Nationally, the past few years “have been tough for law enforcement” mostly because of violence directed against police officers. He said that not only do officers feel threatened, but that families of police officers pay a price with increased stress on the family.

Taylor went on to talk about “the flip side.” Many in the community, he said, “feel disenfranchised from law enforcement.” To counter that, the Lowell Police Department tries very hard to build relationships at the community level. To assist in that, he has reinstituted the Race Relations Council that was created by former Superintendent Ed Davis. However, at the urging of its present members, it has been renamed the Community Relations Advisory Council. Taylor said that the group and the police “have had some tough conversations,” but that it is important to have such conversations. He said it is critical for the police department to build trusting relationships with the community in advance. “We hope nothing ever happens, but if it does, it’s important to have a pre-existing relationship with the community to help get through it.”

Despite the good news on crime, Superintendent Taylor said the opioid epidemic was bad and was getting worse. “The numbers are staggering,” he said, including 55 fatal overdoses in Lowell thus far in 2016 compared to 48 in all of 2015. He called this “an equal opportunity menace,” that touches people from every demographic in the city.

Perhaps the only positive news from the opioid epidemic is that “everyone is pitching in to help, with the police leading the way.” Taylor made special note of the effectiveness of the city’s Community Opioid Outreach Program which consists of a police officer, a fire fighter, and a substance abuse counselor, who go where the addicts are, and do everything they can to help them get treatment. They especially focus on those who have overdosed and survived, because such a person has a 50% greater chance of suffering a fatal overdose within a short period of time. He also said that the city has identified the lack of an overall coordinator of the anti-opioid effort as a deficiency, but that the “new grant” will likely take care of that. [Note: The Council did accept a state grant for this at its last meeting and the process of hiring an opioid-response coordinator for the city has commenced].

Supt Taylor closed by saying he was disappointed that voters passed a referendum legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. He had opposed the referendum and said “the timing is bad” especially in light of the worsening opioid situation. He said there are many questions that must be answered about the new law. Although there will not be any marijuana dispensaries until 2018, “within 30 days, it will be legal for private citizens to grow and consume marijuana in their own homes.” He said there are many unknowns the come with this new law.

Lowell High School

Lowell High School Building Project

At this same meeting, representatives from Skanska, the consulting firm hired by the city to manage the process of building a new Lowell High School, gave the neighborhood group a briefing as part of their community outreach efforts. They invited everyone to attend a big architectural presentation on the project that will held on Thursday, December 8, 2016 at 6:30 p.m. at the Lowell High auditorium. This presentation is open to the public and everyone is invited to attend.

This past Tuesday night, the city council’s finance subcommittee met prior to the full council meeting to receive a report on preliminary cost estimates for the new high school. I didn’t watch the subcommittee meeting, but at the regular council meeting, subcommittee chair Rodney Elliott gave a report. Back in 2010, the estimate for a new high school was $250 million, but that number has now grown to over $300 million. Just bringing the existing school to minimum standards would cost more than $200 million.

Councilor Leary pointed out that the preliminary process if moving very quickly and that the final recommendation by the city’s consultant will be delivered in March. At that time, the council will have to make its decision on whether to go forward, and to go forward with which project (new, renovated, or repaired high school). Councilors who commented on the current financial estimate said they look forward to additional information over the coming months, but some sounded skeptical of the city’s ability to afford a $300 million-plus project, even when state reimbursement rates are considered.

Coincidentally, just a few days after this council meeting, the Boston Globe ran a front page story on the soaring costs of new school construction in Massachusetts. Lowell is not alone in experiencing sticker shock at the cost of a new high school. Somerville and Waltham are deeper into the process. Both have seen cost estimates explode.

The reason for sharply rising school construction costs is the economy, as schools “compete with the private sector for construction contractors when there is a shortage of skilled labor,” as the Globe article states.

While the question of where a new Lowell High School should be constructed has received much attention, perhaps the bigger question is whether a new high school will be constructed at all. At least we won’t have to wait long to find out.

Christmas Shopping

Twenty years ago – even ten years ago – Christmas shopping for me involved several trips to area shopping malls, usually Pheasant Lane in Nashua, but sometimes Rockingham in Salem, or the Burlington Mall. But the past few years, I’ve not set foot in a mall. That’s not to make some kind of political statement. It’s just that there is no need to. Certainly the easy availability of online shopping is a big part of that, but so is the availability of many unique gifts right here in Lowell. Between Western Avenue Studios, Mill No. 5, the Brush Gallery, Lowell National Park gift shops, and many other retailers, there are plenty of options right here in Lowell.

Speaking of Christmas gifts, a list of “the most-wanted, must-have gifts of the past 60 years” recently took me down memory lane. Here they are:

  • 1959: Barbie doll
  • 1963: Easy Bake Oven
  • 1979: Atari 2600
  • 1983: Cabbage Patch Kids
  • 1996: Tickle Me Elmo
  • 1999: Furby
  • 2000: Razor scooter
  • 2007: Nintendo Wii
  • 2010: Apple iPad

No City Council Meeting This Week

The council cancelled its November 29, 2016 meeting due to Thanksgiving this week interfering with the preparation of a meaningful agenda. The next city council meeting will be Tuesday, December 6, 2016.

One Response to Lowell Week in Review: November 27, 2016

  1. Joe from Lowell says:

    Kudos to the LPD for recognizing that this is an especially good time to reinstitute that community relations council.

    There is a certain moral courage – distinct from physical courage, which is a different point – that I admire in the LPD. The courage to let go of power, to share it and not bring a compliance-enforcement mentality to everything.