Lowell City Council Meeting: January 16, 2018
Mayor asks for a suspension of the rules to take up a matter related to Abandoned Housing. City Manager Murphy explains that the city’s SWAT team (representatives from all city departments) did a tour last summer of lower Centerville. They noted many vacant and abandoned properties. Attorney General Maura Healey has come forward and volunteered her staff members to do all the legal work needed to bring these properties into the receivership process. This will lead to the rehabilitation of these properties and the payment of all outstanding real estate taxes. This will affect 18 buildings. He invited Amber Villa to the podium. She introduces several of her colleagues from the AG’s office.
Atty Villa explains this is the first of its kind partnership between the AGs office and the city of Lowell. This initiative is to ensure safer neighborhoods through blight reduction. They are working on 400 properties across the Commonwealth. They use many tools including receivership. She reiterates all of the adverse effects of foreclosed and abandoned properties. They have worked with Development Services for the past several months to identify approximately 18 properties that they will focus on. Many are fire damages or boarded up or just showing the indicators of being abandoned. All of the properties have been visited. Now the AG’s office will send demand letters to owners. They will work with those who wish to make repairs. If no one steps forward, the AGs office will initiate litigation. She says they have seen the power of getting even one property turned around. In the past, they have worked on smaller scale efforts like 2 or 3 properties in the neighborhood. She believes addressing 18 properties will make a big difference in the neighborhood.
Councilor Cirillo thanks the AG’s office for this. Councilor Elliott also thanks the AG’s office, says this is great news. Asks about the time frame for individual properties. A explains each case is different. Demand letter gives owner 2 weeks. If no response, they will file a receivership petition very quickly although they must give banks and lien holders 2 week’s notice. She says it can be as quick as 6 weeks from the demand letter to receiver take over. Council Elliott asks if they can address other neighborhoods too? AG answers they could do so in the traditional manner, working with the city. CC Elliott asks about the receivership process. AG explains it is in the state sanitary statute. A municipality can do this on its own but it takes a lot of resources.
Councilor Kennedy asks if city finds other properties can these be addressed. AG says if they are in Centralville, they could take them on. For properties in other neighborhoods, they will assist the city. As for how long it will last, the AG will stay involved until these are done. They could take on other Centralville properties in this program. They want to see if doing it in a single neighborhood would be more effective.
Councilor Mercier says this is a wonderful program and a big boost to the city. This is what the city needs. We want to make the city better. CC Mercier says the city has focused on bank-owned properties. Says this is a great boost.
Councilor Nuon thanks the Attorney General for making Lowell a partner. Asks about qualifications of receivership. AG says almost anyone, often it’s a contractor or an attorney or a real estate broker. AG’s office has a list of receivers they work with regularly. The Northeast Housing Court covers Lowell. It has a list of receivers it uses. Often the AG has to draw from that list.
Councilor Milinazzo thanks the Attorney General’s office. Says Lowell Development and Financial Corp has a financing program that might be useful to whomever is going to buy the renovated homes. He believes LDFC would be happy to participate.
Councilor Leahy asks about the power of the receiver. Receiver gets a super lien for work performed. Real estate taxes get paid first. The receiver has to file reports on expenditures and charges with the court and with the AGs office who look for excessive charges. There’s also a risk for the receiver that he wouldn’t be able to sell the property and recoup expenditures, so it’s in receiver’s best interest to do the work efficiently.
Councilor Conway reiterates what everyone else has said. Says when businesses or families contemplating moving to Lowell drive around and see run down properties, it turns them away. He believes this will help with everyone’s property values.
City Manager Murphy says the city has tried to do this on its own but has had a hard time attracting receivers. The AG’s office has a list of receivers. After this project is done, the city will have a relationship with a number of receivers and so will have an easier time handling this on its own in the future.
COMMUNICATIONS FROM CITY MANAGER
- A) Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund – city is applying for a grant which will be used to repair bathrooms at Lowell Memorial Auditorium and then the loading dock. CM Murphy is confident the city will get this grant.
- B) Beaver Brook – CC Kennedy makes a motion to instruct the City Manager to seek federal funding for this.
- C) LaPlume Avenue Handicap Parking – CC Mercier thanks CM for getting this done.
- D) Intersection of High Street and Rogers Street – no discussion
- E) Intersection of Aiken Street and Lakeview Avenue – CC Leahy asks to have the City Engineer look at this because the traffic gets very tied up in the morning.
- F) 2017 Compstat Crime Data – CC Nuon comments that violent crime in 2017 in city is down considerably. He commends the police for this. But there is an increase in South Lowell. Asks the Chief to comment on this. Chief Taylor says it did increase, but it was a statistically small increase. He says a more comprehensive report will be out in a month and they’ll be better able to offer an explanation then. CC Leahy says the Centralville neighborhood group last night was very pleased with the work of the police in that neighborhood. CC Elliott says there has to be some correlation between increased expenditures by the council on public safety and the decrease in crime. CC Elliott asks about increase in burglaries. Chief says burglary is often a “crime of opportunity” so the police are encouraging people to “harden” their properties with exterior lighting, cameras, neighborhood watches, etc. Taylor also says online market places for selling goods, sometimes anonymously, makes it easier for criminals to dispose of stolen goods. That’s a concern of his. Councilor Kennedy asks about the Gang Unit. Taylor says it’s been around for a long time but was reduced due to budget cuts. Says it has been restored over past four years.
- G) Attorney General’s Receivership Program – see above.
- H) Sidewalk Snow Removal – CC Milinazzo asks about Andover Street. Says people on Mansion Drive have backyards the abut Andover Street. Property owners don’t shovel the Andover St sidewalks. Dev Svcs Eric Slagle says property owner is responsible for all sidewalks that abut the property whether it’s front, back or sides. CC Mercier wants to remind public that the first complaint gets a warning but the second complaint gets $100 fine. She says they have issued many warnings and citations this winter. CC Kennedy asks City Manager for a report on an alternative to requiring homeowners to shovel rear sidewalks.
- I) Snow Removal Presentation – DPW Commissioner Bellegarde speaks on snow removal protocol. City is divided into 18 plowing zones. Eight DPW spotters oversee areas of the city. 50 pieces of city equipment; 200 pieces of contractor equipment. $22,000 per hour. Certain roads have priority as do bridges and bus stops. Clearing paths to and areas around schools are a priority. When snow accumulates over time, the city mobilizes city workers to remove snow banks from downtown. The snow now goes to Hamilton Canal District and is dumped there. CC Cirillo asks about the criteria for beginning plowing. DPW says they begin treating streets even before snow begins falling. To remove snow from sidewalks, etc, they wait for about 2 inches of snow. CC Cirillo asks that this report be placed on city website for residents to see. Councilors continue to ask detailed questions about equipment that is used, etc.
Communication – Appoint Mikaela Hondros-McCarthy to Sustainability Council. Council approves.
Appoint Sabrina Pedersen to Sustainability Council. Council approves.
VOTES FROM THE CITY MANAGER
Vote-Apply/Accept/Expend a Solarize Mass Plus Grant from the Massachusetts. Approved.
Vote-Apply/Accept/Expend Grant ($400,000) from the Massachusetts Cultural. Approved.
CITY COUNCIL – MOTIONS
Councilor Mercier – Req. installation of (2) handicap parking signs in the front of the East End Club at 15 W. 4th. Street. Approved.
Councilor Cirillo – Req. City Mgr. direct the Law Department to create an ordinance that would require the City of Lowell ban plastic bags in stores larger than 4,000 square feet. The ordinance would only apply to carryout bags used at stores. These are to be exempt from the ban: thin-film plastic bags used for dry cleaning, newspapers, flexible transparent covering for uncooked raw meat, poultry, raw fish, hard cheese, cold cuts, fruit, vegetables, baked goods or bread and wet items. Councilor Cirillo asks that the motion be amended to reduce the size of the store effected to 3000 square feet which is what the state legislature is now considering. Says plastic bags are not good for the environment. They cannot be recycled. In Mass, we use 2mil plastic bags per year. She’s trying to make Lowell more environmentally friendly. Boston and 59 other communities in Massachusetts have these kind of bans. Points out that this is limited to stores of a certain size so as not to penalize smaller stores that use these bags.
Councilor Leahy says a bag is a bag so why don’t we just ban all of them. He asks if we are going to wait for the state to enact something that effects everyone across the state. He would like to see more discussion on this.
Councilor Elliott things motion is well-intended but he thinks it’s a state issue. He says people who live in outer neighborhoods and have cars can just go to neighboring communities to shop, so this will penalize people who live in the inner city who will have to pay for bags. He says he will vote against this motion.
Councilor Mercier says it is well intentioned but she is concerned that it is the duty of leaders of the city to bring businesses into the city. This does the opposite. Forcing people to not use plastic bags is anti-business. It’s OK to do clean energy but this is not that. Businesses will have to pay more and the prices will be passed along to the consumer. Plastic bags and Styrofoam now? What will be next? Paper bags? Where will it end. Who will be targeted next? Will plastic trash bags be next? Spending taxpayer money to address a problem that doesn’t exist is not a wise expenditure of funds. We live in Lowell, not Cambridge.
Councilor Milinazzo says he will support sending it to the new environmental subcommittee. He says in a community he goes to in the summer, there was a referendum that the voters enacted.
Councilor Kennedy says he has observed that when we invented plastic we invented something that will last forever, but we now use it for only a few minutes and then throw it away. He says the state legislature is contemplating this, but 20% of the cities and towns in the Commonwealth have already done this. He says this is deserving of study and analysis. Will it make a difference? Should we ban all bags and not just at supermarkets? We might not be Cambridge but we are Lowell. We should discuss it. He moves that we send this to the subcommittee on the environment and let them take it up. Then we can make an informed decision.
Councilor Nuon acknowledges the concern about the burden on the elderly and the poor. He shares that concern. But he thinks the motion is well-intentioned. He would like it to be sent to the environmental subcommittee so we can hear from all parties. This and the other related motions should be sent to that committee.
Councilor Kennedy says he has no objection to bundling them and doing that is OK with him if it’s OK with the maker of the motion.
Councilor Conway says it’s a good motion and people are going in that direction. But he’s concerned that with the state proceeding with a plan of its own and we come up with our own ban, we risk having businesses expending money to comply with our ban and then having different requirements by the state. He is worried that these measures at the local level might be inconsistent with state measures.
Councilor Cirillo accepts bundling the motions as long as everyone who is registered to speak can speak tonight.
Councilor Kennedy says he only know of a single Senate Bill (424). He says it has been filed for a number of years but there’s no indication that it’s going to pass soon. He expects the environmental subcommittee (which he says didn’t meet over the past two years) would fully study this so that it will by consistent with the possible state law.
Mayor Samaras reads the following three motions so that they may be bundled with this one and all sent to the environmental subcommittee. [Mayor reads the three motions].
Councilor Leahy says there is a bill pending in the House. He says we should discuss it but we should wait for the state to act.
Speaker 1 – represents members of Sierra Club who live in Lowell. There are 1000+ Sierra Club members in Lowell. They support the ban of single use plastic bags and Styrofoam containers. They are not biodegradable. They become trash. He says there are alternatives: biodegradable or reusable containers. We’ve got to start somewhere.
Jay Mason – speaking as private citizen. Says it is a direction we need to go in but supports more discussion and information. Says plastic bags are made from natural gas extracted by fracking which is another issue. He says we can debate the cost but should include the cost of litter pickup. Boston passed this just a couple of weeks ago. A packaging company raised concerns but Mayor Walsh of Boston went ahead and enacted notwithstanding those concerns. This has the potential to make the community more sustainable and resilient. Doesn’t agree that it will cost more. Instead of waiting for the state to act, we should set the example.
Lisa Arnold supports the motion. Has gone shopping 3 or 4 times since Friday. Realized she had carried her stuff home in plastic bags she didn’t need. I should have taken a small step to prevent that. If I wasn’t given those bags I wouldn’t have gotten those bags. She then says in Germany on vacation over Christmas, was carrying a UMass Lowell bag. Three different people came up to her and said how much they love Lowell. Providing reusable bags gives us an opportunity for branding for the city. And Lowell has always been a leader. We don’t have to wait for the state. We should set the example on this.
Councilor Mercier says she received three calls from business people who said non-styrofoam cups are much more expensive. She said it costs more to process and produce paper bags.
Mayor Samaras says all sides will be able to make their presentation to the subcommittee.
Councilor Elliott says on the third motion on banning Styrofoam, will this apply to all coffee shops? Cirillo says yes. Elliott says he thinks this will drive businesses out of town.
Councilor Mercier asks for a roll call on this. Seven vote to send it to the subcommittee; Councilors Mercier and Elliott vote against sending them to the Environmental Subcommittee.
Councilor Cirillo – Req. City Mgr. approve the purchase of 10,000 reusable bags for our seniors and low-income residents and develop a plan to distribute them to our residents. (sent to environmental subcommittee)
Councilor Cirillo – Req. City Mgr. direct the Law Department to create an ordinance that would require the City of Lowell ban all sales and distribution of expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam) food containers, with a requirement that food packaging be recyclable or compostable. This ordinance will affect all establishments that serve food or drink in single-use disposable service-ware. This includes but is not limited to cups, plates, bowls, hinged or lidded containers, straws, cup lids, and utensils. Food establishments such as restaurants and fast food stores, grocery and convenience stores, beverage retailers, and other retailers will be required to comply with this ordinance. (sent to environmental subcommittee)
Councilor Cirillo – Req. City Mgr. direct the Department of Planning and Development to give the City an update regarding where we are in the process of the Canal Bridge’s bids which are due to be received on January 30th. Passes with no discussion.
Councilor Cirillo – Req. City Mgr. have the Division of Planning and Development produce a zoning amendment to allow the Zoning Board of Appeals to issue a special permit for the addition of front porches to existing homes. Councilor Cirillo says this is a quality of life motion. She thinks giving residents a greater opportunity to build front porches so they can sit outside, get to know their neighbors. Councilor Milinazzo supports this but believes it should go to Development Services. Councilor Elliott questions the need for this. City Manager Murphy says he would normally have Eric Slagle work with Councilor Cirillo to ascertain what exactly she wants. Elliott asks what the process his now. CM says if it meets setback requirements to they can build it. But if there’s not sufficient setback, they can seek a variance from the Board of Appeals. Councilor Kennedy says he assumes the point of the motion is to promote having more front porches in the city. That might mean making it easier to add a front porch. Referred to city manager.
ADJOURNMENT at 8:38 pm.