Richard Howe Substack: Jan 14, 2024

January 14, 2024

The Lowell City Council met Tuesday night in the aftermath of Sunday’s big 17-inch snowstorm. Predictably, Councilors talked a lot about snow removal. That’s a topic that everyone has an opinion on; Councilors especially so. City Manager Tom Golden explained that it’s been a while since the city’s snow removal plan has been implemented, and it was unfortunate that their first run through this year was for such a substantial depth of snow.

Some of the practical challenges like equipment breakdowns and the need to provide rest periods for equipment operators (who cannot and should not be expected to work throughout a storm of long duration) dribbled out in Golden’s remarks, but Council meeting snow removal discussions are exercises in communal venting rather than a meaningful attempt to make the system better which is, after all, the job of the City Manager.

One recurring problem is the lack of off street parking in the city’s densely packed neighborhoods. Constructed at a time before automobiles existed, houses in these neighborhoods are squeezed together with few driveways and garages. While some city parking garages are made available for free parking during snowstorms, expecting residents in more distant neighborhoods to utilize this service is wishful thinking.

The longer term solution is to pursue policies that allow residents to function with fewer automobiles. Such policies would include better public transportation, promoting the use of bicycles and walking, and providing a technological infrastructure that facilitates remote work for as many jobs as possible. Policies like these have many other benefits: housing becomes more affordable if less automobile parking is demanded; fewer driveways mean more permeable surface area to absorb rain leaving less water running into the sewer system; fewer single occupant vehicle trips help reduce pollution and climate change. None of this will make things better before the next snowstorm, but if you don’t start now, you’ll just do the same thing over and over again.

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Speaking of doing the same thing over and over again, the inadequacy of the city’s maintenance of the Lowell Public Schools buildings was again in the news when the Lowell Sun reported on a Massachusetts Department of Public Health investigation of mold at the Pawtucketville Memorial School. The report attributes some of the problem to the after effects of the cyberattack on city computer systems that occurred back on April 24, 2024. Specifically, the resulting cyber outage affected the ability to control the schools HVAC system which is dependent on the internet.

The phrase the “internet of things” (also known as IOTS) came into being a dozen years ago to describe the network of devices like thermostats, refrigerators, lights, automobiles, and other things that are now networked on the internet to facilitate communication between the devices and the cloud and between the devices themselves.

In a world in which almost everything is connected, it’s not surprising that a cyberattack can knock out essential infrastructure. But when it comes to solving the widespread and chronic maintenance problems that have plagued the Lowell Public School buildings for decades, it sounds more like an excuse than a step towards solving the problem. This past Monday, school in Lowell was cancelled because of the snow. That was understandable. But in recent years, school has also been cancelled (or severely disrupted) by no heat, no air conditioning, broken pipes, mold, and a variety of other issues that were neither unique nor isolated. In Lowell, those problems are chronic and recurring.

It is said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. That about sums up the city’s approach to school maintenance over the past several decades.

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The case of Commonwealth v. Corey Robinson was back in the news this week. The Sun reported on the pretrial conference held on Wednesday in the Lowell District Court. According to the Sun, Robinson’s attorney used the court appearance to press the “Robinson is falsely accused” narrative, seemingly based on the alleged victim’s recantation of her earlier statements to the police. The prosecution countered by listing other pieces of evidence besides the victim’s statements that point to Robinson’s culpability. The case will return to court for a scheduling conference on February 6, 2024.

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At Tuesday’s meeting, Robinson’s Council colleagues seemed inclined to move on from their prior response to Robinson’s arrest. At previous meetings, a majority either tabled or voted down any motions made by Robinson.

When the opportunity to do something similar first arose on Tuesday, only Councilors John Leahy and Wayne Jenness voted No on the first thing from Robinson that arose. Councilors Vesna Nuon, Kim Scott, Paul Ratha Yem, Sokhary Chau, and Mayor Dan Rourke, who had all previously supported the informal attempt to sanction Robinson, relented and voted Yes (as did newcomer John Descoteaux). Thereafter, any Robinson motion was addressed via voice votes with no opposition.

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Shifting our gaze from City Hall to Beacon Hill, Politico’s Massachusetts Playbook, newsletter this week reported that Governor Maura Healey plans to cut $375 million from the current state budget because state tax collections are running $769 million behind the revenue estimates upon which the current fiscal year’s budget was based.

For reference, the state budget runs from July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024, so we’re more than halfway through the fiscal year. Also, the overall state budget is about $56 billion.

It wasn’t that long ago that Governor Healey and the legislature enacted $1 billion in tax cuts and credits due to soaring tax revenue collections. This illustrates the boom then bust nature of state funding. The economy heats up, tax collections exceed expectations, then the additional money is either spent or given back in the form of tax cuts. But that additional spending and those tax cuts are embedded into the system so when the economy slows and tax collections decline, big cuts are needed to balance the budget.

With Lowell relying heavily on the Commonwealth for supplemental funding for the city budget, particularly for the schools, it’s likely just a matter of time until the impact of these cuts and more to come in the FY25 state budget are felt at the local level.

I believe that most of the decline is attributable to higher interest rates. In general, the national economy is doing well with unemployment very low and inflation cooling. However, large portions of state tax collections come from capital gains income, and with interest rates so high relative to what they were 18 months ago, there are fewer transactions taking place that would yield capital gain tax revenue.

As I’ve previously written, the number of documents recorded at the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds in calendar year 2023 was the lowest since 1983. Here are the document totals for the past five years:

  • 2019 – 60,104
  • 2020 – 69,438
  • 2021 – 75,922
  • 2022 – 52,819
  • 2023 – 39,115

In my 30 years as register of deeds, the previous low was last year with 52,819 and then 2014 with 53584. (The three highest years were 2003 with 146,956; 2002 with 115,890; and 2001 with 97,180).

The higher the number of documents recorded, the more revenue is collected. In 2023, the registry collected $15.7 million in recording fees and excise taxes whereas in 2022, revenue was $21.6 million.

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Another negative consequence of reduced recording volume at the registry of deeds is less money for the Community Preservation Fund. The CPA is a 20-year-old state program that encourages municipalities to preserve open space and historical sites and to increase housing and recreation by creating a state matching fund for money collected at the local level through a surcharge on property tax revenue. The state’s matching fund is paid for by a $50 per document surcharge on registry of deeds recordings. With the number of documents recorded in 2023 so much lower than in prior years, the amount of money flowing into the CPA matching fund will decrease leaving less to be distributed to communities.

The voters of Lowell overwhelmingly adopted the Community Preservation Act in 2019 and a big project that received a good chunk of its funding from the Lowell CPA was in the news this week. That was the purchase of Rollie’s Farm in Pawtucketville by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. While Mass Audubon is the titleholder of the land, the 20 acre parcel will be operated in partnership with Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust and Mill City Grows. While this transaction should not be adversely affected by reduced state contributions to the CPA, it illustrates the benefits of CPA funding to the community and should make us aware of the negative impact that general CPA reductions could have.

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Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Although not related to Lowell, I recommend watching the 2023 movie Rustin which is about the life of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, an associate of Rev. King and the prime organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. The film is streaming on Netflix.

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