Tuesday night’s Lowell City Council meeting was largely uneventful, which is not necessarily a bad thing. There was the obligatory winter-time segment on potholes of which there are many. City Manager Tom Golden cited an enormous quantity of blacktop used by DPW workers to fill these holes which seem to just swallow it up and demand more the next day. Councilor Erik Gitschier again preached from the gospel of “crack sealing” as a preventative measure.
There was also a response to a Councilor John Descoteaux motion on why LRTA buses weren’t using the “bus only” lanes that bisect the remade Lord Overpass. The written response addressed two points: (1) for the traffic signals on the bus lanes to work properly, they must have a Verizon WIFI connection which hasn’t been made yet by the contractor. This is expected to be done within two months with an additional month for testing; and (2) the LRTA buses that would use the dedicated lane all would go straight along Thorndike Street. With no need for the buses to make turns onto Chelmsford, Appleton, or Middlesex, there need not be a separate bus lane phase of the signals. Instead, the bus lane would proceed when the traffic heading in the same direction had green lights.
However, in answering Councilor questions, Transportation Engineer Elizabeth Oltman added a few other factors. One reason the buses have not been using the dedicated lane is that the traffic light for that lane now stays green for just 6 seconds which is comically inadequate. She also indicated that any bus – not just LRTA or Lowell Public School vehicles – will be able to use that lane. That means when luxury coaches come in or out of downtown, they can utilize that center lane. Theoretically, getting those larger vehicles out of the travel lanes used by everyone else will allow those lanes to move more quickly.
The Community Preservation Committee delivered its recommendations for the 2024 funding cycle to Councilors. Recall that Lowell voters adopted the Community Preservation Act in 2019 by an overwhelming margin in a ballot referendum. This created a 1% surcharge on most property taxes to fund CPA projects. The state has a matching fund that contributes other money. The state portion is funded through a surcharge of $50 per document recorded at the registry of deeds.
The Committee recommended funding for four projects:
- $200,000 to Acre Crossing for 33 affordable housing units at 408 Suffolk & 585 Market known as Suffolk Place.
- $146,000 to Mullins Management Company to create 82 affordable housing units in the historic boiler house and main power house of the Massachusetts Mills complex.
- $265,000 to 199 Market Street LLC to rehabilitate 199-201 Market Street to contain a ground floor commercial unit and two residential units.
- $200,000 to Julio Rodriguez to rehabilitate 150 Middlesex Street, creating 9 residential units.
Notably, there were no open space preservation projects proposed this year.
The Council referred this to a joint meeting of the Neighborhood and Finance Subcommittees.
City Manager Tom Golden gave an update on the Cawley Stadium repair and renovation project. He called it “an exciting time” for the athletic complex. The report described several imminent improvements that seem ready to proceed:
Installation of new turf and improved drainage on the Carvalho soccer field will take place this summer and should be finished and ready to use by mid-August. The cost for this project is $2.9 million.
Construction of a standalone building (5000 to 6000 square feet in size) that will house locker rooms, a weight room, coaches’ offices, meeting rooms, a concession stand, and restrooms. This building will cost $4.3 million and will take nearly a year to construct once plans, bids, and contracts are finalized.
There was also mention of a second building described as “a basic modular building with a customized layout, flat roofs, and corrugated metal exterior walls” that would take 44 weeks to build at a cost of $3.9 million.
I haven’t followed the Cawley plans closely enough to know what this second building would be for. I assume it would provide a temporary home for other things currently housed under the cement grandstands which will be subject to a major renovation in a future phase of this project.
In any case, the vocal and politically active supporters of youth athletics in Lowell should be happy that the Cawley renovation project seems to be moving forward.
Councilors also received a report on “free cash” which was referred to the Finance Subcommittee. Before that happened, City Manager Golden and Chief Financial Officer Conor Baldwin gave a brief overview of the report.
In municipal government finances, money is appropriated and spent on a fiscal year basis. For the city, the fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, so now we’re in Fiscal Year 2024. Come July 1, Fiscal Year 2025 will begin. Theoretically, when you complete the fiscal year, the money you appropriated back when the budget was set should have covered all of the expenses leaving you with a zero balance and no debt. But that’s just how it works in theory. The real world doesn’t work that way.
Free cash is a recognition of that reality. Come July 1, when the city reconciles its finances for the just-finished fiscal year, money appropriated to a department that was not spent goes into free cash. So do tax collections that exceed estimates. However, free cash is offset by uncollected property taxes and other deficits.
According to the Manager and the CFO, the state Department of Revenue (which oversees all of this) recommends that cities should generate free cash equivalent to 3 to 5 percent of its annual budget. Since Lowell’s FY23 budget was $446 million, free cash should be somewhere between $13 million and $22 million.
The amount of free cash certified for the current fiscal year by the DOR for Lowell is $15.5 million. The city intends to use it as follows:
- $2 million for capital improvements, new equipment, and road maintenance
- $3.27 million to replenish the city’s stabilization fund
- $4 million for legal judgments and settlements
- $3 to fund collective bargaining agreements with city employees
- $775,000 for the OPEB Trust Fund (OPEB is Other Postemployment Benefits which provide health care, life insurance, and other benefits to city retirees).
As mentioned above, the Council’s Finance Subcommittee will take this up at a future meeting after which it will return to the full Council for a vote.
Just three weeks from this Tuesday is the Massachusetts Presidential Primary (Tuesday, March 5, 2024). Voting by mail is available with information available on the website of the city’s Elections office.
On the Democratic ballot, three candidates for president are listed:
Joseph R. Biden
Also on the ballot is elections for Democratic State Committee Man and Woman. This is done by state senate district and is divided by gender to promote balanced representation.
There are three candidates for Democratic State Committee Man in the First Middlesex District (which includes all of Lowell):
Geoffrey Feldman, 1541 Middlesex St., Lowell
Rafael Glod, 52 Massapoag Way, Dunstable
Mitchell Edward Paulin, 77 Mount Washington St., Lowell
There are two candidates for Democratic State Committee Woman:
Elizabeth A. Coughlin, 61 Lakeview Ave., Tyngsborough
Judith A. Durant, 50 Viola St., Lowell
And members of the Lowell Democratic City Committee are also elected on this ballot but that’s done by ward since each ward has its own committee. In most cases, there are more seats than there are candidates so everyone on the ballot for this position will win. You do have the option to “fill in this oval for the whole group” or you can just vote for individual names.
On the Republic ballot, the candidates for president are:
Donald J. Trump
For Republican State Committee Man, the sole candidate is
Brian K. Genest, 50 Lee Rd., Dracut
For Republican State Committee Woman, the sole candidate is
Noreen E. Crowley, 627 Varnum Ave., Lowell
This past week, nomination papers became available for offices that will be on the ballot in the Democratic and Republican Primary elections to be held on Tuesday, September 3, 2024, so you might start being asked to sign nominations papers next time you go to the grocery store.
Offices that will be on the ballot on the September 3 primary will be (with incumbent indicated):
US Senate (Elizabeth Warren)
US Representative (Lori Trahan)
Governor’s Councillor (this will be an open seat since the incumbent whose district includes Lowell, Eileen Duff, is running for Essex South Register of Deeds)
State Senator (Ed Kennedy)
State Representative (Rady Mom, Vanna Howard, or Rodney Elliott)
Register of Deeds (this will be an open seat since I’m not running for reelection)
Clerk of Courts (Michael Sullivan)
On Saturday, February 24, 2024, at 2 pm, lala books at 189 Market Street, Lowell, will host a gathering of area authors whose books were published by Loom Press during 2023. Here’s a list of who is expected to be there with their book titles:
Barnflower: A Rhode Island Farm Memoir by Carla Panciera
Beach Town: Stories by David Daniel
Northwest of Boston: Stories by Stephen O’Connor
Legends of Little Canada: Aunt Rose, Harvey’s Bookland, and My Captain Jack by Charlie Gargiulo
The Shape of Wind on Water: New and Selected Poems by Anne Fox Chandonnet
Covid Conversations: Voices from Lowell and Lawrence Massachusetts, Edited by Susan Grabski, Amita Kiley, and Susan Tripathy
More info about the event is available on the lala books website.