Lowell Politics Newsletter: May 5, 2024

No single issue dominated Tuesday’s Lowell City Council meeting although several items deserve mention. The Lowell Public Schools came up several times, most notably when Superintendent of Schools Liam Skinner appeared to answer questions about a batch of “bad bills” the Council was being asked to ratify.

For several years now, the Lowell School Department has shown a woeful inability to pay some of its bills. It’s not for lack of funds but from a failure to follow the prescribed system of government procurement. Viewed through the lens of the household checkbook or even a small business, government finance might seem complex but it’s not. The process is straightforward.

In the city’s annual budget, each office is allocated an amount of funds for designated purposes. When that office wishes to purchase goods or services, it requests bids from multiple vendors and then selects the bid that gives the best value. The office then obtains a purchase order from whatever office oversees the city’s finances – most likely the City Auditor or the Purchasing Department. The purchase order (also known as a “PO”) sets the money aside so it won’t be spent on something else, and the office making the acquisition places its order with the vendor, sharing the PO with the vendor as evidence the bill will be paid. The vendor delivers the item and the office that received the item forwards the invoice annotated with the PO number to the Auditor (or whoever handles that) for payment to the vendor.

It’s pretty simple. Before you buy anything, get a PO. When you receive the thing, submit the invoice for payment.

One twist is that something purchased with funds from one fiscal year has to be received during that fiscal year and the invoice has to be submitted for payment before that fiscal year is “closed out” by the finance people, something that usually happens at the end of August. Even if a PO had been obtained and money set aside, if no invoice is submitted for payment by the end of August, the PO will be cancelled and the money that had been set aside will be swept away.

Occasionally a problem will arise when something is missed, and an invoice is submitted for payment after the books have been closed for that fiscal year. That’s what is called a “bad bill” which means the bill must be paid with money from the new fiscal year. To do that requires the authorization of the entity that appropriates money in the first place. For the city of Lowell, that’s the Lowell City Council.

I assume the city purchasing side has an occasional bad bill, but they are so rare that when they do get before the Council, they breeze through without comment. But when it comes to the Lowell School Department over the past few years, there have been dozens upon dozens of bad bills. When they have been presented to Councilors they often lack supporting documentation and never come with a reason why they weren’t paid on time. Because this has happened over and over again without any evidence of improvement, Councilors have been less willing to ratify these payments absent some clear indication that the problem will be addressed.

That indication came on Tuesday night when Superintendent Skinner appeared. In succinct and direct remarks to Councilors, he said he is in the process of hiring a new chief financial officer and perhaps his highest priority in the hiring process is quizzing the candidates for the job on how they would fix this problem. Skinner assured Councilors that he won’t be back before them at the end of the current fiscal year with more bad bills. Councilors seemed content with those assurances, even a bit relieved, and voted to pay the bills.


The Public Schools also came up on a motion by Councilor Corey Robinson that the “City Manager explore possible means to assist the Lowell Public Schools in retaining the Community Schools model in District 2.” I’m not familiar with the details of the “community schools model” as implemented in Lowell, however, a constituent who spoke in favor of the motion described something that transcends the classroom experience. The speaker highlighted the many challenges facing parents and caregivers and how the schools, or school-based services, can assist. The speaker mentioned things like before and after school childcare, enrichment activities, and medical services, food, and clothing.

In most cases, a motion like this would have sailed through on a voice vote with perhaps a few Councilors thanking the speaker. But this time was different. Councilors held an extended discussion on jurisdiction with some saying this was a School Committee issue in which the Council had no authority to act. The motion ultimately passed, but it took a roll call vote and even then it was just six in favor with five against.

I confess to chuckling to myself while listening to this debate. Just a week ago, Councilor Robinson, who made this motion, voted against a motion made that evening by Councilor Kim Scott and Mayor Dan Rourke that the city revisit the school desegregation decree from 1989. Robinson cited a lack of jurisdiction by the Council as one reason for his opposition. Now this week, some Councilors voting against Robinson’s motion repeated almost verbatim Robinson’s reasons for voting against the motion last week to explain their opposition to his motion this week.

Setting aside the Council’s interpersonal dynamics, the type of ancillary school-based services described by this week’s resident-speaker are desperately needed in all of the city’s schools. Any child who arrives in a classroom in a Lowell public school who is well fed, well rested, well clothed, well cared for and comes from a safe and supportive home – regardless of how traditional or non-traditional the occupants of that home may be – will receive an excellent education. However, for too many kids, some or all of those prerequisites of learning are simply not available.

The only way to break out of this pattern is for society to provide these things to the kids who need them. We’ve been trying to do that for nearly a half century. There have been some successes but not enough to keep pace with the scale of the needs. While more money would certainly help, it’s not an option and, more importantly, I’m not sure that it’s necessary. What is necessary is a more efficient way of delivering existing resources and services to those who need them.

The “existing resources” I refer to are dispersed among independent agencies – local government, local schools, state government, federal government, and non-profits that are funded by government – with no one in overall command, no one responsible for the big picture. Each of those agencies operates within its own universe and the concept of sharing resources is usually seen as a threat rather than an opportunity.

The first step is to recognize the need. The second step is to break down the silos in which providers seem to operate and start better coordinating existing resources.

We’ve had “summits” on homelessness, housing, and other things, but I’m not sure I remember a summit on education and all the services that support education in the broadest sense. Perhaps it’s time to give it a try.


A response to several motions on vacant properties provided an update on tax takings within the city. Under Massachusetts law, the city has an automatic lien on real estate for unpaid taxes. If the deficiency persists, the city can take steps to perfect that lien and if the outstanding balance is not paid, the city can foreclose the lien and gain ownership of the property.

When that happens, the city owns the property outright regardless of the tax deficiency. For example, if someone owned a house worth $400,000 and owed $1,000 in delinquent property taxes, when the city forecloses its lien, the city would make a $399,000 profit and the homeowner would get back none of the equity.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a similar law in Minnesota violated the United States Constitution. Although the Massachusetts law wasn’t part of the lawsuit, everyone here assumes our law would also be judged unconstitutional if challenged. Consequently, most municipalities have held off on any new foreclosures of tax liens. In fact, a Massachusetts trial court made just such a ruling in a recent decision. Supposedly the state legislature is working on a fix to the tax lien law but nothing (public) has happened thus far.

In the meantime, the city is without one of the tools it had to address abandoned and dilapidated properties. Councilors expressed their frustration with problem properties that have remained untouched for years, even decades. A representative from the city’s Law Department explained that it is a long, complicated process. In that I would have to concur.

Often the biggest obstacle is determining who owns the property. Here’s a typical (though hypothetical) scenario: Mother and father bought a house in the 1960s. They had one child who continued living in the house into adulthood and never married or had children. Mother and father have died. Adult child continued to live in the home and earned enough income to pay property taxes. As adult child ages, they get dementia and spend the next five years in a care facility. No one lives in the house and with no known relatives nearby, no one is caring for the house. Adult child eventually dies. Who owns the house? Well someone does and that someone is entitled to notice and a chance to respond before the city can take the house for nonpayment of taxes (that’s called “due process” and is also guaranteed by the US Constitution). So the Law Department has to get into the genealogy business and track down distant heirs. That takes a lot of time and effort. If that’s all the lawyers had to do, it might happen faster, but they can’t neglect responding to all the motions made by City Councilors and so don’t quite have the time to get to the bottom of these family history issues.

What I describe above is not universally the case. Sometimes adult child in my scenario is still alive albeit in a care facility and incapable of responding. Should the city take that person’s house in those circumstances, the same Councilors demanding action be taken now would be the first to condemn that very same action.

In other cases, the property might have other problems, like having been built on top of an old dump that no one wants to be responsible for. The number of possible scenarios just adds to the difficulty of addressing these issues. They do have to be addressed and should be done diligently, but it’s very complicated and does not happen quickly.


I have a couple of walking tours coming up. On Saturday, May 18, 2024, at 10am at Lowell Cemetery, I’ll lead a 90-minute walking tour of the graves of some of the US military veterans buried in the cemetery in recognition of Memorial Day. The tour will begin at the Knapp Avenue entrance and is free.

On Saturday, May 25, 2024, at 10am beginning at Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center at 246 Market Street, I’ll lead a 90-minute walking tour of the Hamilton Canal Innovation District. This tour is sponsored by the National Park.

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