City council live blog 3/22/11 — the “Lois Lane” edition

Posted by Jeremy Shulkin

No matter what is discussed in tonight’s city council meeting, the most important take-away from the night is that That’s Entertainment! has asked that the private street next to them be changed to “Lois Lane.”

Sorry for the late posting. We’ve gotten this message from WordPress for most of the night:

“We’re experiencing some problems on WordPress.com and we are in read-only mode at the moment. We’re working hard on restoring full service as soon as possible, but you won’t be able to create or make changes to your site currently.”

7:11: Bonnie Johnson of Boylston speaks about tax abatements. She wants to make sure the city responds to those seeking an abatement, saying she’s helped file 12 in the city, but only one of those have heard back from the city. One of those 12 said she found her living space increased by 1,000 feet.

Another woman complains about treatment from the city assessor’s office, who didn’t want to hear her complaints.

Johnson spoke with the former assessor too, who said he used to visit properties and justify when they were denied.

“This is a lot of money to a senior when they are told in January that they have to come up with another $100 by Feb. 1.”

She has assessor Ford’s property information, but her time gets cut off.

7:18: Joan Crowell says she’s investigated real estate valuations this year. She says during an interim year in assessing, there shouldn’t have been an increase in so many valuations, especially when compounded with the dip in the housing market.

“The city has been using unfair methodology when valuing developed land.”

She picks out Joe Petty’s house as an example. “Last year councilor Petty knew that his decks and sheds were valued at $20,000.” She says that’s been hidden this year.

She has another example where the department knew they made a mistake, but instead of admitting so they just made slight changes. (It was a tax exempt property, she points out, but shows the city’s calculations can be inaccurate.)

She says the state’s Department of Revenue will be overseeing the city’s assessing in 2012, so she wants a “thorough investigation” of all methodologies used now, before the DOR incorporates them in their own next year.

Petty says Ford walked through some of these examples on the radio a couple of times, but maybe the assessor can come and give more information to the council.

M.O’Brien says he’ll be in the chambers next week, and there have been two memos to council regarding these methodologies. He says other questions asked by council will be answered next week as well. “This system will have much more information online…expect dynamic action on all of these things…for this fall.”

Petty wants direct responses to some of the items used as examples. “Transparency is the issue here. I think we need a response to what was said here today…try to answer all the abatements that have been filed here.”

J.O’Brien says there could be an extension to the abatement process if there’s a backlog.

Lukes says “I’ve gotten more complaints this year about the tax rate.” She wants something that shows what the average value would have been if the tax rate wasn’t raised, and if the $2 mil for streets and sidewalks wasn’t tacked onto the tax levy. She says all the blame can’t go on the assessors office because of these other factors.

7:32: M.O’Brien presents his “Fiscal State of the City” report:

He says this was requested by the council, specifically Clancy.

He starts with “pre-recession”: Living within our means, identify budget concerns, forgo quick fixes and using one-time money for one-time expenses. “It really was a new dawn,” he says. They also put aside 50% of free cash, started capital projects like North High, improving bond ratings and enacting section 18 and 75/25 health care splits.

During the downtown city revenue, state aid, new construction and motor vehicle excise taxes all declined, while real estate tax revenue stayed stable. He pegs state aid declines at $22 million annually.

So what’s happened?

Layoffs, vacant positions. There have been 225 positions lost in three years (15% of workforce). WPD, WFD and all departments had deep cuts. Negotiations with city unions for 75/25 benefits payments. The city purchased street lights and transferred airport to Massport, and spent $2 million in saved emergency funds for the snowstorms this year.

“In light of what we’ve endured, our fiscal foundation for our city remains strong.”

“Troubling fiscal trends”:

Additional local aid cuts, fixed costs (like health care rates) “devouring” city-side revenues and a $1.5 million mandated increase in city investments in the public school system.

He says 85% of city budget goes to wages and benefits. “Steep job loss trends continue due to revenue declines and budget busting employee benefit cost growth.”

(It’s been pointed out to me that these graphs aren’t starting at zero.)

He has a graph that shows municipal services revenues have declined 14% since FY08 while fixed costs have risen 19% and education has risen 12%.

2012 budget preview:

There is some good news: federal health care changes have brought down provider premiums lower than expected. There’s no snow removal deficit either.

M.O’Brien says there was going to be 2% wage increases for employees, but that can’t happen. This will be the third year of zero wage increases. And there’s still a $7 mil deficit as of now.

This could bring a reduction to 1,300 employees – an “all time low,” he says.

Some of these dramatic cuts will bring down police to “strictly 911” – no more community impact and additional fire station closures, public works could lose curbside pick up and park maintenance.

“Community expectations would need to adjust to new service levels” – expect less service while taxes go up.

He breaks down the layoffs even further (this slide is called his “option of last resort”):

-46 fewer police officers
-45 fewer fire fighters
-40 fewer DPW workers
-Total of 150 131 city positions (150 would be effected because 19 non-union employees would change health care coverage, but would keep their jobs)

He proposes some alternatives:

-Have muni unions and city craft a GIC-like health care plan

-Have the state legislature pass the Governor’s bill that would require cities to have GIC-like plans or go into the GIC altogether

-He says the senate has been “silent” this year, but last year they agreed with the MMA’s plan-design ideas

-“I’m grateful that this is being discussed”

He produces his own “local health care network”:
-Incorporates provider discounts and medical management programs
-Proves access to Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Fallon at lower costs
-Deductibles established yearly
-Co-pay tiering
-Co-pay increases would mirror the GIC
-“Incentivizes employees to select the lowest cost plans”

He says Worcester Public Schools could save between $6 and $8 million if this plan was enacted, and the best part about this is that any agreement for the city to go this route would pre-empt any other legislation enacted by the legislature, and would likely make up the majority of the budget deficit.

He says his next budget proposal will factor in layoffs if negotiations aren’t successful.

“This is probably one of the most sobering presentations I’ve had to sit through,” says Toomey. “We all knew it was coming.” She wants to know if the 5% population increase for Worcester helps at all. M.O’Brien says they’re still waiting for the feds to figure out what’s going on.

M.O’Brien says he’s not planning on more early retirement programs. When the economy bounces back public safety is apt to rehire quicker than jobs that were phased out of government. “DPW is an aging workforce, we’re not hiring new…lots of institutional memory that went out” because of early retirement options last year.

Petty compliments M.O’Brien on his GIC-like plan. “The way the speaker of the house has spoken is he’s pretty much going to force us to do some GIC-like plan.” M.O’Brien says the Speaker’s plan would save about the same amount of money for the city as O’Brien’s.

Clancy says this “is the nature of what we’ve been going through over the past few years, but there’s a breaking point.”

“I am impressed with the creativity” he says of M.O’Brien’s GIC plan. “I think we’re going to get more specifics…but what I didn’t hear this evening is about retirees. Is there a GIC-like plan that we’re presenting here that would qualify for retirees?” M.O’Brien says he did not transition retirees.

Clancy wants more detail on this plan for non-union employees and retirees.

Haller goes back to the three options presented where there are some alternatives to layoffs offered. Haller wants to know if any of the legislative actions – especially the MMA’s plan to eliminate bargaining over health care – would effect the city’s own localized GIC-like plan.

M.O’Brien says that state would take over with both the MMA’s plan or the Governor’s plan (after a certain amount of time of stalled local negotiations).

“I believe there will be action this session. I don’t know what forms that will take,” O’Brien says about legislative action on these, but he says it’s best not wait and to have the city do it’s own GIC-thing.

Haller agrees. “I believe that was the intention of this report.” She says if layoffs can be staved off, then the city’s own GIC-like pool is the way to go.

Rushton asks about the retirees: “What exactly are you doing?…It’s a possibility the retirees wouldn’t be a part of the GIC-like plan?” M. O’Brien says retirees “would be in that scenario as well. This would effect our retirees.”

Rushton sounds skeptical that some people may be hurt (financially) by this move, especially those on low/fixed income employees, but he says that he appreciates M.O’Brien has shown he thought about them, and he’s appreciative of it.

Lukes says “this is the kind of reform that would be considered revolutionary in other parts of the country” and points out that there isn’t a flood of people or cameras in the hallway.

Palmieri calls this “reasonably comprehensive and interesting…sensible compromises that still need to be negotiated.” But one discussion point is missing: “a creative wellness program. If our employees are healthy and our families are healthy, then geez, there’d be less people utilizing the services.”

“If there’s anything that I might suggest, it would be to take a closer look to find better ways, providing whatever incentives there could be getting employees and families to get healthier.”

J.O’Brien wants to talk about the retirees specifically. He says those that aren’t medicare eligible have worked all their lives for the city, “a lot of those folks are making 18-20 thousand” in pensions. “Very small.” He wants to know how many people fall into that category, and the range of their salaries. “I think we should think about retirees a little bit differently” because they aren’t getting out and going back to work.

“I think we all agree that we need to get everyone back at the table…we have a lot of work to do on the school-side.” But he warns about the difference between “reform” and “cost-sharing.” “This really, if structured correctly, is going to bring down the overall costs for everyone in the system,” he says about the city-wide GIC-esq plan.

He echoes Palmieri’s wellness points. Blue Cross/Blue Shield’s, he says, is difficult to get wellness credit from. Fire fighters have brought it up to him. State police, apparently, have incentives to work out and stay healthier.

“Not all city employees are on the same parity when it comes to pay,” he cautions. “Thinking a little creatively, recognizing that we have folks on far different places on our salary scale.”

“I think we all agree…no one in this room wants to see fewer police on the street,” a sentiment he echoes for fire fighters and DPW workers.

Toomey comes back asking to look at the entire city, not just police, fire and DPW “so that we’re not just going after the people out on the front lines.” She wants admin positions included. M.O’Brien says “you’ve seen cuts from senior cabinet members down to non-represented employees…there’s been that dutiful work that’s been done.” He says  he identified 19 non-repped employees and taking 0% wage increases. He says he focused on the unionized employees because those are the ones he has to negotiate with.

And that the end of budget talk. Back to the agenda:

Virginia Ryan wants to make sure her medicare number is never given away to help prevent fraud. She says when she got her flu shot at the senior center her number was on her form and a lot of people were able to see it. She does get a good punch in there, saying only one of the councilors is old enough to be forced on to medicare by the city.

9:04: The use of nasal Narcan for fire fighters is referred to the Manager’s office. J.O’Brien, a paramedic and Narcan proponent, sponsors this one.

9:06: Clancy wants to know about exemptions for elders on annual income and assets. He wants to know if they can be raised by local ordinance. He says they haven’t been raised for at least 24 years. “With our elderly population, I think it’s key for them because some of them are borderline.”

Palmieri calls it a “sensible approach” and wants the administration to look at it as quickly as they can.

9:09: Clancy wants reports on parcels available for development in Washington Square and whether or not RFPs should be put out. Palmieri agrees.

9:12: Palmieri says there are two restaurants in Union Station that need assistance, and no one’s utilizing the main hall for functions. He wants free parking after 6:00 to get people going there. He points out there are very few restaurants in the city that make you pay to park in their parking lot. Clancy calls this “Spags country” in regards to the $1 parking fee.

9:20: Rushton brings up Magmotors’ ditching of their move to Worcester (but they still want to move here, they say). “I want the administration to work diligently with Magmotors to make sure they come to Worcester.” He adds that for all kids taking MCAS tomorrow, “good luck.” Toomey offers it to the teachers and parents.

9:23: Clancy wants to see a tree pick up on the South side yard waste disposal site.

Petty talks about a home rule petition to get cameras on traffic lights, but it died somewhere. He wants an update on what’s up with it.

9:27: And that’s it.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “City council live blog 3/22/11 — the “Lois Lane” edition

  1. Adam Pasquale

    Mr. Shulkin,

    Awesome work! Keep it up and you might be recruited by the City to record the official minutes of the meetings!

    Adam Pasquale

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  3. -Q

    Choices…..its all about the choices and it is clear as day that the city manager chooses to jeapordize our public safety and city services rather than clear out the $100k + administrators sitting behind desks. The city manager claims to have cut to the bone administratively, but has he really?
    If the city manager truly believes he has cut all he can out of his $100k+ boys and girls club at city hall and on albany st. – then I have a bridge to sell him that spans the lake over rt.9…………It is all about choices and the city council is going to have top make some hard choices too – its either they grow a backbone and actually fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities and the oaths office they took to SERVE the residents and taxpayers of our city or they continue on their merry way keeping their heads buried in the sand like ostriches………checks and balances are what our form of Plan-E government is supposed to be all about, but unfortunately the city councilors political careers are now tied at the hip to this city manager and it is the residents and taxpayers that are ill served by this political marriage arrangement……….Its all about choices and the choices of cutting the frontline service providers and the reductions in city services while leaving untouched (again) the city managers boys and girls club is untenable and unacceptable………..if the city council approves the city managers budget without DEMANDING massive cuts on the city managers administrative side, then it will also be the city council that will shoulder complete responsibility along with this city manager for the ongoing decline of our city and the meager services our misspent taxpayer monies currently provide…………..its all about the choices……..hopefully voice of reason will rise up on the city council floor and demand accountability from this city administration not just in words spoke but in deeds accomplished

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