City Council live blog 4/5/11 — the Thunderdome edition

Posted by Jeremy Shulkin

For those of you who heard me preview the meeting this afternoon with Mark Carron and Mike Messina on WTAG, you know that I’m going to run with this Thunderdome metaphor for as long as I can.

The gist of tonight’s meeting: both the school committee and the city council will be there, going over budgets. While it might not be the “two budgets enter, one budget leaves” death match implied in the title, there could be some back and forth about where cuts can be made, where revenue can be boosted and — if we’re lucky — a general “don’t tell me how to run my side of the government” tone. A reporter can dream.

Oh, and they might bring up last week’s tobacco ordinance.

Agenda. Cover It Live.

7:15: And we’re off. A lot of absences tonight on the council side: Smith, Germain, Petty.

M.O’Brien begins with health insurance plan design changes. He says we’re dealing with a $22 mil loss annually from state aid. New construction is down as well, same with excise tax revenue as people aren’t buying new cars. On the bright side, real estate tax revenues are “stable.”

We’re down over 225 positions in 3 fiscal years, 15% of workforce, vacant positions have been frozen. “Deep cuts” in the WPD and WFD. He credits “the vast majority” of bargaining units that agreed to 75/25 copays, the airport transfer and the purchase of street lights as filling in gaps. The council also set aside $2 mil for emergencies for FY 11 from the airport transfer.

He says the Governor’s budget could cut an additional $2.7 million from unrestricted local aid. Health care still “devouring” money, and the city has to pay $1.5 mil increase to the public schools.

FY 12 began at a $14.3 mil deficit as a starting point. Some promising developments were health care provider premiums stayed below double digit projections. Some revenues increased on city side, no snow removal deficits. That equaled $4.3 mil to go toward closing deficit.

The other strategies to close the gap included freezing twenty vacant positions ($1 mil), no wage increase for the 3rd year in a row for employees ($2 mil) and moving 19 jobs to GIC-like health plan ($0.5 mil). This brings it down to a $6.5 mil deficit.

He shows a slide from a few weeks ago: All-time low (in the modern-era, I’m guessing) number of  employees (1,319 vs. 1,900 in FY 2001), making the WPD only a 911 response department, additional closures to fire stations and a reduction of city services and maintenance.

The three health care options are brought up: the Governor’s bill (move to the GIC if local negotiations go nowhere), the MMA’s bill (give cities and towns the authority to set/change plan designs) or create local GIC-like plans for Worcester municipal employees.

He unveils the new plans for Worcester, which includes a Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan and two different plans for the Worcester Advantage, one of which has two tiers.

He says it “provides access to affordable, quality health care” and addresses most of the city-side deficit, along with $6-8 mil on the WPS side. Enrollment begins in April, and if the unions don’t agree to the health care change his budget to the council in late April will include city layoffs.

O’Brien notes that this pre-empts any vote taken by the legislature, which he believes will pass either the Governor’s or MMA’s bill in June or July.

7:42: Superintendent Boone begins her presentation. She begins with the “Worcester Compact” which says 80% of students will be proficient in reading and math by 3rd grade in 2012, among other things.

She also brings up the “zero-based budget approach.” They re-bid special ed transportation, renegotiated utility rates. She says it saved 20 positions and well over $1 mil for the WPS.

State foundation funding has shrunk considerably since FY 09 (about $190 mil to $40 mil). She says the stimulus funds did for Worcester what they were supposed to do: save jobs.

(Forgive me if I’m missing a lot of the numbers, there’s no hand out to follow along, I’m at the mercy of 15 second powerpoint slides.)

WPS loss of grants and funds: $9.26 million. $2.1 million has gone to charter schools.

Since FY 2002 the WPS has reduced employee force by 11%. Teachers have gone down 13%. Clerical staff down 25%. (She notes that the WPS is the 3rd largest employer in Worcester.)

“We’re constantly changing.” Enrollment increase of almost 300 students between FY11 and FY12. 1,136 students are shifting in ELL programs.

She talks about the Governor’s budget. 326 school districts will see a decrease in chapt. 70 aid.

WPS is getting an additional $9.6 mil in state aid, with total growth of $11 million. But we’re losing $11 mil in stimulus funds. All said and done, we’re at a $4.3 mil revenue change. She says the city’s required contribution to the WPS is $84.3 million, or 29.2% of city revenue. She estimates an $11 mil increase in costs for the WPS for FY12.

The final number: $6.7 million deficit for the WPS.

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education says spending per pupil fell 11.3% since 2000. Over the past 17 years the cost of running a school district exceeded funding.

She says this means 71 elementary classes next year will have 27 or more students, among other bad news. Need areas include libraries, gifted and talented programs, high school electives, technical courses at all high schools, alternative education programs, full day pre-school and updated instructional materials. To cover these needs she says the WPS needs an additional $26 mil.

She says she appreciates the rehab money given to schools, but more money is need for 21st century infrastructure and attracting families to enroll in the WPS.

She gets a round of applause after her presentation.

Rushton kicks off the questioning. He begins by congratulating unions and the M.O’Brien for “coming together” over the past few years, and he hopes that will continue this year. His first question is addressed to Boone. It’s about keeping the middle class here in Worcester and keeping their kids enrolled in the WPS. “Between now and when we come back in session during late April I’m hoping we can get some plan about modernizing Doherty, Burncoat and South.” He calls Worcester Tech an “unbelievable job” and congrats them on the new North High building.

Boone says “we do know that each of those schools is targeted for the first round of rehab — not comprehensively…so those plans are very clear and city council has committed to a long term plan.”

“We need economic diversity in the city. We have diversity as far as cultures — ethnic and racial — and we have a thriving city in terms of the people that live here,” says Lukes. “Education is probably one the best tools we have for economic development.”

Boone explains that inflation, enrollments and changes to governor’s budget are reasons by her numbers have changed over the year. “We’ve also created some savings with our ed jobs money.”

Haller asks about a Boston Foundation article called “Guilded Benefits from a Bygone Era,” which is about municipal health care benefit plans. She says the plan brought forth from the manager would bring down deficits “if not solve the problem altogether.” But she wants more detail from the manager regarding his three health care plans.

M.O’Brien says he sees “work[ing] locally as the best option.”

Brian O’Connell wonders if a comprehensive plan was looked at that would expand out to hospitals in Boston, or include Harvard Pilgrim. M.O’Brien says they worked with local hospitals to control costs. “These plans will offer out of network structures. It’ll be more expensive to use a Boston doc, obviously.” He said they stayed local because most employees use UMass and St. Vincent, and there were already relationships built.

8:22: Monfredo wants to know if there’s an option for employees to opt-out of municipal health care insurance. O’Brien says yes, but there needs to be incentives for those to opt-out. Right now the plan is to get people established on their health care. “Then I’m certainly willing to look at opt-out.”

Toomey wants Boone to “keep us informed of what the plans are” to ensure that teachers are getting all the support they need in the classroom. She also wants a report on the $2.5 mil in savings from one specific year that Boone said saved 20 jobs.

8:26: Palmieri talks about having a “gifted school.” He understands that in this economy and budgets that probably won’t happen soon, “but I think it’s extraordinarily important for us to continue to look at a school for the gifted.” He calls this an economic generator and “sends the strongest message.”

“I’m hopeful that there can be a way.” He also talks about the EIP program (Early Intervention) for those in K-6 grade. “The school interfaces with the probation dept. and social workers and several other people in education” if a kid might have to go before a juvenile court. “I hope that you can continue to find ways to expand this program.” He also wants to come up with a smoking intervention/prevention program for schools. “We certainly share that vision,” says Boone.

“There are two tracks you can take in bad fiscal times: you can really bunker in…or you can be bold. I think we can do both.” He agrees that there should be a gifted school plan. He wants to know what money has been spent so far, what will be spent over the summer, and some problems with Honeywell’s savings estimates for the work they’re doing to make school buildings more efficient.

Brian Allen says a lot of the work going on will be done before the next school year starts, so students will see the changes when they arrive for the 2011-2012 school year.

Eddy reiterates Allen and Boone: “there is no current plan for funding that would rehab Doherty.”

Clancy begins with an address to all of the WPS to congratulate them on the “outstanding job you do on a daily basis.” He extends that to O’Brien and his staff. But, “I understand we’re trying to do more with less, and we might be at a breaking point.”

He asks for more of a breakdown with health care. O’Brien says one union hasn’t gone to 75/25. The savings if all unions transfer to new plans would be $5 mil. “I don’t know how many cities come up with these kinds of designs, but I know there are very few,” says Clancy. He praises O’Brien for his ideas and “creativity.” On the school side, he congratulates Boone for dealing with a “very parochial city” and coming in from out of state.

Novick asks that if cuts come to parks and public safety, they consider the impact it will have on children. She says a student was hit by a car today waiting for a bus. “There are thousands of kids who use our sidewalks and streets every day.” (Luckily, the kid only has a bruised hip.)

She says there are more health care bills aside from just the Gov’s and the MMA’s bill, including a couple proposed by the unions. She says what she’s hearing is bills “more in the middle” are what could be voted on. O’Brien says past history reflects if something passes, it’ll be similar to the MMA or Gov’s bill. (The senate voted on the MMA’s bill last year.)

Novick says she understands this is a difficult year, but “under what conditions would the city consider a budget that would propose funding the schools above foundation.” She implies that in cases of boon budget years the WPS still only get the minimum amount of funding.

Lukes wants to know from Boone if the budget is not solved, when will she send out layoff notices and how many would be laid off. She says the budget deficit equals 134 WPS positions. The number of potential layoffs could increase depending on the final House budget. She has ideas of where those cuts would come from, but doesn’t really say what those are. Lukes wants to know about administrative cuts. Boone says “it’s not that simple of an answer…I recognize that people think the salaries of administrators are the fluff within the budget,” but there needs to be a certain level of “district support” mandated by the state. “I don’t have the capacity to take principals off-line…we have done those reductions…on average the WPS has 1 administrator per 800 students. We’re well below urban districts across the Commonwealth.”

That’s the end of budget Thunderdome. No one died. No Tina Turner. No one came out of the night at Worcester’s clear Master Blaster.

Onward, to the city council meeting. Hope Coalition teens are here holding mock gravestones.

Picking up with the draft tobacco ordinance tabled by Germain last week.

A UMass staffer is here in support of the ban of the sale of tobacco products at pharmacies and ed. institutions. He says his wife and daughter almost didn’t live through childbirth, but thanks to the care at UMass Memorial they survived. UMass “have all taken steps to support tobacco-free pharmacies.” He points out that in 8/10 provinces in Canada this ban is in effect. “This is becoming more and more the norm.”

Ryan Kaufman from UMass says “it’s incongruent with the mission of pharmacies…many independent pharmacies have voluntarily become tobacco-free retailers.” Tobacco is still available for sale but not in a facility that suggests it’s a place for “public health and wellness.”

Diana, a senior from Worcester Tech and of the Hope Coalition, says her nursing training tells her to think of treatment as “ethically or morally correct.” She says it’s the same case with pharmacies that sell tobacco. She asks the council to “invest in us” — the youth.

David Marcano relates that every day he walks home from school and stops to buy a pack of gum at a pharmacy. “I feel the city has a responsibility to look toward a social benefit for its people more than it does the maximum profit for pharmacies.” On a personal note he said he applied for an internship with the T&G and one of their questions asked if he felt the city listens to its youth. He says he hopes he can write yes.

Clark Prof. Laurie Ross explains what the Hope Coalition does. One is direct education with young people about smoking. There’s also advocacy, such as the tobacco advertising ban. Then there’s reducing young people’s access to tobacco products. “Worcester’s not alone in this issue. Ten other communities in MA have made this decision to take tobacco out of pharmacies.” She says the city council is fighting harder for pharmacies “than they’re fighting for themselves” because there’s been so little opposition by Stop and Shops and the like.

Margot Barnet says she first heard about this ordinance from Palmieri. She says the facts about tobacco addiction aren’t pretty. Another speaker from the MMA is here talking about the bad old days when doctors recommended different types of cigarettes. “40 years later, what we’re trying to say for this last business group that gives medical advice and still sells cigarettes is that they shouldn’t do it.”

Mike Lanava from the Chamber of Commerce. “We do support this. We think it won’t have a bad impact on the small business owners in the city.” It’s going to drive business to other small businesses, he says.

Palmieri: He wants to hold it because he wants all the councilors here for a vote. “We have the majority tonight of councilors that would vote for this ordinance, but work still needs to be done…the fact of the matter is this: this is not anti-small business.” He’s cut off because he held the item.

9:23: Joel Fontaine brings up the sign ordinance. “Our efforts focused on creating a sign ordinance that met our community’s needs” while being business friendly.

It grandfathers in non-conforming signs, but if any structural changes are made then signage upgrades have to be made. There’s an Union Station overlay, Blackstone corridor overlay and one other where signs are more heavily regulated.

He says there were multiple public hearings (almost a dozen). Input was sought from sign companies and the community.

Lukes says she’s “pleased that this process is finally before us.” But she wants to know how this effects political signs. Fontaine says one 4×8 is allowed per property. The max size of signs can be 32 sq. feet. Property owners have 64 sq. feet to work with, signage-wise. She wonders about signs for home businesses too. Fontaine says it’s a commercial sign, so it’s regulated as a commercial sign. She wants more info in the form of a report.

Haller calls this a “remarkable piece of work” and “one I wasn’t sure we were going to get to the finish line on.”

Palmieri credits Lanava for his work on the sign ordinance, calling it a “herculean task.” He singles out Rushton too for his work too.

The council votes to advertise the sign ordinance, and it sounds like they’ll vote on passing it in two meetings (3 weeks).

Under suspension, Palmieri says an animal rights group has put signage up on Shrewsbury Street’s “extraordinarly expensive” light posts. He’s encouraging civil and criminal prosecution by the city. The glue is very hard to get off. “They’re only several thousands of dollars for each pole.”

6 Comments

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6 responses to “City Council live blog 4/5/11 — the Thunderdome edition

  1. jmstewart

    instead of broadcasting the meeting, channel 12 has a message “no video input” with a running clock

  2. Jim,
    We’re down in the Levi Lincoln room; I wonder if they can’t do a live broadcast from here?

  3. -Q

    Woke up today and found out here in Worcester the right to free speech was stolen by the city council…….trying to limit taxpaying private property owners the right to use their property from fear of government intrusion is upon us and completely supported by “Kape Kod Konnie”…..”I am pleased that this process is before us”……you bet she’s pleased, anything that limits the taxpayers rights and you will have “Kape Kod Konnie” leading the charge! Not to be outdone, you then have “Four Loko Palmeri”…..calling it a “herculean task…” A herculean task? To what? robbing and limiting the taxpayers their constitutional rights to express their political views?
    This is a city ordinance that will be tested in the court system and again the taxpayers of the City of Worcester will, as usual, under this city manager, find themselves defending the indefensible and the taxpayers will carry the costly burden again……….”Kape Kod Konnie” and “Four Loko Plameri” are showing their true colors and its not pretty………….

  4. Boots

    RE: The WTAG Meeting…………

    You all have a real mutual admiration society going on over at WTAG, don’t ya? You should call it Narcissists Anonymous. All that’s needed is a snake milker to get all the oil in a bottle.

  5. Pingback: Health Care, for further reading « Nicole, Worcester

  6. Pingback: A short note addressed to Phil Palmieri’s Phantom Ponytail « Nicole, Worcester

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