Worcester City Council liveblog 11/25/08

7:15: And off we go.

7:22: A sidewalk on Flagg Street, in the area of Flagg Street school. This has been a grassroots effort by a number of neighbors in the area for a while now; several councilors have asked for a sidewalk to now be constructed.

Two neighbors are speaking: Mr. Levine is thanking the city for the efforts to study the problem so far, but is calling for a more in-depth, comprehensive study of traffic, school children, those who drive the street, and neighbors. Possible solutions, he says, may include street narrowing, better drainage, crossing guards, etc…there shouldn’t just be a unilateral decision made.

Elizabeth Murphy of the Salisbury Area Neighbors Association. She says building the sidewalk is the “first step,” and is needed to improve the safety for school children.

7:31: “While everyone supports the concept of sidewalks…the question is [can we overcome] the hurdles,” says Bill Eddy. And the only way to find out, regardless of what side of the issue you’re on, he says, is to do this study called for in tonight’s motion.

7:37: Councilor Rosen: “What started as a sidewalk petition…has now grown into something so much more….This study will take a look at the whole traffic situation…the disregard for the safety of the people who live in the area.”

7:39: Tax Classification hearing time! A lot of people here to speek.

7:40: Polar Company’s Ralph Crowley is up first.

In his New York facility, he says, taxes are 1/3rd.

“The fact that the majority…of the city council has already decided on the lowest tax rate, frankly,” says Crowly, “does not [seem like you’re listening] to businesses.”

“These are extremely difficult times. Worcester is about to face a crisis.”

“You have to get competitive as a city.”

7:44: Attorney Sumner Tilton of Sumner, Tilton, Whipple; also the coowner of the Gauranty Building and the co-chair of Choose Worcester, the group that tries to convince companies to a)move here and b)not leave.

The state “has a shallow toolbox” of economic incentives, he says, but it’s made so much tougher by Worcester’s split tax rate. “These folks know they can go to Shrewsbury and Westborough…and pay half the taxes.” Instead, he says, the group talks about cultural and educational benefits to being here.”

“I know many taxpayers think we should adopt the lowest residential rate. In my view, that’s a very shortsighted view. Businesses will choose to locate elsewhere, [over the long term] residents will suffer.”

“I hope you think about gradually moving the split rate…to a [graduated single rate.]”

7:49: Roberta Schaeffer from the Research Bureau.

She says the split tax rate effects how the Mass. High Tech Council’s municipal ratings of where to locate a business. The rankings she’s talking about have Worcester at 240, while a number of local towns–Grafton, Shrewsbury, Boylston, Douglas– are in the top 10 and 20.

“It is time for us to move to a single tax rate. It’ll have to happen over the time.”

7:54: Richard Kennedy of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Co mmerce.

He urges the city to cut expenses to keep taxes down, and to make the city more user-friendly for businesses.

“As the commercial base shrinks, the burden [falls] to residents.”

“It’s probably a five-year strategic plan, but we’ve got to start down that road.”

“I would encourage you to be thoughtful in your deliberations.”

7:57: Bill Kelleher. He has handouts.

“Sometimes we lose sight of the bottom line.” Comparing similar buildings in Worcester to buildings in other cities.

O’Connors in Worcester is paying $2.96 per square foot in Worcester; another property over the West Boylston line is in the $2.30’s.

A pharmacy on Grafton Street in Worcester, another over the border–same company: the Worcester one pays 101% more in taxes.

A locksmith on Green Street: $1.31—in Uxbridge, a similar business $1.00 a square foot.

Manufacturer on Goddard Drive: $1.56 per square foot. In Boylston? Similar business at $.49 a square foot.

Properties on Lincoln Street that straddle the town line: $1.39. A few hundred feet down the line in Shrewsbury? $.50 a square foot

The problem, says Kelleher, is that businesses trying to be responsible for shareholders, etc, are going to move to other towns that give the same benefits of Worcester without the problems. And it goes beyond real estate taxes: businesses bring in personal property taxes, etc, as well.

8:06: Changing sides to Gary Vecchio of the Shrewsbury Street Neighborhood Association. He wants three things.

1) A comprehensive PILOT program.

2) Next year’s classification hearing to come before the election.

3) The lowest residential tax rate.

“Listening to the business owners…you’d think the council has always voted for the lowest residential rate to the detriment to the businesses. That’s not true he says: It’s only happened 6 of 19 times.

His data: Commercial tax bills went up 16% over ten years; single family homes went up 58%; even higher for multi-family homes.

8:11: A resident who owns 5 properties and operates a business—we missed his name. “The current business climate is the worst I’ve seen….You need to look at a solution [to keep businesses here].”

“There needs to be a more level playing field.”

It’s ironic, he says, that councilors support attracting businesses. “Seems to me a TIF package is another way of acknowledging our commercial rate is too high.”

8:15: A woman who owns a home. Both her and her husband are disabled and on fixed incomes. She is calling for non-profits to agree on a PILOT program, but is also calling for a single-tax rate and getting drug dealers off the street.

8:18: John Carnegie. He’s countering Clancy’s “Chicken Little” comment on Chamber of Commerce fears last week.

He’s talking about a manufacturing business he consults with that is looking to expand to a huge facility(over 1000 jobs in five years) in the area, but would pay 3x as much in Worcester as in Shrewsbury. There are a number of challenges he has to recommending Worcester.

Carnegie calls for a gradual process, moving to a single rate over time.

8:24: Lifelong resident Tina Hood says the city “looks like crap,” and that there are no businesses for her to work in. While her taxes are high, she says, she’d like to see more businesses locate here. “I really think we need to go to a single tax rate.”

8:26: This is the most overwhelming show of support, at least in a couple years, for a single-rate tax rate from both businesses and residents. We don’t know if it is going to change any councilors’ minds, but of the 20 people in the audience, at least 8 have spoken in favor of moving to a single-rate; 1 has spoken against it; 1, we don’t really know what he is saying beyond that we need to be more unified than divided.

8:32: Phil Palmieri is the first of the councilors to speak. He thanks the speakers.

One speaker wanted lower taxes, says Palmieri. “There isn’t anyone who doesn’t want lower taxes” on either side.

And while the businesses want a “better balance” by moving to a single-tax rate, says Palmieri, the City Manager has done a lot to help businesses.

His first example? CitySquare, which he says is due for an announcement in the next few weeks.

Infrastructure in the city is also a huge deal for businesses, as is the parking overlays.

Palmieri turns the responsibility to the state and feds: “We need a strong stimulus package…to attract businesses.”

“What’s disturbing to me is when I hear from the business side that businesses are leaving in droves, and droves FACTS ARE FACTS, that’s not correct. It’s stabilized, at a minimum. It’s not a fact that businesses are leaving this city without business coming in. We are stable there.”

“If we had a single tax-rate today,” Palmieri says, the tax take would increase on the residential side by $25 million dollars. On the commercial side, it would go down from $55 to $33 million.”

“I’m not in agreement [that] it would bring in more businesses.”

Palmieri is doubting if the businesses cited by Kelleher would do as much business in Worcester as they would elsewhere.

But the city needs to work with residents, businesses, etc. to resolve some of these issues. That includes selling the airport, which he says is a couple months away. (Two major timetable predictions from Palmieri in under five minutes!)

Count that one vote staying with the lowest residential tax rate.

8:45: Councilor RIck Rushton.

He is proposing a gradual move to a single tax-rate, though not an immediate one.

“There is no question we have people that are suffering, both on the resident side and on the business side…but I want to hear more about…bringing in more jobs.”

He is proposing a residential rate of $13.59, instead of the suggested $13.50. That will be an increased tax bill of about $21. He also proposes dropping the commercial rate from $28.74 to $28.34.

8:50: Councilor Petty is supporting Councilor Rushton’s motion.

8:55: Haller is with Palmieri on the lowest rate. “This isn’t a once a year conversation [from the businesses].”

8:56: Councilor Clancy. He says residential taxes, because of assessed values, have climbed dramatically, while commercial values haven’t gone up as much.

(Of course, just about every councilor should recognize that those assessed values are going to plummet next year, taking that argument off the table).

Clancy says that even if we moved to a single-rate, businesses in Shrewsbury and other towns would STILL pay less. We’re an urban center, he says, and must provide more services.

And the bulk of the business savings, in raw dollars, if we went to a single-rate, would go directly to businesses like Mass Electric, Verizon and Charter. And that’s not helping anyone.

9:05: Toomey is asking why Rushton chose the particular line in a chart for his suggested tax rates.

He responds that he felt asking for $2 more a resident per month is OK. And he wanted to give businesses a bit of a break from the projected $1600 increase. “Under the current economic system, I thought it would be the most reasonable.”

Toomey: “There were incredibly compelling arguments for both sides. It’s easy for us to point fingers when times are tough.”

Toomey is sticking with the lowest residential rate for this year, but is calling to start a discussion to “lessen the gap” in the future.

“I could say ‘it’s only $21 between what’s proposed [and Rushton’s proposal]’, but I committed to the lowest residential rate.

9:10: Councilor Eddy. He says his education on this issue came when he was knocking on doors last year during the campaign.

People make a city, says Eddy, not bricks and mortar. And “The people who say no one wants to be here, or they’ve seen a deterioration? They have no idea what they’re talking about.”

He talks about the beautiful tree-lined West Side, the restaurants, colleges, culture, theaters, etc.

“The worst message we could send tonight is anything other than we support them having the lowest tax rate possible.

“I appreciate everything that’s been said about the business community. There are a lot of factors beyond tax rates…” Still, “We could do more to attract businesses…When we are innovative, we can compete.”

If Eddy and Toomey aren’t budging, no one else will. This will probably be 9-2 for the lowest rate.

9:15: Rosen: “I hope the colleges and universities are listening tonight.”

“We as homeowners need businesses. We need businesses to pay their fair share.”

“The businesses made a pretty good case tonight. The problem is that they come down the night we take the vote.” They need to educate the council more, says Rosen, over the course of the next year.

“We do need more businesses. Let’s start tomorrow.”

Rosen agrees with his colleagues that there is more than just taxes that matters.

But the only to lower taxes, he acknowledges? Cut expenses.

“Are we spending too much money? The answer is to cut our expenses. WIll it be painful with services? Of course it will be.”

9:22: Councilor Smith. “Instead of pitting one against the other, we need to expand the tax base.”

“I don’t think we can compare Worcester to the smaller towns that surround it…there are a lot of added benefits to being in Worcester.”

“I am open to having a discussion in the future about moving to a single tax-rate…[at] a minimum of five years….It can’t be done tonight.”

“Today, it’s in our best interest to support the lowest residential tax rate.”

9:26: Councilor Germain, also supporting the lowest rate.

“I’m disappointed by the process. We really had discussion tonight; we got the numbers last week. I think the process needs to change.”

He acknowledges that IN THE FUTURE we need to talk about moving to a single rate.

So we have just about half the council saying a single-rate makes sense down the road, but voting for the lowest residential rate tonight. We wonder if they’ll do something different in an election year next time around.

9:29: Mayor Lukes.

“There’s no hard work or consistent work that’s ever applied to our own statements that we have to look at this all year round. This mayor will appoint a task force to deal with it.”

“This discussion has come up every single time tax classification has come up.”

Lukes also relates this to the next time on the agenda, the Family Leave Act which would be “an increase in benefits.”

Lukes is saying she’ll vote for the lowest rate, but is reiterating her promise for a comprehensive task force .

9:35: The vote: 9-2 against Councilor Rushton’s motion for a slightly higher residential rate. The lowest rate: $13.50 for residents, $28.72 for commercial passes 9-2.

9:52: Rushton on Public Records requests.

O’Brien: “We’re on the timeline from the last interaction [on the police], and we intend to adhere to that.”

He says there are about 1500 pages in the Mark Rojas file, all of which must be redacted according to privacy laws, whistleblower laws, etc.

Clancy: “Sometimes I think the perception in the public is there is some protection [from the administration]….Did you ever [ask] for the dismissal of that officer?”

O’Brien: “I can’t speak to that due to [employee rights].”

O’Brien hits his talking points: The administration is transparent, the records are complicated, there’s an “unprecedented” Attorney General led investigation into overtime abuse.

Lukes asks the Solicitor David Moore to standby the microphone in case we get too close to Executive Session material.

Haller: She’s against Rushton’s item, as it uses the phrase “denial of records;” she thinks it’s editorializing an issue.

Rushton: The word “unprecedented” is used so much, we should invite the Guinness Book of World Records in. The fact is, says Rushton, that while the administration has been exceptionally transparent, the Telegram put in a request on April 6, and didn’t hear back at all until June 6th…it’s now over 7 months later.

“I’m pleased to hear this tale may be coming to an end.”

10:08: Lukes wants to know what city deposits are in danger of not being FDIC insured beyond 61%.

10:14: All done.  See you here tomorrow morning for a pre-Thanksgiving round up.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Worcester City Council liveblog 11/25/08

  1. Becca

    scott- you know we can see you on tv? way to sit right behind the person speaking for guaranteed camera time!

  2. Great recap Scott.

    Love being able to read this before bed!

  3. Am I the only one getting whiplash this morning reading the T&G after seeing this last night?

    Where are the HUGE number of people who turned out (more than one NOT a large business owner) to testify for single tax rate?

  4. Pingback: Peering Into The Future : Real Worcester - Worcester News and Blogs

  5. James Monroe

    If there’s one issue that really needs to be addressed when taxes are discussed – it’s PILOT.
    All parties had the proper arguments. Not one councilor mentioned it. Its the only truly viable solution.
    I could lay out the numbers but its too lengthy. I’ll say this much. If PILOT brought in $2 million, it would stabilize if not reduce business rates for the foreseeable future. All those vested interests who haughtily pranced before the watching masses declaring doom and gloom if they don’t get a break, know that. Disingenuous.
    It’s in their interest to force the issue on PILOT.

    Riddle me this Worcester? What do those vested interests and non-profits have in common?

  6. Paulie

    you couple our business tax rate with as poor and as un-educated a urban population that Worcester has and it is a bigger issue……we have no hope of being a modern urban city with the rhetoric that is coming out of this City Council!

    Rick Rushton keep on this….start settling on some hardcore issues like this and stick to them!

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