Posted by Jeremy Shulkin
City council reconvenes this week with an action packed meeting. This one’s got talk of a new housing study, EPA lawsuits, confidentiality clauses and much more.
7:08: Lorraine Laurie is here. She’s here to talk about the loss of the Millbury St. Bank of America. “We are very upset because this was sudden.” She says there were big plans to do big things in the proposed canal area. She says the bank they’re diverting customers to are hard to reach by bus. “This is not the sign of an economically healthy neighborhood.” She wants to see a new bank found to move into the building. “The building is set up as a bank,” she says. “We know that the Canal District has been working hard to revitalize itself…but (Green Island) needs a little bit of economic help.” She wants the area between Kelley Square and Brosnihan Square declared an “economic revitalization area.”
7:15: Virginia Ryan speaks about Section 18 and Section 18A. “Section 18A allows a municipality to grandfather in all retirees, and therefore no penalties.” She says the increases in Medicare fees are akin to “penalties.” “Had the Worcester City Council had waited one year to adopt Section 18 it could have adopted Section 18A and avoided large penalties, and indeed prevented these new penalties to the Worcester retirees so affected.” She wants the council to “assume these penalties for retirees who clearly cannot avoid them.”
7:22: Clancy talks about the EPA involving itself in a water lawsuit in Boston, which DPW Commissioner Moylan railed against in a report to the council. “The regulators are clearly out of control because there’s no cost associated with the regulation…I’m happy that the Commissioner raised this issue with us.” He points out that Boston has been hailed by the EPA recently, and now they’re suing them.
Rushton, Smith and Lukes speak to this as well, but I was out of the room.
7:37: Dottie Hargrove addresses the council about Meadow Lane, asking to stop being “harrassed” and “bullied” over the property that needs shoveling on Pleasant St. “Now it’s becoming an issue of money for us.” She says she has a $225 lien on her house.
Rushton wants a title search to finally determine who owns the property. Lukes says she wants a legal opinion on snow removal responsibilities for city-owned and state-owned properties. Haller clarifies Hargrove/the neighbor’s position. “It’s quite compelling, and we need to resolve it,” she says.
Toomey says “no matter who owns the property it still needs to be shoveled.” She wonders if maybe the sheriff’s office can send trial court people out there, or other “creative ways” to shovel it.
Smith says this was an issue the last two winters. “We all want our sidewalks clear, but let’s make sure the appropriate people are doing it,” adding it that the wrong group shouldn’t be saddled with shoveling if they’re not supposed to.
Lukes wants the City to hold of on giving liens to people abutting the sidewalk.
7:48: Rushton commends the judge and Solicitor Moore for winning $3,700 back in a private lawyer’s breach of the city’s confidentiality clause, after making comments about a lawsuit after it was settled between the plaintiff and the City.
7:50: The council unanimously votes to “Recommend Approval of a Request by the Worcester School Committee to Submit a FY11 Statement of Interest for Nelson Place School to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.” Smith says Nelson Place School has been in disrepair for decades, and repairs so far have just been “band aids.” He wants to add Doherty High School to the list. Smith wants to know the timeline if Nelson Place gets picked. Tracy Novick, on our Cover It Live blog, says “the answer is several years, if it gets accepted by the state.”
7:54: Travel money talk. Haller starts out by thanking the administration for their report on this and the importance of professional development. Haller calls this “much ado about nothing.” She says people have the responsibility to see how money is spent, but she’s concerned that people are raising the idea that funding is being “misspent.” “I just want to go on the record and say I see nothing untoward here…I see nothing of concern here, and I do it based on review of the data.” She says professional improvements made in the city over the past five years prove that these professional development trips are important. She hopes the City Manager’s report shows the money is being spent wisely.
Toomey says her order is “not about the past, but about moving forward.” It’s not about an individual or a department. She says the school department provides travel reports, and she’d like to see one on the City side. “No one that I know is saying professional development should not occur…when fiscally prudent to do so.” She says that while there were layoffs under Caradonio she recommended that there shouldn’t be out of state travel. She suggests the City use the Fed’s guide for government travel, which stipulates $141/day on hotel, including taxes. If the travel wants to stay somewhere more expensive, then they can pay the difference. She’d also like to see digital scans of all invoices coming into the City to be redeemed.
Lukes says “One of our powers is to spend money.” She says it’s better to say “let’s cut out all city travel” but instead we’re hearing solutions that are more about “micromanaging.” She also says that this conversation is directed to one person (hinting to travel by the WPD), since everyone is taking time to say it’s not. “That sounds very close to micromanaging, and I find that very disturbing.” She says there wasn’t any improper action in spending travel money otherwise the independent city auditor would’ve caught it.
Rushton says we’re catching up with technology. He brings up the idea of having PDFs of check expenditures on the online check registry as well. “Identify potential areas for cost savings…in the upcoming budget process…I think it’s a fair question: are we getting the best bang for our buck? The goal isn’t to get a good deal, it’s to get the best deal.” He says the issue isn’t about “impropriety.”
He wants to make sure it’s a “rolling” register, so when a check gets updated to the list the oldest one doesn’t “roll off.”
Germain says he’s amazed by this topic. “No one’s ever said ‘inappropriate'”, just that some brand names caught peoples’ eyes. “Everybody knows the chief of police and I have a history, but that’s ok…he does a great job for the city.” He says he’s heard conspiracies about how councilors want to take down the chief or the city manager. He says that’s absolutely not true (and points out that he chaired the subcommittee that extended the manager’s contract). He says an issue, though is that “if you question a policy then all of a sudden you’re out to get them. I don’t look at the job this way. We’re elected officials that manage the City of Worcester.”
“Some of it is right, we might have gotten a better deal at the Ritz,” but the “perception” “sets a bad precedent.”
“I’ve expressed some opinions…we’ll fight on a policy, but no one is out to get anybody.”
Clancy says no one’s going to lose their jobs about this. Clancy says the Commissioner should be allowed to stay over night in Boston for two nights. “What are we talking about here? You got an issue with the spending? Fine…We’ve had years that we’ve banned out of state travel.” He says “if it’s not in the budget, you don’t do it…we shouldn’t just pick people and say ‘look at these people’ and see where they traveled…Is it fair to single out people and comment on it and make it a news story?”
Clancy disagrees with J.O’Brien’s idea that each item of the budget is looked at because that doesn’t happen in the council, that’s the school committees job. The council can only pass the budget as it’s written, not how it’s spent on the school side. “I just want to clarify those particular examples.” “When you have some print media saying it’s unethical when it’s not, that raises it to another tier.”
Toomey says that her idea was just to update an 11 year old policy. She wasn’t looking to single people out.
Tina Hood addresses the council: “I have to say my mind is just…I don’t even know where to begin. The article that showed up in the newspaper about the travel, there’s an appearance of impropriety…as taxpayers my friends and I do not like it.” She says her private company has cut out travel in favor of internet meetings. She calls out Haller for talking about how little of the budget was spent on travel. “Just because you have a budget of $2 mil doesn’t mean you have to spend it.” “It’s not your money to spend freely, it’s the taxpayers money. I think you’ve lost sight of that…I’m sorry, staying at the Ritz, it’s outrageous.” She says she commutes to Boston, so people going there have no reason to stay over night. “Councilor Toomey is right, it’s an old policy.” She says that there should be a set amount of money to spend.”
Palmieri says “I know that this has been an issue over the past week or two, but for all the talk and all the discussions that I’ve read and listened to the one sensible approach here is Clancy has expressed this is an expenditure issue during the budget cycle…why wasn’t it raised then?” He questions the timing of this — “that’s what seems to be caught in the crosshairs, that’s it’s not really about budget, expenditure, policy.” He wants this to be discussed at budget time, rather than serving “red meat to the media.”
M.O’Brien reiterates that a number of watchdog groups call the city “transparent” and an open city government. “We’ll continue that path.” He says they’ll look into expanding the check register – and points out that Worcester is the first to have something like that for a city of its size. He says even cutting the $40,000 travel budget for next year, there’s still millions that will need to be cut because of budget issues.
Lukes wants the City Manager to consider eliminating the $40,000 travel budget. It’s referred to the finance committee. Rushton thanks the Manager for his pledge to continue making the City more transparent. “This is a good day for the City of Worcester. Not a bad day. This will help us make more informed decisions.”
8:34: Toomey wants to see perennial beds in Elm Park. “The hem is coming down on the dame’s skirt, so to speak.” She wants a program with colleges and businesses to help spruce up the park. She also wants evening activities on the Common to start at/after 5:30 so that people have time to get off work and attend, or have time to go home and pick up their kids to come back.
8:39: The towing contracts come up. Haller says she supports the order that calls for the “a formal plan be put in place to improve both customer service and to provide a formal complaint process for citizens and that this be made available to the public.”
8:41: Toomey quickly mentions her idea of “enclosing advertisements/coupons in tax and water/sewer bills similar to the Registry of Motor Vehicles registration renewal forms.”
The Toomey hour of the meeting continues. She would like to see “a listing of all municipal and school department positions that became vacant since October 1, 2010 categorizing each by title and as to whether or not it is currently filled, is planned to be filled, or planned to be left vacant; the salary of the individual who vacated the position and the salary of the individual who has filled any vacancy. Further, request that the reason for filling the vacated position be provided.”
Haller says she wants the school side removed from this (in particular a reference to the Superintendent). J.O’Brien says there’s a lot of tiptoeing around jurisdiction going on here, and there’s going to have to be some discussion over how the city side and school side will work together.
8:46: Clancy considers “increasing the elderly tax exemption for FY12 by $100.00 which would effectively increase the allowable tax exemption amount to $200.00.” He says the double increase hasn’t been enacted for years. “I’d like to initially start with the City administration give us a report” to see the cost of this. Clancy says assessments are dropping in some areas, but taxes are not dropping. Those on fixed incomes are “most seriously hurt.”
Palmieri says this is an “issue worthy of discussion.” J.O’Brien wants a summary of exemptions and cost in the classification packet.
8:52: Eddy joins us to say “as it reads” to this: “an amendment to the ordinances of the city that prohibits the siting of dumpsters or large stationary trash receptacles in front and side yards of residential properties in Rl-7, RS-7 and RS-10 zones.”
Eddy would like to see a sidewalk on Flagg St. from Pleasant to Richmond, Aylesbury and Brookshire. He also wants to see street and sightline improvements.
8:55: Toomey wants to “to more aggressively market the city in conjunction with the newly reduced tax rate by various creative means, including but not limited to working with the Worcester Area Chamber of Commerce and business community and the Colleges of Worcester Consortium to create a “Loaned Executive” program as well as a college intern program to benefit the Economic Development Office.” She says the City has no marketing budget, and in this economy it’s time to “creatively market this community.” She says CSX is a good starting point to attract new businesses. “We can’t sit back and wait for them to come to us.”
9:02: Lukes wants results from the recent auction of the old courthouse.