Learning Lowell Anniversary Totally Terrific Top Ten Countdown

As Aurora pointed out in Learning Lowell’s anniversary post, it’s been a year since we’ve been blogging in Lowell! She talked about why she (and I) started blogging and the benefits we’ve gotten from it. I thought I would take a look back on some of our posts and a look forward on what we hope to do. I thought reflecting on our little corner of the internet would be very timely, as the Lowell Social Media Conference is coming up tomorrow, December 6.

Our blog is hosted on wordpress.com, a free (ad-supported) service with some great tools. One of those tools lets us see how many people are reading our blog and which posts get more clicks. We reached 2,000 views a month when we first started, but we’ve settled into about 1,000 views a month. This is way more than we ever thought: we figured our families might read an occasional post and that would be it! I thought it might be fun to review our top five posts, then talk about a few we wished had hit bigger.

Top Five Posts

5. An Engaged City Manager Recruitment Process

citymanagerposition-01-01Almost a year ago, the Lowell City Council began the process of selecting a new City Manager to replace departing Bernie Lynch. We reviewed guides made by groups such as the International City/County Managers Association, who recommended allowing 60 days for candidates to apply, and 30 days to interview candidates. During those 60 days, they recommended sending letters to qualified candidates identified knowledgeable sources inviting them to apply.

It’s interesting to compare this to the timetable the council ultimately used to solicit and screen candidates. They allowed a bit over a month for applications, and I believe they only advertised in a few publications and websites. The interviews focused quite a bit on the council’s hot topics: safety/security and economic development.

4. A Historic Preservation Story Unfolding: Bowers House, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, and the City of Lowell

Updated Concept Perspective Drawing

Around the same time, another surprisingly controversial issue was unfolding: a proposed razing of the Jerathmell Bowers House. The issue prompted us to write a series of posts, culminating in the blog’s longest-named and fourth-most-popular post. We talked about how, in 2010, the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust worked unsuccessfully to find a new owner but brought a lot of attention to the oldest house in Lowell. Then, in 2013, Kazanjian Enterprises bought the property and proposed a commercial structure to replace the house. The City of Lowell and Kaznjian worked to find a solution that retained the house and the structure.

As far as I know, this final proposal is the one moving forward, although a tenant still has not been found for the Bowers House. We suggested a themed restaurant, although I would expect that the house could service as offices for a real estate or insurance agent as well. If anyone has updates, let me know!

3. Quite a Task: Downtown Lowell Task Forces

Lot to Like PostcardFebruary, 2014, Councilor Belanger motioned to request that the Mayor appoint a downtown economic development task force. This prompted me to do a review of all the different groups who are active in downtown planning and all the different plans created for downtown. I still hope one day to do a follow-up on each plan, as some of them are very interesting historically and others still have great suggestions we could advance.

In April, that task force was formed, including councilor Corey Belanger; Deb Belanger, Executive Director of Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau; Danielle McFadden, President and CEO of the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce; Jim Cook, the Executive Director of the Lowell Plan; and Adam Baacke, Director of Campus Planning at UMass Lowell. Additionally, the council formed a Downtown Redevelopment Subcommittee at the request of Councilor Kennedy, which includes himself, Councilor Leahy, and Councilor Milinazzo. I wasn’t able to find any meeting minutes for the Task Force or Subcommittee, so if anyone has any updates, let me know!

2. Mill No. 5: Local scene blooms where once there were power looms

Mill #5 sign is hungI feel a bit proud that we were among the first talking about Mill No. 5, which has gained a lot of traction since last March, when we wrote about the history of the building, which was built to take advantage of Steam Power, about Jim Lichoulas III’s flexible plans that change based on feedback, and about the way Amelia Tucker recruited vendors for the monthly “Little Bazaar” marketplaces.

Since then, the Luna Theater and Coffee and Cotton have both opened, along with a number of smaller shops. Mill No. 5 has some exciting programming going on during December, including a Farm Market each Sunday, 10-2:30; Holiday Shopping Pop-Up shops every weekend; a 12/13 OtherWhere Market featuring fantasy and sci-fi goods; and the second annual Totally Bazaar tomorrow, 12/6, at noon!

1. Bicycle Lanes, Data-driven Decisions, and Community Visions

Truck in bicycle lane in Lowell, MassachusettsThe most popular post was something we had to write very quickly, as it was in response to a City Council motion we had learned only days before: removing the bicycle lanes on Father Morissette Boulevard. We showed some pictures of the lanes, looked at the goals as articulated in several city plans, and examined the design of the lanes in relation to National Association of City Transit Official (NACTO)’s comprehensive Urban Bikeway Guide. Our conclusion was that two lanes should be enough for the small amount of vehicular traffic on Father Morissette, that the bike lanes conformed to recommended design but could be improved (with more money), and that we constantly need to show our support for the plans we made together.

Councilor Mercier suggested she worded the motion in such a provocative way as to determine if there was support for the bicycle lanes and encourage cyclists to come to the meeting. The council passed an amended motion to “call for the city manager to review the configuration of the bike lanes and traffic lanes on Father Morissette Boulevard, and report back on ways to make the road safer for vehicles and cyclists.” The City’s former transportation engineer, Eric Eby, invited the community to a public meeting to discuss options, and I have heard the City finally settled on painting “Bicycles Only” in the lanes. There was discussion of forming a public Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee as well, but that has unfortunately not occurred, even as several pedestrians have been struck, with one fatality, in recent months. I hope to make a follow-up post on bicycle and pedestrian issues in Lowell in the coming weeks.

My Personal Top Five

I also wanted to highlight posts that I thought were especially important or interesting, but never got as many views as the more popular posts. I suppose this is my personal top five:

5. Lowell’s Buried Past: The Cemetery and Beyond

Dick Howe in front of Bonney Memorial

This was a short post that Aurora and I put together, but we felt that there was so much to say about Dick Howe’s cemetery tour beyond that it’s simply fun. We wanted to suggest that all of Lowell can be like the very-popular cemetery tours. It can surprise, educate, and make us reflect on ourselves in ways other cities simply can’t. I hoped to start a conversation on how we can bring that side of Lowell forward with the same strategy Mr. Howe uses, and I still hope that conversation starts.

4. The Buzz about UMass Lowell Fuzz

Community members and police officers speak at Coffee and a Cop event in Lowell MAWe didn’t see too many community members at the Coffee with a Cop event in October, but everyone there seemed to really have a great time. It felt as if it advanced the goal of creating community between police and residents, and we learned quite a bit behind the philosophy of the UMass Lowell Police. We were surprised that some officers were attracted to UML so that they could interact with people beyond the usual roles of “criminal” and “victim” and that officers feel that things have improved only in the last few years. We hoped to share some of those benefits with our post.

3. A Tale of Two Cities: Salem and Lowell

salem3Aurora made an amazing comparison of Lowell and Salem, which attracts thousands upon thousands of tourists. She noted that Lowell had similar advantages to Salem, including roughly the same distance from Boston and a walkable core, but didn’t capitalize them in quite the same way. As the city talks about marketing, I think the suggestions in this post are a great way to think about how to package Lowell as an immersive day experience for visitors and residents alike.

2. First Thursdays: Art Battles and Big Pictures

Live Art Battle in Lowell on First Thursday artists painting

Our post about Lowell’s First Thursdays wasn’t just a description of our experience at the fun summer event, it was also about how a single, key person was instrumental in bringing a great event to Lowell; about how a series of events might have to build over time; and about what goals we’re trying to meet and what audiences we’re trying to attract when we talk about “downtown revitalization.” I have thought about this post quite a bit when thinking about the own Lowell projects I’m helping organize.

1. What can Lowellians do about homelessness? LTLC Interview Part 2

ltlcI did an extensive interview with the former director of the Lowell Transitional Living Center, David McCloskey. Part 2 of that post and a follow-up about Living Waters didn’t receive the large number of views captured by Part 1. Mr. McCloskey discussed the difference between passive and aggressive panhandling, the discussions he had with former clients about panhandling, and his experience with Lowell’s cooperation with the center. Perhaps even more importantly, we discussed the problem with Massachusetts’s housing costs and how people can volunteer to help or even take political action. If I could ask everyone to read just one post, it might be this one.

What’s Ahead?

Writing this post, it makes me think of all the posts I still hope to write. We just released the first in a series about refugees, and more will be coming soon. Another series is also in the works: discussing Lowell High School’s location and the dilemma of moving or keeping it in-place. As I mentioned before, I hope to discuss traffic and transportation in Lowell: where the traffic is, how it can (or can’t) be addressed, and what is planned for Lowell. We also would like to talk about friends and family we’ve hosted and their impressions of Lowell.

We also go to a number of events and restaurants, and have a lot of photos and stories. We wonder how people like reading about them: should each event or restaurant be a very short post, should there be some sort of Lowell guide that we update each time we go out, or is there another good way to share our stories and photos? Please let us know in the comments! We try to respond to all requests as quickly as we can.

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An Engaged City Manager Recruitment Process

Yesterday, we posted about the Manager-Council form of government and the typical background of City Managers. Today, we’re looking at the City Manager recruitment process. Pundits consider State Senator Eileen Donoghue, State Representatives Kevin Murphy and Tom Golden, and former City Councilor and current Vice President at MassDevelopment George Ramirez as “top runners” for the position (See Lowell Live Feed here and here). However, nobody will know who has applied until the application period closes February 28th and the City Council determines how to proceed.

What do professional associations recommend?

MMMAInternational City County Managers AssociationIn the last post, I mentioned the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA). ICMA and the commonwealth-focused Massachusetts Municipal Management Association (MMMA) give guidance on manager recruitment. ICMA recommends acting “thoughtfully and deliberately,” giving at least 60 days before an application deadline, 30 days to interview candidates, and 30 days to let an administrator relocate. Lowell’s application period is open only 36 days, but the City’s proposed schedule otherwise fits within those guidelines. Because of the long timeline, both MMMA and ICMA recommend appointing an interim administrator when faced with an unexpected vacancy—perhaps a qualified internal candidate or a retired or between-jobs City Manager.

Lowell’s City Council may follow this route. According to the Lowell Sun, Mayor Elliott said, “If there is a need to, we have to put somebody in place until a new manager comes on board.” The Sun contacted a “name making the rounds” for the position, Robert Healy, who said he would be open to acting as an interim City Manager if need be (2006 Sun story about Mr. Healy’s history here).

Most professionals recommend delaying major initiatives and leaving executive leadership positions vacant during transitions, and ICMA suggests the ability for a new CM to “build a team” can be a recruitment tool. City Manager Lynch has stated he will not fill Lowell’s vacant Chief Financial Officer position, and Director of Planning and Development Adam Baacke will leave at about the same time as Mr. Lynch. ICMA cautions against public quarrels with the outgoing City Manager and “overcompensating” by selecting a new manager based solely on the qualities they were dissatisfied about the old.

City Manager Boston Globe ad

City Manager Boston Globe ad (richardhowe.com)

Many city councils hire an outside firm to assist with recruitment, while others, like Lowell, cooperate with existing HR staff. ICMA suggests the council consult with all department directors to develop lists of necessary “hard” and “soft” skills. Occasionally, a council will also engage with the public to develop a profile. The best results come from ads on professional websites (such as ICMA, MMMA, the National League of Cities, or MA Municipal Association) rather than print newspapers. Finally, ICMA suggests that a city council, cooperations with HR staff, should send letters to qualified people identified by the outgoing manager, other city administrators, universities, or other knowledgeable sources.

Lowell’s ad went to the ICMA, Massachusetts Municipal Association, Lowell Sun (this includes Monster.com), Boston Globe (this also includes Monster.com), and the city’s website.

Common criteria for selection

I’ve seen recommendations to narrow the pool of applicants to as low as five and as many as fifteen finalists, with interviews either in open or executive sessions for each candidate. MMMA has a list of suggestions for screening criteria:

  • Experience working with a government of comparable size providing comparable services
  • Experience working in a similar geographic area, either rural or urban
  • Accomplishments that line up with goals of the community
  • Supervisory/managerial experience
  • Employment history and salary considerations
  • History of continuing professional development, including active membership in ICMA, MMMA, or a similar organization, and being a Credentialed Manager

Very often, councils pursue a second round of interviews. Sometimes, they engage the community or city staff in one or both interviews. Finally, ICMA recommends that the City carefully choose a frontrunner on which they can reach consensus and a unanimous vote.

What are Lowellians looking for in a City Manager?

I would like to suggest a few ideas and thoughts to continue the community conversation:

  • At the end of the special meeting on January 15, Councilor Mercier said “I’m just requesting public participation,” and Councilor Samaras added, “I think we should have a process that would allow them to come before us to talk about what are the issues that concern them, what are they looking for in the next City Manager?” I agree with these sentiments, and may suggest “listening sessions” similar to the sessions that City Manager Lynch conducted when selecting a new police superintendent. These sessions can target both the general public and specific groups.
  • I would like to see qualified applicants be able to identify strategies to advance the goals and tackle specific action items identified in Lowell’s comprehensive plan, Sustainable Lowell 2025.
  • I think it is less important that a candidate is from Greater Lowell, and more important that he or she has experience in cities of similar makeup: Mid-sized, postindustrial cities that are pieces of larger regional corridors. Cities with a tourism market, creative economy potential, and diverse and hard-to-reach populations. That said, there are advantages that someone from the area will have over someone unfamiliar with Merrimack Valley laws, customs, and traditions.
  • I would like to see applicants have experience negotiating and building relationships with unions and having demonstrated fair and sustainable compensation agreements. ICMA suggests that before a final hire, the City Council should visit the candidate’s community and speak with staff that worked with him or her. I may support this if allowed under Massachusetts law.
  • I hope the City Council and HR department work together to reach out to University alumni lists, professional networks, and other sources to encourage a diverse pool of applicants.

I hope interested citizens can continue this discussion in the comments, on Facebook, or over coffee. Understandably, many are worried about finding a City Manager as quickly as possible. However, we have until February 28th to articulate to the council what we would like to see.

What kinds of people are City Managers?

With five senior city administrators resigned or soon to resign, including City Manager Bernie Lynch, it is a time of transition in Lowell (Read more at Richardhowe.com’s Week in Review). Lowell will accept applications for the City Manager position until February 28th. With many names being discussed as potential City Managers, it might be good to “take a step back” for those not up-to-speed. Those unfamiliar with Lowell’s government might not understand the roles of the council and the city manager, but the division is not unique to Lowell. In fact, “Council-Manager” is the most common form of local government in the US: about half of towns and cities with populations more than 3,500 use it.

In Council-Manager, residents vote for a council. The council sets policy and long-term goals for the community. Additionally, the council appoints an apolitical, professional manager that acts as the executive officer, managing the city day-to-day—much like shareholders in a company vote for a Board of Directors, who select a CEO to manage that company. A mayor may be elected by the council, such as in Lowell, or directly by voters. That mayor, however, has limited executive power—that power is in the City Manager’s hands. The Massachusetts General Laws for Lowell’s type of Government, “Plan E,” lay this out clearly:

Chapter 43, Section 103: The city council shall appoint a city manager who shall be sworn to the faithful performance of his duties and who shall be the chief administrative officer of the city and shall be responsible for the administration of all departments, commissions, boards and officers of the city… He shall be appointed on the basis of his administrative and executive qualifications only, and need not be a resident of the city or commonwealth when appointed…

Section 107: …neither the city council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any subordinate of the city manager either publicly or privately.

Section 104 lays out duties including administration supervision; ensuring laws, ordinances, and resolutions are executed; making recommendations; reports on the affairs, financial condition, and future needs of the city; and acting as “chief conservator of the peace within the city.”

Council-manager government started to become popular in the late 19th and early 20th century as a reaction against corruption. This seems to be the motivation in the switch to Council-Manager in 1940s Lowell. Council-manager also has roots in the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who advocated a scientific, objective approach to managing organizations. A theory behind Council-Manager is that a professional City Manager can make a City more efficient and equitable than an elected mayor. Studies suggest that cost efficiency outcomes are roughly the same, but others argue that City Managers are more successful in long-term economic development planning. (Links to academic studies.)

Most of the above information is available from the International City/County Managers Association, a professional association of City Managers with 9,000+ members. They constantly undertake and analyze surveys to assist City Managers with best practices. According to 2012 surveys:

  • Average time in current position: 7.3 years
  • Average amount of government management experience: 20 years
  • When City Managers are fired or feel pressure to resign, 36% of the time, it is because of a “personality conflict” with the Mayor.

City Manager Education: Masters in Public Administration 39% Other Masters or PhD	26% Bachelors 24% Some College 9% High School 2.5% Position Prior to City Manager: Assistant City Manager 33% Director of a City Department 16.8% Private Sector 11% State or Federal Employee 2.6% Elected Official Staff 2.6% Other 33.9%

(~2,000 of 8,856 municipalities and counties responding)

Another survey is about contracts and compensation, with 46% of all City/County Managers reporting:

Here’s an earlier post about City Manager contracts in Massachusetts cities with a “Plan E” government like Lowell’s. Note that City Manager Lynch’s compensation is about $180,000, and the ad lists the future City Manager’s salary as “negotiable.”

Here is a follow-up about City Manager recruitment and what I would like to see in a recruitment process. See you then!

Downtown Lowell, Downtown High School

Last week, the host of Merrimack Valley Radio talked with City Manager Bernie Lynch about the High School and condition of downtown. Tomorrow night (12/17), the City Council will discuss a report from the Department of Planning and Development on the downtown vacancy rate and programs to attract and retain small businesses. Meanwhile, the school committee continues discussing its capital plan which will involve the fate of the Lowell High School.

Lowell Downtown in Perspective

Bon Marche building

Bon Marche building, first floor currently vacant (Credit: Panoramio)

A common question is how Lowell’s downtown is doing compared to other downtowns. National retail vacancy rates are estimated at around 10 percent, but this includes vacancies in malls and shopping centers. I checked out a number of sister cities, but finding downtown retail vacancy rates are often difficult. Many cities track their office vacancy rather than retail. Nevertheless:

Although the two figures I found were old, they represent rates before the recession, so it might be reasonable to assume that figures are comparable to today, now that retail has rebounded. The City Manager’s report stated that Lowell’s downtown district (which includes parts of Back Central and the Acre) has a retail vacancy of 8.55%. This includes a large vacant storefront in the Church Street Plaza. If a tenant moved into that one storefront the vacancy would drop to 4.8%.

Another question to address is whether there’s a higher-than-average turnover rate downtown. The WCAP host said, “Some of these properties are now on their third or fourth tenant, third or fourth different type of business in the last ten to fifteen years, which tells me there just isn’t enough business in downtown to sustain something long-term.” However, the City should expect this: nation-wide, 66% of retail establishments opened between 2006 and 2010 closed by 2011, according to the Business Dynamics Statistics of the Census Bureau.

Live, Work, and Play: What’s the right mix?

I would like to highlight that I do believe the economic development of downtown Lowell requires continued effort, despite relatively solid figures. Although the former Chantilly Place and Barnes and Noble storefronts make up a small percentage of overall retail, they are highly visible. The City Manager’s report discusses these properties, in addition to others, specifically: Former B&N has had inquiries including a group of “private and institutional partners” interested in using it as retail incubator space, while Chantilly Place has also had inquiries, but “several” from service (rather than retail/restaurant) based businesses.

View of Wannalancit Mills

Wannalancit Mills (Credit: Wikipedia)

It is important to note that office vacancies are also important to track, as occupied upper-story offices contain people with disposable income who eat lunch and shop downtown. As far as I know, the City of Lowell does not track its upper-story office vacancy rates, but instead concentrates on its première employment centers such as Crosspoint Towers, Wannalancit Mills, and the Freudenberg Building. For its downtown core, I believe Lowell is instead concentrating on housing. Not only does the City Manager’s comments imply a housing-based strategy, but there is a corresponding action in the Master Plan:

Continue to promote the conversion of historic mill buildings and vacant upper stories of commercial buildings in the downtown area to residential units, artist live/work spaces, and other uses as deemed appropriate.

This follows a nationwide trend to convert upper-story office space to housing, especially because offices demand “Class A” space: modern, large floorplates, and parking (think Crosspoint or office parks in Chelmsford/Westford). Concurrently, there has been a reduction in required space per employee and in number of necessary employees as technology boosts productivity. Meanwhile, household sizes continue to shrink, so demand for housing grows. I do worry about this trend, as many believe vibrant cities require a critical mass of employers, housing, and shopping all within easy walking distance of one another.

Small businesses (consulting agencies, law firms, nonprofits) seem to often be good fits for otherwise awkward upper-story office space. For an example, in Covington, KY, across the river from another postindustrial metro, Cincinnati, the economic development corporation has launched a program to renovate “historic buildings into creative office space for smaller businesses.”

Lowell High School and the Downtown

The George D. Kouloheras Wing of Lowell High S...

LHS (Credit: Wikipedia)

This question of mixed downtown use is at the heart of the Lowell High School (LHS) discussion. For those who don’t know, the School Committee is engaging in a 10-year strategic planning process that involves all schools, including LHS. Committee member Kristin Ross-Sitcawich has recent documents here. In response to the report, the committee unanimously passed the following motions:

  • Recommend that the full committee support OMR Architects continuing with the development of the Draft Master Plan utilizing the cost/value Option 1H pertaining to the elementary and middle school programs. Option 1H includes additions and renovations to three (3) middle schools (Daley, Robinson and Wang) and one (1) Pre-K through Grade 8 school (Rogers,) as well as the addition of one (1) new Pre-K through Grade 8 school in the City.
  • Recommend that the full committee support OMR Architects continuing with the development of the Draft Master Plan utilizing the cost/value Option 1E pertaining to the high school. Option 1E maintains one (1) 3,900 student high school and encompasses a complete renovation and addition to the existing facilities in the current downtown location.

Ms. Ross-Sitcawich let me know that the next step is to get feedback from City Council, then from the community at large. She said:

In my mind nothing is set in stone until economic impact studies are done and the residents of Lowell have a say in how we educate our children and how we spend their money.

Some argue that removing LHS from the downtown will ease traffic problems, add valuable real estate to the downtown market, and offer a better learning environment for high schoolers. Others argue that maintaining LHS downtown helps the vitality and economy of downtown, provides avenues for LHS/UML/MCC collaboration, and would be cheaper (OMR architects estimated a renovation/expansion would cost $245.4m and a new school would cost $290m). A new school may also face potential opposition from neighbors and have problematic traffic impacts to the neighborhood in which it would be built.

I would like to add some points to the discussion:

  • I hope everyone involved remembers that the largest economic impact a school has is its educational quality.
  • That said, a school’s location probably has little to do with how well it serves its students. Lawrence moved its school from downtown to a 42-acre location in 2007, yet Lawrence Public Schools was still placed under state receivership in 2011. [1] Many of the best schools in the nation are in urban locations.
  • In addition, I actually attended a high school that was in the process of being renovated. It didn’t seem to impact student performance.
  • Finally, I’d like to see UML and MCC weigh in on the discussion. Perhaps they can highlight new ways LHS can coordinate with them, and whether LHS’s location impacts that coordination.

I don’t disagree that it’s valuable to ask whether LHS could be used more effectively as housing/retail/office. My uninformed opinion is that there’s enough other première economic development targets that adding another would not be helpful, but some may disagree. Conversely, there’s a question about whether there would be a negative economic impact as more employees are removed from downtown. I’ve heard some anecdotal stories that restaurants experienced impacts when school administrative offices and Sun staff left downtown, but it would be an interesting question to ask in the upcoming survey. However, I think the secret to reviving downtown isn’t in moving or keeping the LHS, but instead ensuring LHS is a world-class high school.

-Notes-

1. (Update) I don’t mean to imply moving Lawrence High School resulted in the school system going into receivership. I don’t know enough about the Lawrence story to say if the move had a positive or neutral impact upon the system. Instead, I mean to use Lawrence to illustrate the complexities of what makes a school system successful and that a suburban-style school isn’t automatically better than an urban-style school. Of course, if moving the school has economic development potential, the extra revenue and general health of the city will also influence quality of education, but that potential would have to be greater than the extra cost of moving the school and transporting students. From what I can tell, the School Committee has been considering these complexities in the capital planning process, but I’ve only recently started following the story closely. I welcome comments about Lawrence or Lowell’s school system or downtown in general!

Tax bill in Lowell drops in inflation-adjusted dollars

The City council approved the tax rate shift last Tuesday, making commercial property tax 175% of residential tax, the maximum difference allowed by Massachusetts state law. Councilor Mendonça was the lone voice against the shift, preferring a slightly smaller shift of 170% or so as reported by Lyle Moran.

I’ve already mentioned that I believe that property tax rate is a relatively small consideration of many businesses. Despite that businesses claim taxes are always of utmost importance, studies are actually mixed, showing that infrastructure and education investments may be more important than tax cuts (link to a lit review by Center of Budget and Policy Priorities). In otherwise identical suburbs fighting over businesses, tax cuts may help, but their impacts in central cities like Lowell seem less clear to me.

However, I wanted to highlight that the City estimates the average residence will pay go from paying $3,271 annually to $3,273, a $2.45 increase. However, $3,271 in 2012 dollars is $3,327 in 2013 dollars.* Therefore, the average Lowell single-family homeowner will actually pay less in inflation-adjusted dollars than last year. This might be why City Manager Lynch mentioned on a WCAP interview:

I don’t know how much of a difference it would make to have… the reduced taxes for the businesses. I don’t know if that would necessarily get more businesses in here. Councillor Mendonça has been asking us to come forward. This would be the year to have done it, if we were going to do it, because the increase was so small.

Manager Lynch also noted that he believes very large businesses moving to and making significant investment in Lowell are primarily lured by breaks from state taxes, not local property tax.

As a sidenote, it’s remarkable that Proposition 2 1/2 caps the total amount cities in Massachusetts may collect to 2.5% above the previous year, plus “certified” new growth. This means that every year inflation is more than 2.5%, which it usually is in a healthy economy, the city actually has to provide similar services with less money unless they pass an override. This is one of the reasons why cities are constantly looking for alternate revenue sources, such as fees and state and federal grants.

At the same City Council meeting, Mayor Murphy made a motion for the City Manager to investigate an entirely different taxing scheme that disincentivizes sitting on dilapidated or vacant properties rather than focusing on luring in businesses seeking low taxes. I’ll do a follow-up post on that soon.

* The rate must still be approved by the State of Massachusetts.

City Manager contracts across MA

Several counselors and candidates have expressed a belief that contracts for executive officers in a city are inappropriate. Mr. Leahy mentioned that he believed contracts were appropriate for school executive leadership, but not for city managers. I was curious, and did a quick internet search.

Cities other than Lowell with a “manager” form of government (Plan D or Plan E) include Worcester, Cambridge, Barnstable, Chelsea, Randolph, Watertown, Bridgewater, Winthrop, Southbridge, and Palmer. 9 of the 10 cities currently have a two-to-five year contract with their city managers, and Southbridge has a one-year contract. The most common term seems to be three years. Admittedly, Barnstable has had some controversy in their most recent negotiation, but it seems pretty clear that a multi-year contract is the norm, not the exception.

Those who know more, please comment!

Sun Debate: City Manager, School, and Safety

The Sun Debate was about a week ago, but I’ve just finished watching the third at http://www.lowellsun.com/todaysheadlines/ci_24385207/crime-takes-center-stage-round-1-lowell-city. I’ve seen a few folks comment on the Sun’s follow-up articles, but the videos give much more context. The same pool of questions were used in each debate, although moderators sometimes didn’t address every question or varied the phrasing. This will be the first of two parts recording the questions and our reactions. The second is here.

Moderator Chris Scott, candidates Genevieve Doyle, Stacie Hargis, Bill Martin, Joe Mendonca, Van Pech, and Dan Rourke.

Debate Round 3; from left: Moderator Chris Scott, candidates Genevieve Doyle, Stacie Hargis, Bill Martin, Joe Mendonca, Van Pech, and Dan Rourke.

The City Manager’s contract expires next august. Would you give him a new contract? If not, why not? If so, how long?

This question, submitted by Sun readers, is considered the “hot” issue of the election. From my vantage point, the audience reacted more to this question than any other. However, a lot has been written about this issue already (Sun part 1 and 2) (Left in Lowell). Notably, Mr. Millanazo brought up an argument I hadn’t heard before: a contract longer than two years makes the next council “stuck” with the decisions of the former council. There was a followup in the third group: “Where is the current manager lacking?” Mr. Pech had a long list: some neighborhoods are underserved, there are some issues with board and committee appointments, and more departments need to be restructured. Counselor Mendoca noted better interpersonal relations with counselors were necessary, something Mr. Mitchell and Counselor Nuon mentioned in an earlier debate.

We were surprised by an answer by many: Mr. Rourke, Ms. Doyle, Ms. Hargis, and Counselors Martin and Nuon all said that more communication was needed with neighborhoods, the media, and those outside Lowell to gather input and promote the City. Some admitted, “We could all do better.” However, Aurora and I had just came from a listening session with the City Manager: an example of neighborhood outreach. Not only that, but we read his blog where he advertises events and developments and hear addresses with nothing but positives about Lowell.

I strongly believe in participatory planning, and I think there could always be more and better outreach. Lowell is no exception. However, a lack of outreach isn’t the first thing I think of when I think of City Manager Lynch.

Is a new high school the most important need in the City, or do you have another priority?

This question was also from Sun readers. Some quotes were printed in this Sun article, and this is the key issue discussed on Lowell2020. Counselors Lorrey and Mercier suggested there may be neighborhood resistance to moving, something not noted in the Sun’s article. However, this was just part of their argument to do community outreach, and Counselor Mercier’s larger argument was focusing on the students and a growing drug problem, not the building. Additionally, I thought it was especially notable that Counselor Elliott implied that additional code inspectors (and police officers) was a greater priority than a new high school building.

Also not mentioned was Mr. Mitchell’s argument of “dollars and cents:” that the choice should be made on what is least expensive in the long-term and what can keep young, taxpaying families in Lowell. He wasn’t the only one to make this argument in one form or another. Another interesting sidenote was a disagreement between Counselor Leahy and others arguing about doing well by those with low incomes. He was the only one to mention competition from private schools:

“…I shouldn’t have to send [my children] to a private school because I don’t feel they aren’t getting a good education or the facilities aren’t up-to-par in the City.”

Counselor Leahy also mentioned that the City must consider quality in the building rather than just pursuing the lowest bidder, implying the lowest bidder built the problematic 1980s expansion.

The Police Superintendent is off seven months, and the department’s been running with an interim chief. Do you think this has had an effect on public safety?

This questions resonated with several members of the audience. It also split the candidates. Although almost everyone didn’t see a connection, that was the end of the agreement. Some, such as Counselors Martin and Mendoca, focused on the argument that time should be taken to find the right person. Others, such as Mr. Rourke, Mr. Elliot, Mr. Gitschier, Counselor Kennedy, or Ms. Hargis, mentioned the problems with having an interim superintendent and the need to select one quickly. The rest focused on overtime or community policing, not addressing the issue of Superintendent.

When asked what he did attribute the spikes to, Counselor Martin said, “I don’t think there’s any secret about it,” referring to drug use and weapon proliferation. Almost everyone discussed a variation on that reason, sometimes mentioning the reports of increased profit associated with Marijuana. Ms. Hargis even mentioned the need for preparation of medical marijuana legalization. I was surprised that only Ms. Doyle mentioned the other correlating crime factor: poverty and the hopelessness associated with it.

Stay tuned for the final four questions.