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Lowell City Council Meeting: July 26, 2016

Regarding the report on the new garage for the Hamilton Canal District and whether he is alarmed by the slippage of the construction date, Manager Murphy says that it will take some additional time for the MassWorks grant to bring the infrastructure to the site for the new garage and the city got news of the funding for the “Signature” Bridge which will also help with construction. He believes all of those things will come together at the same time so he is not unduly concerned. Manager Murphy adds that he will be coming to the council in the near future with a proposal for an additional garage for the HCD to provide spaces for the Judicial Center and Lowell Community Health Center.

Questions by Councilor Milinazzo about what appears to be weak penalties imposed on repeat offending bars by the Lowell License Commission. He says that because bars will tend not to appeal shorter suspensions, so the Commission tends to impose these shorter penalties. Milinazzo asks if the city has ever revoked a liquor license. The commission administrator explains the preference for “progressive discipline” and a desire to avoid a license holder filing an appeal. Councilor Elliott says the report (which Councilor Milinazzo also referred to but which wasn’t included in the public packet for this meeting) is “eye opening” and says it shows that repeat offenders continue to skirt the law. He says the license commission should get more aggressive and deal with the appeals as they come. Councilor Samaras says in light of all the problems, he is now in favor of cutting back on the hours of liquor establishments. Councilor Leary says we should not penalize “good” bars because of “bad” bars. Councilor Leahy sounds a similar note, saying the license commission needs to get tougher on bad bars. (Manager Murphy had said earlier in this discussion that he thought the long term approach to this problem was to cut back on the hours of service across the board, but the council either did not hear him, or is ignoring him).

Report on Smith Baker Center. Yun-Ju Choi of Coalition for a Better Acre briefs the council, saying the project will cost about $16 million. She expects 40% of that will come from tax credits; the rest will come from grants and donations. She mentions the October 7, 2016 benefit concert during Jack Kerouac weekend.

Report on cost of out of district students in Lowell schools. Council has a lengthy discussion on this because the cost of these students is estimated at $180,000 this year for the 36 students in this category. [This is a decades-long practice that allows teachers in the Lowell public schools who do not live in Lowell to have their children attend Lowell public schools. It is a perk for employees that was never bargained with the teachers union nor the focus of an official policy. It just was always done that way. I believe it arose this year during school committee budget deliberations because some of these students were attending some of the more popular public schools and parents of children who wanted to go to those schools but were turned away because of no spaces complained about the practice. The council has some standing to discuss the matter because it votes on the funding for the schools, however, as Mayor Kennedy points out, it is a matter for the school committee and before the school committee, which is addressing it]. Councilor Belanger pivots into “refugee” students in the city and the “high cost” of educating them. He says the city needs relief from that.

Twin ordinances amending the zoning code on mobile, manufactured, and modular homes. Referred to public hearing.

By Councilor Milinazzo, request City Manager have the Human Resources Department prepare a report highlighting the changes in health care benefits between 2011 to 2016, i.e., co-payment amounts, referral requirements, generic prescriptions.

By Councilor Belanger, request City Manager have Police Superintendent update council on status of charges brought against the 22 individuals arrested for drug distribution offenses in Operation Triple Play.

By Councilor Belanger, request City Manager have Police Superintendent provide a report on enforcement procedures for vehicles with out of state plates stored on local property.

[Motion that did not make it on the agenda, but which was timely filed]. By Councilor Belanger, request City Manager to investigate COPSYNC-911, a security communications system for the Lowell Public Schools. It allows teachers to instantly communicate with law enforcement. Says the school committee acted on it last year but nothing has been done. Says a friend of his, Brendan Flanagan, told him about it (the cost is less than $100,000) and he asks that Flanagan be allowed to speak. He does. It’s his company that sells the product. Councilor Belanger would like the manager to follow up with the School Superintendent on this.

By Councilor Leahy and Mayor Kennedy, request City Manager provide an update regarding traffic control and corsswalks on Andover Street.

By Mayor Kennedy, request City Manager instruct Traffic Engineer to develop a traffic scheme for the Mammoth Road/Pawtucket Blvd intersection, that will relieve morning traffic congestion.

Councilor Elliott asks for a suspension of rules to ask the City Manager about the agreement he is negotiating with UMass Lowell. (Councilors have a copy of a document but it wasn’t/isn’t available to the public). Moves that this matter be sent to a subcommittee. Mayor Kennedy recommends it be a joint subcommittee (finance and educational partnerships).

Council adjourns at 8:15 pm.

Pay equity issues start at the top by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

income graph

 

Stock market and share prices are near record highs. At the same time, Republicans and Democrats alike bemoan a sluggish recovery that has left too many behind. As delegates gather in Philadelphia this week, I wonder how many of the speakers will address this disconnect seriously, especially when so many there contributed to this situation. No one talked about this in Cleveland.

Pay inequity is a hot topic. It cuts across all income groups. Women fight for pay equal to that of men performing the same job. Others broaden the push for pay equity to include jobs of comparable value or requiring similar training and experience.

Some of the most shocking disparities occur in the gap between what CEO’s and the average worker make. According to Fortune Magazine, CEO’s make 300 times what the average worker earns.  For the top CEO’s, the multiple is 373 times.  What’s more to the point, however, is that from 1978 to 2014, CEO pay grew 1000 percent, while average worker income increased by just 11 percent.

Ah, but you say, aren’t those CEO’s worth every cent?  Isn’t their growth central to their company’s well-being and the health of the economy. Not so fast. Today’s Wall Street Journal reports on a study by corporate research firm MSCI that found that the best paid CEO’s run some of the worst-performing companies as measured by stock performance over a ten-year period. And the results of lower paid CEOs were best. The results held whether the researchers analyzed across all companies or on a sector-by-sector basis.

According to the Economic Policy Institute,  in 1965, CEOs earned an average of $832,000 a year while workers earned $40,200. By 2014, CEO pay had grown to $16,316,000 while workers were getting just $53,200. The study noted that this was not linked to productivity. It was just that the guys at the top were taking a bigger slice of the pie.

We’re a market-driven economy, and people should be able to get what they’re worth, or more if they can work that out. But a regulatory shift, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, distorts the compensation game. Stock option incentives and corporate buybacks now make legal acts once deemed market manipulation, and may have contributed to some of the recent bubbles.

One of the major problems is that Bill Clinton’s administration, in an effort to curb grossly excessive CEO salaries, decided that corporations could write off salaries in excess of $1 million only if the companies met certain performance metrics.  One was stock prices.  So corporations started to do stock buy-backs to artificially boost stock prices, thus perversely inflating those same CEO salaries, without benefitting employees, consumers or the long-term health of the economy. Today’s study tells us that even investors in these companies lose out.

If you want to be charitable, call it the law of unintended consequences. We’d have a much better handle on these trends if the Securities and Exchange Commission reported salary inflation over a ten-year period rather than one year at a time.

Candidates Clinton and Trump should be asked whether their administrations would do that. And they should be asked whether, as Rana Foroohar asked in Time Magazine, whether it’s time to rethink buybacks and stock options that encourage executives to focus more on share price than other metrics.

These discussions often get too complicated for the short attention span of most of us as we follow the news. But it’s a legitimate issue to be raised in some larger debate on the economy and its inequities. Especially when some of Bill Clinton’s key economic advisers are part of Hillary’s team.

At a minimum, boards of directors need to scrutinize CEO pay more closely, and more clearly align remuneration and perks with how a company produces and how it treats its employees. Failure to do that will continue to foster the kinds of understandable resentment that has fueled much of this year’s populist discontent.

I welcome your comments in the section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right portion of your screen.

 

Debbie Wasserman Schultz should be fired now by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

 

debbie wasserman schultzBernie Sanders has been saying for eight months that the Democratic National Committee  rigged the primary system. He also has long said that, in the interest of fair play, DNC Chair Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz should be forced to resign.

Emails written by DNC CFO Brad Marshall, released yesterday by Wikileaks,  suggest Sanders had it right.  We knew early on that the DNC thought Hillary a better choice than Bernie in November, so it scheduled fewer debates, started them later in the season than did the Republicans,  and held them on Saturday nights to minimize the audience.  But the DNC Chair  oversaw a thumb-on-the-scale operation that went farther.

The emails suggested that Sanders be critiqued because of his religion.  He is Jewish, but Committee staffers were suggesting that, beyond being a non-practicing Jew, he is an atheist (which he says he isn’t). This is totally outrageous and un-American. A move is now underway to deny Schultz a speaking role at the convention that she is running. The DNC Rules Committee has named Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio to wield the gavel at the sessions.

A new chair will be chosen anyway by Clinton after the gathering in Philadelphia. But Schultz should be required to step down today.  This issue shouldn’t be allowed to permeate the convention in the drip-drip-drip  way that RNC handlers fumbled that  plagiarizing of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech by Melania Trump did.

Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook dodged the larger question on this morning’s talking head confabs, raising the specter that it was Russian hackers who had compromised the DNC computer system for a year.  He hinted that Russian hacking was designed to help Donald Trump, who has shown an affinity for Vladimir Putin. That’s a distraction, but it does indicate a disturbing lack of security in the Democrats’ computer system during Schultz’s watch.

Regardless of how the information was leaked, the emails speak for themselves. People at the DNC were thinking in traditional Nixonian terms, and the person at the top of the organization, Debbie Wasserman Schultz should be held accountable.

There are additional reasons Schultz shouldn’t head the party beyond her feckless leadership in the 2014 mid-term races. Sanders adds that she doesn’t address the working class concerns that have been the drivers of his campaign. After receiving many donations from the banking industry and $68,000 from payday lenders, Schultz voted against proposals to have the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regulate payday loans.

She should have been dropped long before now. Forcing her to step down today has important symbolic value and could do much to ensure the fragile rapprochement between Sanders and Clinton supporters. The Democrats need to demonstrate that they are more unified than the Republicans. Discord won’t sell well.

Some have recommended that Housing Secretary Julian Castro speak in Schultz’s  stead, which has some appeal. There’s plenty of talent to replace her in that role and as party chair.  (It appears Donna Brazile  will  be the interim chairwoman through the election.)  The need is for the Democrats to remove Debbie Wasserman Schultz now.

I welcome your comments in the section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right portion of your screen.

Lowell Week in Review: July 24, 2016

Art along Pawtucket Canal

Local artist Barbara Poole, working with a grant from the Lowell Cultural Council and with support from other community partners, recently received permission from the city council to install colored fabric in the openings of a brick wall remnant that lines the Pawtucket Canal in the Hamilton Canal District. The installation is up and looks terrific.

 

With the every-other-week summer schedule, there was no council meeting last Tuesday, but there will be one next week, and the agenda reveals a couple of interesting items.

Hamilton Canal Parking Garage

One is an update on the parking garage for the Hamilton Canal District. There’s no major news, but the project is grinding along. The bus parking lot, which will be on land adjacent to YMCA Drive, still seems to be a holdup. The LRTA and the MBTA, which hold a long term lease on the property hoped to be used for bus parking, have agreed in principle to the tour bus parking, but their respective legal teams are reviewing “acquisition agreements.” And in a new wrinkle, a small parcel in the middle of the expected bus parking lot turns out to be owned by National Grid, so the city is negotiating with that company for the use of the land.

As for the acquisition of the National Park’s surface parking lot off Dutton Street, the city, Lowell National Historical Park, and Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, are all working with the “federal Office of Valuation Services” which is reviewing the proposed deal. The essence of that deal, I believe, is that the National Park will be allocated spaces in a new parking garage to be constructed by the city not far from the current surface parking lot in exchange for the city gaining ownership of that current NPS surface parking lot which is expected to become the site of a major new building in the Hamilton Canal District.

City Manager Murphy, in the memo to the council, says that design work on the new garage will begin this fall, and he expects the land swap to be completed by the end of next summer. As soon as the swap is completed, construction of the garage should begin.

(Alexander) Hamilton Mills & Canal

Our Hamilton is that Hamilton

I’ve led several tours through the Hamilton Canal District this year and have discovered that most people don’t realize that the Hamilton Canal and the Hamilton Mills were named for Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury and the inspiration for the current Broadway mega-hit named for him. In the years right after the American Revolution, Hamilton was the foremost advocate of American industrialization and was consequently seen as a heroic leader by the men who founded Lowell. It seems a shame that we can’t find a way to take advantage of the worldwide excitement over the Hamilton Musical to draw attention to our city’s connection to Mr. Hamilton. Any ideas?

In case you were wondering, Jackson Street is named for Patrick Tracy Jackson, one of the founders of Lowell, and not for President Andrew Jackson (although Jackson did visit Lowell in 1834 during a presidential tour of New England).

Smith Baker Center

Smith Baker Update

The council agenda also contains a memo updating councilors on the progress of the rehabilitation of the Smith Baker Center by its new owner, the Coalition for a Better Acre (the report responds to an earlier motion by Councilor Corey Belanger).

CBA Executive Director Yun-Ju Choi reports that the organization has done a number of things related to Smith Baker including:

Submitted a grant proposal to the Theodore Edson Parker Foundation to fund a Capital Fundraiser’s position for the next two years;

Partnered with Lowell Celebrates Kerouac for a benefit concert on October 7, 2016;

Is creating an Advisory Board, many of the members of which served on the Smith Baker Reuse Blue Ribbon Committee that was formed by Mayor Rodney Elliott;

Started conversations with several foundations to explore the possibility of large matching fund donations;

Has identified and has begun applying for various funding sources including new market tax credits; federal/state historic tax credits; a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council facilities fund; and a number of other state and private funds and foundations.

Crime and Drug Abuse in Lowell

The council will also receive a report for police superintendent Bill Taylor. The first part of the report discloses crime statistics from April 2016. Compared to the same month, previous year, overall criminal incidents were down 31%; major offenses were down 26%; and lesser offenses were down 47%. For the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same time last year, overall criminal incidents were down 13%, with major crimes down 8% and lesser offenses down 31%.

The second part of the report deals with opioid overdoses and deaths. Some of the findings: The number of computer-aided dispatch (CAD) calls to the police in the first six months of 2016 was up 16% compared to the same time last year (and up 77% compared to the first six months of 2012). In the first six months of 2016, there were 40 opioid-related deaths in Lowell, which was double the number from the same period last year and a 344% increase from 2012. The report goes on to say that the majority of those who died in 2016 “had a history” with the Lowell Police and that half of those who died from overdoses had previously overdosed and survived.

Council Motions

There are five motions on the agenda. Here they are:

By Councilor Milinazzo, request City Manager have the Human Resources Department prepare a report highlighting the changes in health care benefits between 2011 to 2016, i.e., co-payment amounts, referral requirements, generic prescriptions.

By Councilor Belanger, request City Manager have Police Superintendent update council on status of charges brought against the 22 individuals arrested for drug distribution offenses in Operation Triple Play.

By Councilor Belanger, request City Manager have Police Superintendent provide a report on enforcement procedures for vehicles with out of state plates stored on local property.

By Councilor Leahy and Mayor Kennedy, request City Manager provide an update regarding traffic control and corsswalks on Andover Street.

By Mayor Kennedy, request City Manager instruct Traffic Engineer to develop a traffic scheme for the Mammoth Road/Pawtucket Blvd intersection, that will relieve morning traffic congestion.

Lowell Votes fundraiser

Lowell Votes, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization that encourages all Lowellians to vote, especially those who face barriers to voting or have had historically low turnout rates, is having a fundraiser this coming Tuesday, July 26, 2016, at UnchARTed Gallery at 103 Market Street. Doors open at 5:45 pm and a speaking program begins at 6:30 pm. Spaghetti, salad, and dessert will be served and there will be live music. The suggested donation is $10.

Nesmith St along Kittredge Park

Public Hearing on MassDOT Plan for Nesmith St

This coming Thursday, July 28, 2016, at 7 pm at the Pollard Memorial Library, The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) will hold a public hearing on a proposed “intersection improvement project along Route 38.” MassDOT describes the work as follows:

The project will upgrade signals and intersection geometry to address crash potential at four intersections along the Route 38 corridor: Rogers Street (Route 38) at Phoenix Avenue and Douglas Road, Rogers Street (Route 38) at Boylston Street, Nesmith Street (Route 38) at Andover Street (Route 133/110), and Nesmith Street (Route 38) at East Merrimack Street. Roadway widening will occur along Route 38 between Andover Street and East Merrimack Street to accommodate two travel lanes in each direction. Some improvements at Nesmith Street and Stackpole Street will also be included for interconnection. Sidewalk accessibility improvements will be provided in accordance with applicable design guides.

The project also calls for the removal of the many trees that line Nesmith Street from Andover to East Merrimack. A number of people are opposed to this project, especially the removal of these trees. Yesterday, a group gathered at Kittredge Park to discuss the proposal and the reasons for opposing it. Organizers invited me to speak to the group about the history of the neighborhood of Kittredge Park. I posed my remarks online last night.

Lowell Walks – Downtown Fires

Yesterday morning 98 people gathered for this week’s Lowell Walk. Tour guide Jason Strunk, a captain in the Lowell Fire Department, did a fantastic job leading the group past the sites of major fires of which there were many. As Jason put it, if you see a building not as tall as its neighbors, or a parking lot in the midst of a row of buildings, there’s a good chance it was the scene of a major fire. Despite all of these major fires, Lowell has avoided a major conflagration that destroyed large portions of downtown, a tragedy that befell many other American cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I was also struck by the number of major fires that occurred during the 1970s and early 1980s, most of which were set in vacant and rundown buildings on the periphery of downtown.

Because of the popularity of this subject and the large volume of material, Jason has already agreed to lead another Lowell Walk next summer. In the meantime, if you wish to learn more about historic fires in Lowell, check out Jason’s Lowell Firefighting page on Facebook or his books, Lowell Firefighting, from Arcadia’s Images of Modern America series, and A25: Stories from Lowell’s First Arson Squad, which he co-authored with Harold Waterhouse.

Lowell Walks takes a break next weekend for the Lowell Folk Festival but will resume on August 6, 2016, with Paul Marion and Rosemary Noon leading a tour on Lowell’s public art collection.

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