Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Numbers Are In

And Fitchburg does OK, depending on your point of view.

On the local aid side, Fitchburg does about as well as can be expected, going from $8,391,000 to $10,238,000, an increase of 22 percent, well above Romney's across-the-board 17 percent increase.

On the education aid side, the numbers aren't quite as strong. Chapter 70 jumps from $36,443,000 to $38,443,000. That's a 5 percent increase. While that's a positive, the new education aid formula is supposed to favor poorer communities. Without deeper study, it seems Fitchburg should have done better there.

Still 5 percent is a decent increase, and perhaps should be the focal point for further help as local officials and lawmakers poke through this budget. On the local aid side, an additional $2 million is a strong result, in our view.


Good News Today?

Well, there will be news. Whether it's good or not remains to be seen.

Gov. Mitt Romney is expected to unveil his budget today, and it's likely to include good news for Fitchburg on two fronts.

First is Romney's already-discussed increase in local aid. Fitchburg, like probably every other community, will see a jump in aid. How much? Who knows until later today.

Second, according to today's Globe (click here) Romney is changing the formula for education aid to heavily factor in income. Lower income communities will receive more aid than upper-class communities. The shouting in Lincoln and Weston will likely start ... five minutes ago. This SHOULD be good news for Fitchburg, but again, we won't know until later today. Also, the formula change must be approved by the Legislature, and that will be a gigantic undertaking. Lawmakers have nixed formula changes before. That's a relatively long-term issue beyond the price tag Romney sets for Fitchburg.

Hopefully we'll have some numbers and commentary later today. Check back this afternoon and hopefully we'll have something for you.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Whatever Happened to...

Save Fitchburg was created to round up opposition to an override, when it seemed as if an override effort was mounting.

Remember those days? The police chief and some School Committee folks were on board, and a city councilor was making noises that it might be a possiblity.

Those days were only a few months ago, and it seems like talk of an override has pretty much dried up, at least publicly. Either everyone's ditched the idea, or supporters are quietly making plans before making their case.

Either way, it appears more and more likely that an override isn't happening this year. We won't claim victory yet, but the clock is running out.

While we don't support an override, we do support getting Fitchburg's finances in order, and that's something that still isn't finished. There is still work to be done for this year, and the governor unveils his budget soon (perhaps this week), which will give us an idea of the challenges for next year. Hopefully there will be enough good news that the city can figure out how to get through the next six months and stabilize itself next year. In the meantime, an override sails more and more into the distance, and for that we are pleased.


Monday, January 23, 2006

The Lowell Effect

There's a story in yesterday's Worcester Telegram (here's a link to the home page, but you need a subscription to see the story) about downtown Fitchburg. It's mostly positive, and contains the usual reference to Lowell.

Whenever anyone writes or talks about a down-on-its-luck urban area trying to climb back, Lowell also gets the reference as the way things should be done. But here's the dirty little secret: Downtown Lowell isn't all it's cracked up to be. Decent restaurants open and close regularly. Most of the retail doesn't cater to middle- or upper-class buyers. According to a Lowell Sun story this month, there are 14 vacant storefronts downtown.

While downtown Lowell is improving, the city has been living off its reputation, one that was self-created. Lowell officials take every opportunity -- and create some of their own -- to talk about the greatness of Lowell and how it's one of the best mid-sized cities in the country. It has become a self-propelled reputation that has stuck.

One of the reasons to like the Telegram story is that Fitchburg is stealing a couple of pages from the Lowell playbook, particularly the optimistic view. The overall tone in Fitchburg has been pretty negative lately (yeah, yeah, we're lobbing rocks from our glass house right now), but the public message needs to be one of growth, energy, and potential. This story begins to move in that direction.

The story runs through a laundry list of projects going on downtown. The ones we like best (probably along with Councilor Dean Tran based on his pro-housing comment last week) are the couple of high-end condo buildings being finished. The city will need to find a handful of good restaurants, bars and stores to keep those condo owners downtown and happy, but it's definitely a good start.

While we take our swipe at Lowell above, the city has done a number of things that has made the city successful. The One Big Idea (ballpark and arena) which we advocate for Fitchburg, it is turning downtown into a viable living option (as Fitchburg seems to be doing), and no one touts Lowell harder than its own (something Fitchburg needs to do more). Fitchburg doesn't need to be Lowell, and should strive to do better, but it can learn a valuable lesson or two from the Mill City.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Results of Lobby Day

The Sentinel chimes in today with a story on Lobby Day. It doesn't sound like anything overly creative happened as we advocated, but perhaps some progress was made.

The story was a little thin on the Fitchburg side, but it seemed like the one area legislator quoted was fairly impressed with the rally. There was also the reaffirmation that Gov. Mitt Romney is increasing lottery aid and education aid.

After spending most of his administration slashing local aid -- partly because the state was facing revenue cuts and partly because there was some feeling that cities and towns had it too good for too long -- Romney's suddenly trying on the hero's cape with local leaders. Considering how cash-starved many of them are, Romney's plans have been very well received.

While Lobby Day didn't herald a dramatic turn in Fitchburg's favor, it probably didn't hurt in the Legislator, where all 200 members are being told by locals that they need help more than anyone else. Fitchburg needs to find that compelling message for Goguen, Antonioni and others to make sure its needs rise above the rest. Romney's budget will be a starting point, but hopefully Fitchburg has a plan in place to make a good case in the Legislature for more beyond Romney's plans.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006


We like City Councilor Dean Tran, particularly because he's reading Save Fitchburg and some other on-line places and is contributing his remarks. He's the only public official to do so, and we respect the hell out of it. But a note he posted to burgerhell has us a bit concerned.

The entire thing is at the bottom of this post, and Tran makes some salient points, but he has one line that has us greatly concerned. "Whoever the Mayor may be, one will never find a government that is free from corruption, which can only be achieve in a fantasy world."

He might be right about that, but this reads like a public official admitting there's corruption in Fitchburg City Hall. If that's the case, we hope Tran has a plan (rhyme not really intended) to eliminate this corruption. We also hope Tran takes a quick second to respond and let us know what he's thinking on this. We'd also like to know what he thinks is going on that rises to the level of corruption.

Before we get to the full text of Tran's comment, one last thing. Yesterday was "lobby day" up at the State House (see last week's post for more). We didn't see anything obvious in the newspapers' on-line versions today about it. Anyone have any idea how it went down? Councilor Tran?

Here's Tran's full commentary to burgerhell:

This is great reading. I'm quite fascinated and very amused. After reading
these postings, I have decided to end my subscription to the National Enquirer.
Some of the issues are true but many, I believe, are blown out of proportion.
Every towns and cities have their problems. What makes Fitchburg's situation
worse than it is or worse than other cities? Vindictive behavior? Or maybe
simply the spread of personal hatred towards the Mayor. Whoever the Mayor may
be, one will never find a government that is free from corruption, which can
only be achieve in a fantasy world. Once we wake up from our dream, we realize
that we must work with what we have and move on.If Fitchburg is so bad as some
are portraying it to be, imagine living in Boston, NY or LA. Or maybe living
under Mayor Nagin of New Orleans. He's cooking up a recipe and he needs some
help. If one does not like Fitchburg, you always have the choice of becoming a
chef under Mayor Nagin.Exposing the corruption is one thing but don't downgrade
the city. Believe it or not, there are people out there that are truly
volunteering and working hard to make the city a better city.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Disturbing Comment

Take a quick read of the comment under yesterday's post. The quick and dirty synopsis: State aid to Fitchburg isn't coming because the governor thinks the city's fiscal management is terrible, a state investigation will be underway sometime in the spring, and oh yeah, lawsuits are in the future.

Read the whole thing, and draw your own conclusions. We're somewhat suspicious because there's been a ton of Mylott bashing online in recent months. The comment, however, is relatively propaganda-free and has that scent of insider knowledge, that makes us very nervous. If this comment is on point, the last few months' worth of hand-wringing over a $1 million (or so) deficit might well be small potatoes.


Monday, January 16, 2006

A Good Deal?

The Mitt Romney local aid picture got a little clearer over the weekend, when it became certain that Romney's 17 percent increase is for non-education aid. We're still unsure if the 17 percent is across the board or will be doled out in different increments, but here are some numbers to chew on:

According to the state Department of Revenue, Fitchburg received $8.4 million in lottery aid -- the main source of local funding -- this year. A 17 percent increase would boost that number to $9.8 million next year. The city also received $214,000 in "additional assistance," a program Romney tried to eliminate a few years ago and an area that really should help Fitchburg more than it current does in our opinion. If Romney's proposal extends to additional assistance, it would be $250,000 next year.

Finally, the city's total number in non-education aid for this year is $9.7 million. That includes senior, veteran, library, whatever other funding that comes from the state that's not school related. A 17 percent increase would put next year's funding at $11.3 million.

We'll just stick with the lottery aid for now, which seems the most likely to be reality when the governor's budget is released late this month. Romney's flat 17 percent increase would mean an extra $1.4 million for the city, which closely matches the budget gap for this year. While that's nice, it doesn't take into account increased costs next year. Salaries go up, health care gets more expensive, and so on.

House leadership is already grumbling that Romney's 17 percent isn't likely. Fitchburg officials and legislators need to do their damndest to make sure the 17 percent is secure, and also find a way to get a few bucks in the process. A tall order, but at least Romney has created a starting point.


Friday, January 13, 2006

Romney Loves Local Aid

At a meeting with the Mass. Municipal Association (on Friday afternoon it was the top story at today, Gov. Mitt Romney said his 2007 budget will include a 17 percent increase in local aid.

The AP story didn't get into details as to whether or not this would cover lottery aid and education aid, how that 17 percent would be split between the two, or if it would be a blanket 17 percent increase or formulaed out to different communities at different levels (and yes, we just made up "formulaed").

Here's the basics: According to the state Department of Revenue, Fitchburg received $44 million in state aid in 2006, after charges were taken out. Romney's increase would give Fitchburg $51.5 million in 2007. From our research (and we had been slowly working on a larger post regarding state aid), that would be the highest level of state aid for Fitchburg ever, easily topping the $49.92 million from 2003.

Obviously, this would be good news for Fitchburg, and really, how much complaining could there be if this happens? Also in the obvious category: The devilish details aren't available, and the House and Senate would have to approve all this (although before the last few years, the Legislature traditionally increased aid in its budget).

So, what does all this mean? Definitely optimism, a little good news, and certainly something to watch in the near future as the budget process goes forward. Certainly, we fully expect local lawmakers to be on board.


Lobby Day

According to the local newspapers, Fitchburg officials are planning on heading to Boston and the State House on Tuesday for "Lobby Day," an opportunity to talk to legislators about Fitchburg's financial quandry.

We have a little advice, and even though no one asked we hope someone listens:

Our hope is that Fitchburg does more than send Mayor Mylott and a handful of public officials to merely beg/prod/bug/badger/rip lawmakers for more cash. It's a tired, somewhat ineffective way to do things.

Instead, we hope officials go out and find a few good Fitchburg stories to take with them, and real people to tell them.

Bring along the kid who lost his music program. Have the kid bring his saxaphone, too, if need be.

How about a downtown merchant who watches the streets roll up at dark because people are afraid of crime.

How about an elderly resident who won't be at the senior center today, because it's closed on Fridays the next few months. Or a Little League coach worried his field will be a mess this spring.

There are a ton of stories out there that illustrate how Fitchburg's financial woes effect normal people. Grab some voters -- who always get a public official's attention -- and have them tell their stories.

It'll take some leg work, but we believe that kind of semi-creative effort is necessary to make this problem a reality for lawmakers, and not an abstract numbers discussion.

We'll be closely watching this next week, and whatever happens, we hope we're not disappointed by a standard, roll-out-the-balls effort by Fitchburg.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

What's the Big Idea?

Like most people watching politics and policy in Fitchburg lately, we've been bemoaning the current state of fiscal affairs. It's so depressing, we know.

While the short-term view isn't too optimistic, how about the long term? Well, not to shiny either, if you look at state and local revenue numbers over the last few years.

One thing Fitchburg missing is that One Big Idea. That one thing that can rally a community, build momentum, and become a cornerstone for major urban development.

Sometimes, these One Big Ideas bust (say hello, New Bedford "oceanarium." We hardly knew ye). Often times, they work, such as the Tsongas Arena and the Spinners in Lowell.

So the question is, what's Fitchburg's big idea?

Minor league sports is a common option. It's worked in Lowell and Manchester. Can it work in Fitchburg, which certainly doesn't have the population base of those communities but is also rather isolated from other options?

How about a big-thinking museum-type thing, like the oceanarium, which was troubled from the beginning and never overcame its problems? What could Fitchburg hang its hat on that would attract big crowds for the long term?

How about a Jordan's Furniture? Seriously. I packed a kid up and traveled an hour to Natick to see "The Polar Express" last month. What about some other stand-out business, like IKEA, which turned Stoughton into Grand Central (Furniture) Station last month?

How about a massive entertainment complex? A mix of Jillian's and nightclubs under one roof? Something that caters to college-age and young professional partiers, but also has a room or two for middle-agers to get dinner and hear some live music?

What else?

Why isn't there any talk of finding, developing and eventually creating that One Big Idea? There are a lot of nuts-and-bolts things Fitchburg must do, but the city must also look at its future and find a vision for something greater than it is now.

So, what's Fitchburg's One Big Idea, and how does it become reality?


Save Fitchburg cleared the 1,000-hit mark yesterday, which we find relatively amazing after just one month. Thanks for stopping by, keep coming, and throw in your two cents. Thanks.


Monday, January 09, 2006

A Cold Reality for Seniors

The Sentinel and Enterprise reported this weekend that the Senior Center is closed on Fridays -- and the main hall is closed all winter -- due to heating costs (Sentinel homepage).

This, of course, is bad news, and further proof that the budget situation is not good, not good at all. Senior centers are often one of those city departments that get budgeted for just enough to get by, and things like higher-than-expected heating costs can cause big problems. The fact that there's no financial backup is well-established and means seniors are losing their Fridays at the center.

A senior center is probably more a luxury than a necessity, but it's a luxury that a good, strong, community should be able to provide its residents. That Fitchburg can't do that five days a week is not a source of community pride.

We get the feeling this won't be the last cutback made in city services over the next six months. There's still half the budgetary year to go, and no help in sight.

So, what's the answer? We don't want to hear "override," and someone needs to make a convincing argument that state funding is at least a 50-50 proposition. Anyone have any ideas, because it seems like options are few and far between.


Friday, January 06, 2006

The state of the state (aid)

Ralph Romano started off "Politically Speaking" last night taking the Sentinel to task for writing continuously that the city is working with an unbalanced budget. Romano's argument is that the budget was balanced based on assumptions, but state aid come in under those assumptions.

Whether you consider Romano's thoughts to be semantics or budgetary truth, as we've thought about this overnight it doesn't make us feel much better about the city's financial situation, or the way this budget was put together.

The city budget takes effect on July 1. By February or March, the city has a decent idea of where its state aid is going to be. Certainly by May or early June, the picture is pretty clear, either through the formal state budget process or more informal communication with legislative representatives.

Our question right now (and perhaps we'll dig through the archives at some point this weekend to see if we can find our own answer), is what was Fitchburg legitimately expecting for aid when the budget was passed? Was it clear state aid was short? Was there some better-than-50-50 chance that aid would be increased?

After "Politically Speaking" last night, we're big-time concerned about the state aid situation. Fitchburg's representatives aren't taking an aggressive stand on the city's behalf, and we're not confident the city's share is suddenly going to increase by millions in one year. We'll be interested to see where things stand when the House budget comes out later this year, but we wonder if Fitchburg will be facing a bigger budget crisis for next year's budget, a scary thought considering the current situation.


Thursday, January 05, 2006

Video Killed the Radio Star

We'll get in the issues more later, but let's just say for now we had a blast on "Politically Speaking," Ralph Romano's cable television show. We talked budget, 2 1/2, and the power of blogging.

Ralph was very nice afterward, and we hope he's serious about having us back someday. Good times.


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Mayor Dan Mylott

Why does it seem like Mayor Dan Mylott sort of has his back to the wall? It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.

There's certainly been a bit of Mylott backlash over the budget situation, which has been aired here in both posts and comments. Some corners of the blog community (like burgerhell) are really amping up the juice.

Perhaps more importantly, the political community is hanging Mylott out to dry a little bit. Sen. Robert Antonioni's recent comments on the city's budget situation have been more "sorry" than "we're working with the mayor on it," and Rep. Emile Goguen has been downright critical of the mayor.

If you didn't know any better, you'd think Mylott was on the hot seat. But this is a guy who ran essentially unopposed last year, and won re-election going away. Has the atmosphere around Mylott changed in just two months? We find that a little difficult to believe.

Honestly at this point, we're not sure what to make of Mylott. He may just been hitting a rocky patch, but it's a weirdly timed rocky patch. If this was last year, you'd think he was ripe for the picking last fall, but obviously that didn't happen.

We liked a lot of what he had to say in his inauguration speech. We favor a balance budget. We're big fans of Route 12 expansion (we can hear that neighborhood clicking off us right now), and we'd love to see a Fitchburg Connector off Route 2, but know that's a big challenge.

Mylott seems to understand downtown needs to grow, and needs to take a step (or three) up in status. It won't be easy, especially with easy in-and-out of the area still years away. But he seems focused on it, which we like.

He talks about mounting a "political battle" over state aid to Beacon Hill this year. Depending on who you ask, that's tough-but-winnable, a losing cause, or an absolute no-go. We'd like to think tough-but-winnable, but hope the city has a backup plan (that's not an override) if the state doesn't come through.


Media Alert

Set the TiVo, Save Fitchburg goes on television tomorrow night.

We'll be a guest on "Politically Speaking," which airs from 7 to 7:30 p.m. on Channel 8, Fitchburg's local cable channel. We'll be talking about blogging, the override, and the city's budget situation. It's hosted by former City Councilor Ralph Romano, who is a blogger himself (click here).

It should be an interesting conversation, and we're looking forward to it.


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Mylott v. Goguen?

A few interesting things came out of Mayor Dan Mylott's inaugural speech over the holiday weekend, particularly a potential intra-'Burg war between Mylott and Rep. Emile Goguen.

Interestingly, Mylott said he wouldn't use the budget tactics of last year -- namely, purposely underfunding the budget with the expectation the state would fill the gap. That's good, because we believe budgets should be balanced and think last year's budget was poor policy on the part of the mayor and the City Council.

More interesting was Goguen's reaction. He said Mylott hasn't asked for $2 million, and was critical of Mylott's management style. We have two theories on Goguen's outburst (and would love to hear yours):

--Goguen is tired of hearing Mylott blame the state and isn't taking it any more.
--Goguen is on his way out, and wants to make sure Mylott doesn't take his seat this fall.

We think the second idea is more fun, but wonder if Goguen has that political worldliness. We'll go with Theory A for now.

The other interesting thing is the disconnect between Goguen and Sen. Bob Antonioni. Goguen seems confident the state can pony up the dough. Antonioni isn't so sure. Most State House folks would take Antonioni's knowledge and perception over Goguen's. We'll see who's right later.


Two New Links

Let's start the new year with a quick, easy post, but also a few new outlets.

First, this blog is very near or just over the 500-hit mark, which we think is super-groovy. We're also seeing a bunch of new comments and we get the stray e-mail or two, which we also love. The conversation is just beginning, but it seems like there's a lot of anti-override support.

Second, two new links, which will always be stationed on the right. One is another Fitchburg political blog, burgerhell (click here). We're not a big fan of name-calling or naughty words in our politics, so we're not huge fans, but it's not our freedom of speech. The other is the Citizens for Limited Taxation and Government (click here). We're not in love with Barbara Anderson and her group, but they are a state-wide voice for Prop 2 1/2 and other tax issues, and well, they checked us out and link us on the page. We gladly return the favor.

So, there you go. More to follow as the week goes on -- and people get more disgruntled as they realize that really was a tax bill in the mail last week.


Monday, January 02, 2006

Happy New Year

Hi, everyone.

We've been sort of inactive, traveling for the holidays, but others have chipped in. The e-mail and comments section have been very busy, which we appreciate. And, it looks like someone else started a blog based on our efforts. Very cool.

We'll get back to this week. We expect the override discussion will take center stage sooner rather than later.