Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bonds and Annie

The Sentinel takes a deeper look at the bonding situation. It's certainly a symptom of the city's ills, and only long-term treatment is going to cure it.

The Sentinel also has a story on the Council and its move to reject the mayor's budget. We stand by our "hijacking" theory from earlier, and have one more theory from this story: Annie DiMartino for Mayor? Is this stand the beginning of a lengthy fight with Mylott that culminates next November? Just a thought.


The Fiscal Mess

The city's fiscal situation can charitably be described as a mess. "Disaster" might also be applicable.

Before reading more here, check this out, and then come back.

We don't necessarily disagree with Mayor Dan Mylott's use of free cash or overlay money in next year's budget. The needs to strengthen its financial standing, but at the same time it needs every piece of help it can to start moving forward. The use of overlay money is very, very common in communities that are money starved. Technically, it's money that was budgeted for use years before and is left over. No problem there. The free cash issue is a little touchier, only because that's the area that's often set aside for "rainy day" or "stabilization" funds. At this point, every day is a rainy day in Fitchburg. Use the money, wisely, to create long-term growth and strengthen the future.

Yes, there's the other side. Throw that money into a stabilization fund, or use it to cut taxes. As noted a few weeks ago, we prefer to see the city use that money to improve services in desperate need of help, rather than offer homeowners a small tax cut. It's our liberal nature.

There's some interesting politics going on here, and in some ways the council is hijacking the budget process. Is that good? It's a little tough to say. This is certainly a unique situation, and one no one has ever gone through before. The council wants an answer on the $1 million deduction in school funding. By law, they can't put it back in. But can they "reject" Mylott's budget and demand a "new" one? One that includes more school funding?

(By the way, we hope that school funding discussion includes a serious look at the city's reduced funding of schools, as we discussed last week.)

On the issue of bonds, a confusing and befuddling process, clearly the news is not good. Steps down never are. It's an indication of the city's tenuous financial position.

So, where do we go from here? Clearly the city has fewer dollars than necessary to operate the government and municipality we all want. Whether it's trash on the side of the road, or gang violence, or making downtown safer, simple services aren't being met. Mylott plays it a little risky with the budget, pouring every available dollar into services, and gets crucified for it.

The unfortunate reality is neither side is wrong. The city does need to put a premium on boosting services. But to do so is financially risky. There's no right answer right now. Even more unfortunate, there's no clear solution. Shackled by Prop 2 1/2, the city can only do so much in terms of property taxes. The state can't or won't provide extra money for the city. Where's the help?

Hate to be Nate Negative today, but the city's financial future is rather stark. Perhaps there needs to be a study and a plan that creates a five- and 10-year budget strategy for the city (if one doesn't already exist. If one does, can someone with knowledge point toward the details). The city's fiscal fortunes won't turn on a dime. It's going to take some foresight and planning, now, to improve things down the road.


Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Mylott Conundrum

If you're a regular reader of Save Fitchburg, there's probably at least one thing that comes through time and again: Mayor Dan Mylott isn't doing a very good job of leading the city.

We're slowly working on some research that may or may not prove that point. We're not sure when we'll roll that out, and not sure what it will say. We're just working on it.

But in thinking Mylott over some, we've come to something of a bizarre dead end/fork in the road (we're so confused, we're not sure which it is). In some aspects, Mylott appears to be a hearty political survivor. In others, he appears to be politically dim-witted. Now, as when we started six months ago, we're not sure what to think. We have an idea, but we're not sure.

Take Mylott's re-election. If you read this blog, you sense a great distaste in Mylott. But it didn't transfer to the ballot, where he didn't even have a challenger. Wouldn't a guy on the ropes at least get a solid run for his money?

Spin through the comment section over the last few weeks, and you'll see both sides. Some commenters note Mylott is playing to his base -- seniors who vote in droves. That's politically savvy. Yet the guy doesn't have the political wherewithall to let the superintendent know he's cutting the school budget by $1 million.

Some folks point to Mylott having motives for his budget moves -- saving money for employee raises and keeping the police union happy. This from a guy who created a budget with a deficit last year.

We could go on and on here, but you probably have your own favorite to fill in the blanks. So, what is it? Is he politically crafty, and just bulletproof enough to do his thing without getting in too much danger with the voters? Or is he a bumbling fool, somehow getting by? He's doing something right. We just can't get by the fact he ran unopposed for re-election last year -- and that he would have been a very strong candidate for state rep this fall if he wanted.

One other thing on Mylott before we wrap up. We've noticed in the last few weeks what might be a rebellion amongst other elected officials. The City Council rolled Mylott's budget up in a ball and threw it back at him, like a teacher demanding an "F" paper be rewritten. Not a good sign for Mylott-Council relations. Additionally, Mylott sat threw the School Department's budget hearing, but never gave notice he was slashing the budget by $1 million. That couldn't have sat well with Andy Ravenelle and the School Committee. We wonder, how many friends (and favors) can Mylott count on at this point if he needs them?


Monday, May 29, 2006

Holiday Reading

Not sure too much commentary is needed, considering it's really nice out:

"It's pretty nice, because you get some privacy," Jimmy Brisebois, on Riverside Park.

"I've heard every argument about the ambulance service that's possible. But I still believe that it's not in the best interest of the city." Mayor Dan Mylott, on why a potential $1 million isn't in Fitchburg's best interests.

OK, we can't help ourselves:

Riverside Park should be a jewel for Fitchburg. That it isn't is a shame.

Mylott makes something of a point in that the city would have to hire firefighters upfront for ambulance service, but he doesn't really make a fantastic argument for not moving forward with this. In typical Mylott fashion, he doesn't really justify or fully explain his move.


Friday, May 26, 2006

Budget Chaos

After two days of going through the city budget, City Councilors reached their limit on the third and Wednesday night threw it back to Mayor Dan Mylott for an overhaul. Nine of the 10 councilors voted to send it back.

If not unprecedented, this is a highly unusual move by the council. No matter how you slice it, it also appears to be a sign of great frustration from the council to the mayor. Councilors in general have questions about the use of free cash and overlay money in the budget. Dean Tran in particular wants money set aside to lower property taxes.

Whatever the case, at least 10 people in Fitchburg -- and probably the most important 10 -- think this budget is somewhere between bad and a joke. We still want an explanation on the $100,000 cut in the city's portion of school funding.

It's also worth noting that Mylott skipped Wednesday's budget hearing. The story didn't say why, but it goes without saying Mylott should be at these meetings. It is his budget after all.

UPDATE: Here's a story from today's Sentinel that has a good rundown of the Council's concerns. Two notes: Councilors are pretty much saying "enough is enough" to Mylott. Mylott says he's unsure what the next step is. With great restraint, we'll leave it at that.


Thursday, May 25, 2006

Fitchburg's Education Shame

We did some quick math this morning, and we're disgusted to figure out that Mayor Dan Mylott is cutting the city's portion of its education funding by about $100,000. We're not talking the overall school budget, we're talking the portion the city pays for education.

First, the numbers:

It appears from all signs that the city will receive the Senate's Chapter 70 aid figure of $38,844,166. That's a $2,400,968 increase from this year. It was reported earlier this month that the School Department's budget request of $45 million is a $3.3 million increase from this year.

So, that means roughly $900,000 of the $3.3 million increase would need to be picked up by the city. But Mylott has cut $1 million out of that $3.3 million increase, not only eliminating the $900,000 city pickup, but also leaving $100,000 left over.

When a young family -- the lifeblood of a community trying to move itself forward -- considers where to move, inevitably mom and dad ask themselves the question, "How are the schools?" A good education system is an important cornerstone for any community. Fitchburg schools are struggling, and its reputation is in tatters.

So why is the city cutting its investment in education? Whatever Mylott's motivations (and while there were some interesting observations in yesterday's comments section here, he hasn't really given a good reason), the end result is less money for the city's schools.

We've been blogging since December, and there's been a lot heat, both in posts and in comments regard Mylott and his tenure. This situation is far and away the most disconcerting both politically and in terms of policy.

Remember, Mylott silently sat and watched (literally) as the School Department put together a budget he had no intention of approving. Then, he released his plan without notifying anyone. No courtesy call to the superintendent or the School Committee. It's either blatant, disrespectful disregard, or shocking political tone deafness. You choose.

More egregious, however, is the policy. Mylott is reducing the city's investment in its most important enterprise. A school system that desperately needs a helping hand is instead getting a kick in the head. This is a move that further handcuffs a school system that can't afford textbooks.

Rest assured, if Mylott runs for mayor again next year, this is an issue that will return for a full, campaign-style vetting.

So, here's my plea: I'm pretty sure some elected officials (beyond Dean Tran) read this blog. Between a few things I've heard from folks and some of the written comments, I think at least a few are reading. Please, check out the math at the top of this thing and ask questions -- publicly -- about this decision. This is a tragedy not just for the schools, but for the city and its reputation. A full accounting is required.


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

'No Idea'

That was School Supt. Andrew Ravenelle's reaction to finding out Mayor Dan Mylott budgeted $44 million for the School Department, instead of $45 million.

Oh boy. Where do we start?

First, how does Mylott not let school officials know, even quietly on the side, he's cutting their budget proposal by roughly 2.2 percent? How does he sit through a School Committee budget meeting and not say a peep?

"At that particular time, I just felt it was appropriate for him to put forward his budget," Mylott said to the Sentinel.

If that's the case, when would have been the right time? Doesn't Ravenelle and the School Committee deserve some kind of head's up? The School Department is far and away the biggest part of the city's budget. Shouldn't Mylott be keeping communication tip-top with the educational leaders? Is there some kind of battle between Ravenelle and Mylott, or the School Committee and Mylott? We kind of need to ask the question today.

While we're asking questions, here's one more: Where did the $1 million go? In effect, Mylott needed to decide whether to give the School Department its request, or use some of the money for something else. What's the something else?


Wong Moves On

The Fitchburg Redevelopment Authority announced yesterday that Lisa Wong is leaving to take a job at the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development. It doesn't appear to be very good news.

Wong is intelligent and energized, and the city was seeing results with her running FRA. She set a high standard for her replacement. The city should now begin a search for someone with planning experience, but with youth and vitality.

In a way, Fitchburg should look at this like a mid-major college basketball program. You're not going to get Roy Williams, so find the next Roy Williams on the way up. Our two suggestions are both working the City of Lowell planning office. Adam Baacke is everything Fitchburg could want. In fact, he may be too high up in Lowell to pry him loose to come to Fitchburg, but he would be an absolute coup of a hire. If not Baacke, George Proakis. If neither bite, Fitchburg should consider taking whoever from Lowell those two recommend. It would be someone with experience revitalizing an urban, mill, downtown and working with Urban Renewal Plans. Those are two names we know, and there's certainly more just like those two.

In any circumstance, we hope the city is proactive in its search, and does more than place ads and wait for the resumes to come in. Target well-known names in the planning field and pitch them on the city. This is too important a job to sit back on.


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Seven New Police Officers...

...And one less head of parks and cemetery maintenance.

Those are a few of the details in Mayor Dan Mylott's budget, which was fully unveiled yesterday.

The maintenance head, Don Champagne, is being laid off, three months after he was suspended for three days. Mylott says the two are unrelated, and also still won't say why Champagne was suspended. Huh. We're not sure we 100 percent believe the first part, and really wonder about the second.

It's no secret the city needs more policy officers, and encouraging to see that as a priority in the budget. We're still a little skeptical about the new vehicles, but hopefully there's a good breakdown at some point of needs and uses from the PD.

Finally, we tried today to get an electronic version of the budget. The Mayor's Office shuffled us off to the Auditor's Office, which was very helpful (the Auditor's Office, not the shuffling). Unfortunately, the budget document is too big to e-mail. The office, however, was accomodating and offered to let us come by and check it out. It's tough for us 9-to-5ers to do, but we may try to get a hard copy somehow.


Monday, May 22, 2006

Three Things

Kind of harried today, so here's three to run down:

-- Peter Bovenzi tsk-tsks the trash situation along Fifth Mass Turnpike. He wants to put cameras in (hey, haven't read that somewhere before?). We know Bovenzi is making a good chunk of coin off of development in Fitchburg, but it's a two-way street in that Fitchburg gets residual benefits in increased property taxes and middle-class (and up) residents who live in the city. You might want to keep that guy happy.

-- Campaign finances have come up again here. From our brief research today, Stephen DiNatale hasn't been rampaging through his campaign coffers to other candidates. You can either flip through the archives here to find previous posts and details on this, but we instead encourage you to go to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance website. It's easy to get around, and you can find what you want on your own. We'll get more into all this later.

-- Finally, way too busy today to make a good effort to get our electronic hands on the budget. We'll mount that charge tomorrow.


Friday, May 19, 2006

School Building Repairs

The reality is the city needs to get going on repairing school buildings around the city. Whatever happened in the past up to this point has left Fitchburg facing a sizable rehab job.

Mayor Dan Mylott wants to throw $200,000 in unused loan money from another project into school repairs, and may ask for more. It's just about impossible to ignore the issue any longer, and the city needs to dump money into these buildings.

But (and isn't there always a "but"), how about a thought-out, long-term plan for school building repair. How about figuring out priorities and strategic spending, put together a plan, and stick to it. Why ask for $200g here and $200g there and do this in inconsistent chunks, just running from one big problem to the other? Also, isn't there way to get some SBAB money for stuff that might be a few years away?

It often feels like Fitchburg goverment operates only as a reactionary mechanism without any sense of how the issue of the day fits into a longer scheme. The city is facing an unavoidable problem and expense with the schools. Putting together a thorough plan to tackle it might not be the worst idea.


Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Budget Search Update


Just a quick update on my search for an electronic version of the budget:

The Mayor's Office, after noting the mayor is out the rest of the week, said probably the Law Department would be the best place to get moving on a copy of the budget. Strike one.

The Law Office directed us to the Clerk's office to pick up a copy. Strike two.

The Clerk's Office was completely thrown by our request for an electronic version of the budget, and referred us to the Mayor's Office. Strike three, and we skulk back to the dugout shaking our head.

Here's our question for the Mayor's Office (which helpfully noted the budget is a public document. Thanks for that) and the Clerk's Office: We're guessing the budget wasn't banged out on typewriter. In fact, if we had to wager, we'd think Microsoft Word was somehow involved in the whole thing. So why can't we get a copy e-mailed to us today? We'll try again when the mayor gets back, but jeez.

UPDATE: Apparently, councilors have only received a summary of the budget, with the full budget being delivered on Friday. At this point, we have no illusions of getting the budget before a councilor, so we'll wait until next week to restart our pursuit. We will note, however, that it seems a bit, um, politically arrogant/presumptuous/impolite of the mayor to laying out budget information without the council being fully informed. But we might be wrong about that.


Mylott Unveils Budget

Mayor Dan Mylott's budget message is very slow growth, but growth indeed, with $95 million for spending next year.

Revenue is up in residential and (some) commercial growth, use of the overlay account (good explanation in the linked story), and some other areas. Mylott notes the budget may get changed if state aid figures are adjusted downward. It's unlikely that would happen at this point, but it's a bit unsettling the budget is that closely balanced.

The big new expenditure appears to be eight new police cars. There should probably be an argument made for bike or foot patrols downtown, we're just saying. There's also a fairly bizarre comment from Mylott:

“I have been able to provide a few new positions that are seriously needed, while eliminating others in areas where change was needed or opportunity exists to increase efficiency and service."

We call it bizarre because the story doesn't explain where the new positions are (although there are mentions of lost firefighters and cops in the past), and doesn't say where the elminations were made. Huh.

We're working on trying to get a copy of the budget from the Mayor's Office for our own amusement.


Monday, May 15, 2006

Old vs. New, Nov. 6, 2007?

Over the weekend, City Councilor Dean Tran popped in with a very interesting comment.

Catching up on my blog reading and digressing from the topic.2ndSon said: “Think
you have it tough? How'd you like to be in Dean Tran's seat dealing with that
collected bunch?”What I would do to give each and every one of you, excluding
the councilors that are blogging as ‘anonymous’, the opportunity to sit in my
chair and experience the twilight zone. After the comments I heard at last
nights’ public safety meeting, I don’t think it can get any worse. I hope!As
someone stated on a separate topic, yes I was on Peter Blute’s radio talk show
this morning. How can any one turn down a request to be on a statewide 50K watts
radio talk show?BTW, I have a Twilight Zone name plate that I place on my desk
in the Council Chamber when I’m in there. Whenever I feel common sense and
professionalism are lacking and the interest of the city is not of a concern, it
serves as a reminder as to where I am.

Take what you want from it, there's probably something in there for everybody. It's striking to see Tran's frustration so plain just four months into his stint on the council. You don't really need to read between the lines to see who Tran is frustrated with.

To kind of move this forward a little bit, this would appear to be a real good sign of a brewing battle between "Old Fitchburg" and "New Fitchburg." Tran is clearly the standard-bearer for "New Fitchburg," while "Old Fitchburg" is standing by its traditional guns. We have about 18 months to the next city election, but it might be worth noting if next year's election will be an "Old"-"New" referendum. The old guard did well last year (say hi, Annie DiMartino. Sorry, Jay Cruz). Will Fitchburg jump onto the "New" train with both feet next year? Or will the "Old" have its say again? If Tran doesn't get some new-wavers on board next year, can he go another term -- considering he already appears to have gotten to the end of his rope. The city could use a good dose of "New Fitchburg." Hopefully a good slate of up-and-comers can band together and make a run for council and mayor next fall. Thinking about storming the castle 18 months out isn't too early.


Friday, May 12, 2006

More State Money, Blah, Blah, Blah

Mayor Dan Mylott presses play on the recording of his long-held view that Fitchburg needs more state money, this time for the schools.

More state education aid would be nice, but the question for the mayor is: What are you going to do about it? Call for a meeting with somebody? Put together some kind of presentation? Point out some real examples of desperate need? Rally the troops? Declare state aid the city's most pressing need and make it Priority Number One for the next 18 months? Do something, anything, beyond just whine that more state money is available?

Pointing out the need and painting the state as the bad guy is ineffective and finger-pointing at its lamest (yup, we're fired up today). As the leader of the city, Mylott needs to set the agenda and then creatively and energetically move that agenda forward. We're not sure there is an agenda when it comes to state aid, and if there is we seriously doubt it's being pushed with creativity and energy.

For crying out loud, there's not even a number attached to what the city could really need. We don't really want to hear it anymore until there's something more substantive than blaming the State House.


Another Save Fitchburg Doctrine Post

This all started as a response to a comment, but got too out of hand. Here's the comment, then the response. Hopefully this clears a few things up.

2ndSon said...
Jason:You espouse a contradictory,
inconsistent approach. In fact, of late the sole consistency has been your
inconsistencyOn one hand, you oppose any attempt to override Prop 2 1/2. Later,
you announce that, well, OK, I remain opposed to the override but not an
override for debt exclusion.On one hand, you (rightly) question the assessed
value of the Harper Furniture Building as compared with your home (end result =
a concern with the amount of tax collected on your home); decry any effort to
override 2 1/2, then reverse yourself as noted above.You compliment Councilor
Tran's energy, enthusiasm and innovative ideas, yet you disagree with his
Petition claiming it only represents $6, yet previously you modified your
position to consider an override for debt exclusion for the schools. Where's the
consistency?You, as have I, as have many others on this blog faulted the dearth
of ideas, leadership and attention paid by the Mayor and the City Council (taken
as a whole), yet you say, "Thanks, but no thanks" to Councilor Tran's petition
because "$6 is barely two gallons of gas..." Tell me, your bio on the opening
page indicates Fitchburg residency for a couple of years and you indicate a
brief bit of employment with Fitchburg's preferred kindling material. So you
have been around long enough to observe. Any other Mayors or Councilors come to
mind that have brought as much to the forefront during their entire term as
Councilor Tran has in 4 months?You indicate a desire to bring growth to
Fitchburg yet nothing is more growth inhibiting than a constantly rising tax
rate-and that's what results in dismissing Tran's Petition out of hand.You
indicate, if not champion, a revitilized Main St. yet nothing can damage that
effort more than an unstable, constantly rising tax rate.You indicate agreement
with citymonitor that violent crime requires immediate attention, yet you choose
to support a major increase in the school budget. An available buck can only be
spent in one place.You proclaim support and faith in the efforts of the
Fitchburg Revelopment Authority and its' Director, Ms. Wong, conveniently
ignoring the information provided by pro-se concerning the immediate future of
Putnam Place and current tenants.You express faith in Ms. Wong's efforts yet
ignore the fact she has been at this for a considerable period of time, spent
millions, and we have more vacant storefronts along Main St. now than prior to
her arrival.Where's the consistency? Where's the philosophical approach? No
override..but increase taxes. Failing schools...more money is the sole response.
Let's allow Fitchburg to grow...and then whack young families with a tax
increase. Decry the lack of leadership in City Hall...and then dismiss Councilor
Tran's efforts toward restoring fiscal sanity as insufficient and paltry. See
any other Council member stepping to the plate? That, my friend, is
leadership.The key to eliminating the moribund policies many are determined to
keep in place is to gain control over the budget. Where else but Fitchburg would
you find a $90 million dollar budget formulated, administered and managed by a
high school graduate who spent 40+ years selling shirts and ties? How does that
experience lend to managing this budget? Is that not cause for considerable
concern? Look at the results!Think about each of Councilor Tran's Petitions in
an all-encompassing sense. See the direction, the path Councilor Tran is
attempting to place Fitchburg on? Don't look at the Petitions individually. View
them as a unit. If approved, we may be the only City or town in Massachusetts to
HOLD THE LINE on taxes. Think that may send a message to prospective investors?
If the landlord registration/petition is approved the quality of available
housing will naturally, and immediately, improve. Landlords don't get it,
Councilor Tran does get it. If the Petition on restriction of Level 2&3
sexual offenders passes, your kids will be a bit safer because fewer sexual
predators can live here.Buy makes little difference...but at
least take a consistent, not contradictory, approach.

The Response:

2nd Son:
Here's the consistency:

What's best for Fitchburg? My $6, or a new cop or a teacher? I'll take the cop or teacher. What's best for Fitchburg? An empty building, or a start at Putnam Place? Putnam Place, please. What's best for Fitchburg? A rotting building, or the greenspace of Riverside Park? What's best for Fitchburg? More cops, or a better school system? Admittedly, that's a very tough choice, but the city should be able to handle two tasks at once (although right now that seems like a big should). If I absolutely had to choose, I'd say education, and a lot of that is personal. I have a kid in the schools starting in September, and I live in a safe neighborhood. Sometimes I think about what's best for my family.
I oppose an operational override because it's an increase that will never go away. I would consider a debt exclusion, but only under the most necessary of circumstances, because it is fixed and eventually disappears.
I'm registered as unenrolled, but admit to be very liberal on almost everything. I'm not running for office, so I'm not constrained by politics or pandering. I decide on my own what I think it right.
When I look at downtown, I try to look ahead, not in the past or the present. Same for the neighborhoods, schools and police department. I think it's pretty clear I'm relatively new to the city, and don't have the history of some folks who patrol this site, but I'm also a good representative of Fitchburg's future -- young families who give a damn are moving in, and we'll be heard one way or the other and we'll have our say. Might be tomorrow, or next year's election, but the day is coming.
So, there's my consistency. What's best for Fitchburg's future. It's actually the one consistent thing all of us on this site share.
If it all doesn't match up according to political lines, too bad. Few things and few people -- at least the honest ones -- rarely do. Political compartmentalization isn't necessary. Moving the city forward is.
Without question, Councilor Tran has the same vision we do. His first four-plus months in office have been not only excellent, but it should embarass other councilors. But we don't agree on everything, including the tax issue. You want tax reform for residents? The tax burden has been shifting away from business and to residential as long as I've been in town. That needs to change. Get a healthy residential base in town using local commercial services, and the slight increase in taxes won't hurt any businesses (yeah, and overly simplistic explanation right now, but this is already waaaay too long).
Finally, I'm pretty proud of the forum this has become. Sift through the crap that sometimes floats up, and this is the most energized and active discussion of the city you can find. It can be thoughtful, illuminating and on the rare occassion entertaining. I enjoy writing it, I enjoy reading it, and every day I get the growing feeling that not only are City Hall folks reading it, but some folks are leaving some some well-worded postings as "anonymous." It's having an impact, and that's all we can ask for.
So, to summarize: If you don't like the policy leanings, oh well. That's part of what makes policy and politics fun and interesting. If you've been unclear on the mission or the "consistency" of this site, hopefully this helps.


Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Couple of Quick Ones

Just a few quick notes today...

First, Councilor Dean Tran has filed a petition to reduce the increase in property taxes this year. Tran's argument is that homeowners have taken a beating in taxes, and instead of raising taxes 2.5 percent this year, he would like to see the increase lowered to 2.25 percent. It would save the average taxpayer $6, and cost the city just shy of $80,000.

Tran's petition makes a good point, but it's the kind of tax proposal that seems to hurt the city more than it helps the taxpayer. The $6 is barely two gallons of gas, while the $80,000 is a teacher or a cop. We appreciate Tran's attempt, but we'd rather spend our $6 and get an extra teacher in the classroom.

Second, Republican Edward Niemczura opened a campaign finance account this week, according to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. That leaves Mary Whitney as the only candidate without a fundraising operation. We're not starting to shake our heads sadly at this situation, and are considering ignoring Whitney entirely until this gets taken care of. There are certain things candidates just have to do to be taken seriously, at least trying to raise money is one of them. What is Whitney and her advisors thinking? She looks faded and overmatched right now.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Spend It

School Superintendent Andrew Ravenelle unveiled a $45 million budget for next year, which includes a $3.3 million increase from last year.

The School Department should get the increase it desires.

With at least $2 million in state Chapter 70 coming in, it means Fitchburg would be on the hook for $1.3 million of the increase. Considering textbooks, computers and maintenance would benefit from the increases, these simple needs should be fulfilled.

Interestingly, these items were the focus of override talk earlier this year. Ravenelle, who has done a good job lifting up the School Department, takes a longer, more thoughtful view by dealing with these things through the budget, rather than making a play for an override.

Without a doubt, the budget hawks are sharpening their talons, furious over the thought of spending any new money on anything. However, a strong education system is vital for any community, and while Fitchburg has a long way to go, the reality is that money will have to be spent to make it better.

Fitchburg's future is partly based on convincing young families to move to the city. Fiscal folks cower at that idea, because young families suck up city services (code for expensive kids in schools). However, Fitchburg's future needs these young families to grow roots, be active in the community, and make Fitchburg their own. Those families won't move into the city unless they can be fairly certain the schools are getting better.

There are some parts of this budget plan that gives us pause, such as funding for new "'achievement counselors,' who would focus on helping students reach their educational goals," as the Sentinel notes. We're not sure how we got through school without "acheivement counselors," although we're guessing our parents and a teacher or two someone managed to fill that role.

We want our city leaders to spend our money wisely and thoughtfully. Putting money into the budget for textbooks and computers leads us to believe that is Ravenelle is doing. Hopefully the city understands the wisdom of spending $1.3 million more on what is one Fitchburg's most important entities.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Wisdom of Rick Pitino and Andy Dufresne

"All the negativity in this town sucks. It sucks, and it stinks, and it sucks." -- Rick Pitino

"Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And a good thing never dies." -- Andy Dufresne

Pitino, of course, was talking about the Boston sporting fan base, mostly callers to WEEI, when he went on his classic rant. He may as well have been talking about many Fitchburg residents.

We've been holding off on a screed/manifesto on the future of the Fitchburg, but we're not holding back any more.

It all starts with a mindset and a vision, which is in short supply in Fitchburg. Officials are generally not optimistic and proactive (outside of notable exceptions like Councilor Dean Tran). They are often reactionary, and usually to bad news. There is no one consistently, and loudly, proclaiming the greatness of the future of Fitchburg.

No place does a better job selling itself than Lowell. Downtown Lowell sees restaurants open and close with regularity. There are a number of low-end clothing stores, and a higher number of homeless outside the downtown Dunkin' Donuts. But Lowell officials, from top to bottom, bill the city as the best mid-size city in Massachusetts/New England/America/the world (depending on the day). And that constant drumbeat has become the perception of the city.

That doesn't happen in Fitchburg, and it clearly drips down to its residents.

Is Fitchburg a great city? Not right now. Does it have a lot of problems? Yes. Is it starting to move in the right direction? Yup.

Putnam Place is a success. Period. Any time an empty and rundown building is rehabilitated and active, that is a success. Riverside Park is a success. Period. Any time a former industrial site is turned into open green space, that is a success.

The building blocks are being put into place in Fitchburg. The MART garage has the potential to be a valuable tool in the future. People are moving to Fitchburg, partly because of the commuter rail connection (a brother of Save Fitchburg is in that growing number). Developers are starting to look at downtown and other mill buildings for housing. Housing leads to residents, residents lead to commercial growth.

Will it happen overnight? No. Will it happen in three to five years? No. It may take 20 years. But Fitchburg is putting the foundation in place, and people like Lisa Wong are working at a long-term plan for the city's future.

There are certainly problems in the city. Crime is a factor in any city (seen the Globe lately on Boston's issues?), and it's an issue in Fitchburg. The lack of leadership in City Hall is an issue (one that we as voters can tackle). The lack of a major attraction to downtown or the city in general is an issue. The attitude in this city is an issue. Save Fitchburg knows a little about public relations, and nothing would help this city more right now than a good public relations campaign, for both residents and outsiders.

This blog is called "Save Fitchburg" for a reason. It was started to protest a proposed override, but we didn't name it "No Fitchburg Override" for a reason. We were motivated by the override issue, but our long-term focus is on the success and future of the city. If we're not willing to look ahead, we might as well change the name to "Give Up on Fitchburg."

We're not giving up, and others like Wong and Tran aren't either. The city is starting to generate momentum. Housing projects like Bridle Cross Estates and The Falls are bringing hundreds of new residents to the city. Young families squeezed out of the greater Boston housing market are looking at Fitchburg. The slow, steady return of Downtown is starting.

Andy Dufresne, the hero of "The Shawshank Redemption," crawled through 500 yards -- thequivalentnt of five football fields -- of the foulest smelling stuff. And he did it because he had hope. It truly is the best of things, and we have hope for the future of Fitchburg. We're certainly not starry-eyed optimists, but we have hope that despite all its problems, Fitchburg is moving ahead, and is getting better all the time.

If it's not good enough, and Fitchburg is a lost cause, now might be a good time for another course of action. The housing market is probably at its peak, so sell now and move to Leominster. Let others invest in the city and its future, and reap the dividends later.


Monday, May 08, 2006

Lisa Wong and the Future of Downtown

Here’s our interview with Lisa Wong, the executive director of the Fitchburg Economic Development Office. The quasi-public agency uses grant money, loans and other sources of revenue for development projects around the city.

Wong discussed the present and future of downtown. She sounds like the leader of the Save Fitchburg view of the potential of downtown, and as someone from out of town firmly believes in downtown’s future. She’s so committed to the cause, that she agreed to be Save Fitchburg’s first (and hopefully not last) public official to talk policy.

We’re not going with a straight question and answer format, because the discussion didn’t go down that way. Instead, we’ll sort of look at it issue by issue.

The Story Downtown
We asked Wong what the biggest misconception is of downtown. She acknowledges there are a lot of negative views of downtown (more on that later), but she stridently feels the area is ripe for revitalization. Save Fitchburg believes the long-term future of downtown is promising, and Wong agrees.

“The biggest misconception is that it’s a dead place. That it’s dirty, with crime,” Wong said. “It’s what I consider to be the opposite of that. In my opinion, and looking at a lot of different downtowns, this is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. It’s a diamond in the rough.”

Despite the occasional calls to move focus off of downtown (and then what would do with it, turn into something out of “Escape from New York”?), Wong knows its importance goes beyond the economic potential of the area.

“A lot of people say abandon downtown, it’s a lost cause,” Wong said. “But it’s not only an economic generator for a city, it’s also a social and almost psychological positive for the city.”

The Key for Growth
In our discussion, we noted that housing projects, such as the recently-announced TD Banknorth Building apartment plan, seem to be dominating the “up next” news for downtown. Wong acknowledged that’s the case, and said it’s all part of a good plan for downtown.

“Housing is a launching pad. From a planning standpoint, it is a way to bring people downtown. They’re projects that work in the private sector, and they’re a great way to reuse those old building,” Wong said. “A core can’t be a core because it has the cultural amenities. You have amenities and parks and museums, but you also need the actual people to support those things. Those all feed upon each other. That’s what we’re trying to do there downtown.”

Like many planners and cities in the region, Wong looks to Lowell for both inspiration and an example of success. In the last five years, Lowell’s downtown market-rate housing has boomed. But not after a lengthy debate between market-rate and affordable housing, and an even longer planning period.

Wong said downtown Fitchburg would be best served by about 1,000 housing units. As in Lowell, momentum could be quickly built in Fitchburg.

“We do have to get the dominoes in place. It can happen really, really quickly if all the right people come into place,” she said.

Commuter Rail
We talked briefly about commuter rail, and it’s importance to downtown’s future. Wong said it’s a big piece of the puzzle.

“It is extremely important. It’s not the panacea of the downtown, but it is extremely important for the larger connection to the state to make this a more attractive place for people to live,” she said.

The Downtown Naysayers
We think this is important because of there is a feeling in the city that downtown is a waste. Wong knows what people think of downtown. She also knows the negative buzz that surrounds projects like Putnam Place and Riverfront Park. In a weird way, she kind of likes it.

“We need to be critical because things aren’t perfect. People need to see change,” Wong said. “It’s better than apathy. Maybe they’re not in 100 percent agreement with me, but their eyes are open. Maybe they’re wearing dirty glasses, but they’re trying to make logical steps toward improvement.”

When it comes to Putnam Place and the park, Wong points to Pittsfield, where the GE plant is still vacant and fenced off. She hears the complaints that those projects were too costly, but she points out it is not public money being used in those project.

“I think it’s a luxury to have people criticize me for Putnam Place for spending too much money. It’s not their money,” she said. “The flip side could be, when are we going to do something with that 11-acre building? The park is another one. These are things that don’t bother me. It’s just human nature.”

What’s Next
Obviously, housing starts are important and will continue. Wong believes new residents to downtown will keep the area active around the clock.

She also notes that downtown activities are seeing new life. She noted that Movie Night at Riverside Park, which she started in 2004, doubled its attendance from year one to year two. Over the next year, she expects people will see more activity downtown.

“We’ll see people on the street at night, on the weekends. Construction activity, hopefully,” she said.

As a quasi-public agency, the economic development office works closely with public officials, and often times there are a handful of different opinions for eventually reaching the common goal of a revitalized downtown. She’s realistic about the politics at play, and realizes she needs to take a long-term view to downtown.

“There is no one path to success, but there is one sure-fire path to failure, and that’s trying to please everyone,” she said. “We’re trying to keep steady on course towards the long term. If there is a quick fix, I’ll certainly jump on it, but I haven’t found it yet.”


Friday, May 05, 2006

A Good Proposal, No Follow Through

One day on the 5th Mass Turnpike trash count, and we were dropped a dime on what might be a decent solution to the problem in that neighborhood.

According to a source, developer Peter Bovenzi, who has a large stake in the neighborhood through the sprawling Bridle Cross Estates, has offered to pay for cameras watching the street/popular dumping ground, and even throw in some help for installation. All the city has to do is research the cameras.

It's been over a month, and there has been no movement. Essentially, the city gets free cameras for one of the worst dumping areas around in trade for some googling, and nothing is done. As our source notes, "the word proactive does not exist in the (Board of Health's) dictionary!"

FRIDAY NIGHT UPDATE: We noted the mattresses and couch of the last week were gone today.


We had a lengthy conversation yesterday with Lisa Wong, the director of the Fitchburg Economic Development Office, which we're trying to turn into a cohesive post for next week. We're thrilled Lisa took the time to talk to us, and hope she won't be last public official (in her case quasi-public) who will yak at us. We'll have the goods next Monday.


Thursday, May 04, 2006

LeBlanc's Run

Former Councilor David LeBlanc threw a little campaign kickoff for his state rep run last night. He talked about a few issues, promised to free up community preservation funds for Fitchburg, and had a few city councilors in the crowd.

One nit-picky issue we have is LeBlanc's desire to keep Fitchburg affordable for senior citizens (we're picking up on a Sentinel paraphrase here). That's all well and good, but shouldn't Fitchburg be trying to be kept affordable for everyone? Wouldn't be in the city's interest to find a way to be safe, affordable and interesting for middle-class families squeezed out of buying in other areas?

It's certainly politically prudent to want to cater to the seniors. They vote and no one is going to argue against helping the elderly. But, what can LeBlanc do as a state rep to help? Isn't this really a local issue? It's the kind of by-the-book political pandering that makes for nice, safe campaigning but doesn't transfer to bold leadership in the long run. Fitchburg would be better served by the latter.


One of the things we're going to take on as a little experiment here this spring and summer is a running tally of all the obvious, big-ticket junk we see pile up on 5th Mass Turnpike. It's the perfect dumping spot in that it offers nice on/off to Route 2, and no one is around to see dumpers do their thing. We drive by almost every day, so we're experts on the junk situation around there. We're likely to lose track at some point this summer but to start we currently have:

Four plastic bags of leaves (really, you can't just wait for the leaf pickup?)
Two mattresses
One couch

The mattresses and couch have been out a good week.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Lineup Is Set

The dance card is printed for this fall's state rep campaign. Four candidates -- Democrats Stephen DiNatale, Mary Whitney and David LeBlanc, and Republican Edward Niemczura -- are in the hunt. No surprises from yesterday's nomination form deadline.

Here's what is surprising in the end: Where's the future of Fitchburg in this campaign? Where's the young upstart who can be a vibrant, energized voice for the city on Beacon Hill? Where's the candidate you look at and think he or she is the political future of the city?

Not to say there are no good candidates in this race -- no one will outwork (or outspend) DiNatale. But is he really the future of the city? He's 53. While experience is a good thing, there is no one in this race who can be identified as the future of the city.

Coming shortly off a big victory in last year's City Council election, DiNatale effectively scared off any other strong challengers. Whitney and LeBlanc have had their time, and Niemczura doesn't appear (at least right now) to be a legitimate challenger. Hell, Whitney still hasn't created a campaign finance committee, a delay that points to somewhere between disinterested and clumsy.

It would have been nice to see someone young, well-connected, and able to raise money take on DiNatale. Someone who could create a "New Fitchburg-Old Fitchburg" battle to see where the city really stands. Instead, this appears to be nothing but a walk-through for DiNatale. He may end up being a great representative for Fitchburg, but good campaigns can energize and focus both candidate and community. That doesn't appear likely here, and that's Fitchburg's loss.


Let This Be the End of It

Everyone has said just about all that needs to be said on the issue, so just a quick update in case you've missed it: The Council passed the increased meter fares last night, with a final vote pending. From reports, it looks like they'll go into effect in about two weeks. Sigh.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A Penny for Your Thoughts

But how much to park downtown?

The debate intensifies this week, as a bunch of downtown business owners battle the proposed increase from 25 to 50 cents an hour. For those who need a recap, the city wants to pass the increase in order to get cars of employees of downtown business off the streets and into the garages.

The rebellious business owners say it's tough enough right now to get people downtown, and they don't want to see it made even tougher.

We advocate getting rid of the meters and sticking to a strict two-hour time limit. If you need more than two hours, park in a garage. If less, enjoy the wonderful street parking.

The one possible drawback here is loss in revenue. We'd like to think that the $10 tickets slapped on offenders would fill in most or all of that gap. It would also drive current offenders into the garages, maintaining their current meter fees through garage fees.

Really, this seems so simple. Why is it so hard?


One More for the Rep Hunt

As the "blog of record," we'll note today that Edward L. Niemczura is running for Emile Goguen's state representative seat as a Republican.

Niemczura has no political experience, and he has a couple of issues he needs to square away in short order if he's to be taken at least semi-seriously.

First, he needs to get 150 people to sign his nomination papers by today. It might mean a long weekend scouring for names, but immenently doable. In fact, if Niemczura wants to stop by Save Fitchburg World Headquarters this weekend, we'll sign for him, just in the name of democracy and all that.

Second, he needs to, um, polish the message a little bit. It would seem obvious that we would prefer someone above the "average guy" status Niemczura pins on himself. Also, his main platform seems to be giving people a choice. While that's noble and all, his campaign should be a little more issue-based, we think.

All this is a firm reminder of the shabby state of the Republican Party in Massachusetts (perhaps this rant is better served for -- here comes the shameless plug -- Save Massachusetts). The party struggles to find quality candidates for statewide office, and can't even organize a well-structured slate for state representative and senator.

Fitchburg would seemingly offer the GOP a decent opportunity to win a precious House seat. The city isn't adverse to Republicans, the mayor is a GOPer. Goguen was no Democratic standard bearer, and at this point most voters in the city prefer the best guy for the job, whether he or her name is followed by D, R, I, or X.

Instead, a guy who has never run for office is throwing his name in the ring at the last minute, probably with no help from the state party, which could provide some experience and a few dollars. Good luck, Edward Niemczura. You're all alone on this one, but your courage and willingness to step into the breech should be acknowledged. Good for you, but we just wish someone could help you out a little bit.


Monday, May 01, 2006

An Announcement

Save Fitchburg has a little sibling. Today we crank up Save Massachusetts, which will keep tabs on the gubernatorial election (and other state election-related good stuff), putting in context of Fitchburg and North Central Massachusetts as much as possible. It'll be heavy on the politics, light on the policy.

What does this mean for Save Fitchburg? Well, there will probably be days when we're busy on Save Massachusetts and ignore Save Fitchburg. It means the state stuff that popped here from time to time will be moved to Save Massachusetts. Hopefully it means in the long run the two kind of work together, like sections in a newspaper, and make everyone happy.

So, go check it out and enjoy.