Friday, June 30, 2006

City/Town Hall Hours

Note to Councilor Ted DeSalvatore: You can use this information if you want, and you don't even have to give us credit. We're here for you.

We did some quick research of City and Town halls throughout the region, checking their hours. Of course, Fitchburg officials are considering making the monumental change to actually keeping some offices open until 6:30 once a week.

We really like Councilor Dean Tran's on-line option. Mrs. Save Fitchburg reminded us this week that Worcester City Hall can turn around an on-line birth certificate request in two days. In the perfect world, Fitchburg should have both on-line options and evening hours, at least once in a while.

According to our research, Fitchburg is currently in the minority when it comes to not having evening hours. Simply, if Townsend can do it with a staff that most certainly is smaller than Fitchburg's, why can't Fitchburg?

So, here you go. Who's open when (in some case, office hours vary by department. All these hours are for the Clerk's Office, which is the department most used by residents on a regular basis):

8:30-4:30, Monday-Friday

8:30-4, Monday-Wednesday, Friday
8:30-5:30, Thursday

9-6, Monday
9-4, Tuesday-Friday

8-4, Monday and Thursday
8-6:30, Tuesday
8-1 Wednesday
Closed Friday

9-4, Monday, Wednesday-Friday
9-8, Tuesday
9-noon, first and third Saturdays of each month (Wow.)

8-7, Monday
8-3:30, Tuesday and Wednesday
8-noon, Thursday
Closed Friday

8-4:30, Monday-Thursday
8-1, Friday
Evenings M-Th by appointment only

8-4:30, Monday-Thursday
8-4, Friday


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Downtown Update; More on Magnan v. Boisvert

The Johnsonia got its first public viewing yesterday, as the effort to transform the building into 46 condominimums.

Ten of the units have already been sold, and the developers believe they can sell half the total this year and the rest next year.

This has been one of those projects that a lot of folks have been kind of wondering about, so it's good to get an update. Redevelopments like this one will play an important role in the remaking of downtown. It will happen one unit, one building, at a time, but that's how momentum is built. Hopefully, the Johnsonia is a success, and brings more developers to the table for future projects.


The Sentinel checks in on Magnan v. Boisvert. They don't have the money quote from Boisvert that the Telegram had, but it does sort of shape Magnan's argument a bit better.

Also, the Sentinel notes Magnan mentioned the ethics filing after the mayor's press conference yesterday. Interesting. Some commenters today position Magnan as something of a publicity hound, and we've gotten some off-blog feedback from good sources that back that up.

We don't know Magnan well enough to make that publicity hound assertion, but it appears as if Magnan went out of his way to make this public. It is a little opportunistic to make hay over a fellow public official's situation, but that's certainly not unheard of. It's also not unheard of for a politician to look for ink.

Finally on this matter, Boisvert tells the Sentinel, "I didn't figure it was anybody's business to be honest. I wasn't doing anything wrong so I didn't make anything public."

The way that's written, without a comma between "business" and "to," it reads like it wasn't in the public interest to be honest. It would read a lot differently with the comma in there, as in Boisvert was being honest, and that's probably the way Boisvert intended it. Although it took a couple of reads for us to get there.

Here's the thing, though: Boisvert knew this was coming. Magnan had warned him, and Boisvert didn't think he needed to say anything. The general guideline is usually, "If there's the potential for conflict, there's a conflict." It's a fancy of way saying don't take any chances. All Boisvert had to say was, "My wife works for the city, but I've been counseled I can vote on the overall budget," and he'd be done with it. Magnan may be looking for some news hole, but Boisvert could have avoided this mess with one sentence.


Magnan vs. Boisvert

School Committee member Patrick Magnan has filed an ethics complaint against City Councilor Norman Boisvert, claiming Boisvert didn't property notify a potential conflict when voting for the city budget this week.

Magnan notes Boisvert's wife works as a paraprofessional in the city schools. That should have been noted before voting on the budget. Boisvert argues he was voting on the overall budget, not line items, and there is no conflict according to state law.

There doesn't appear to be any financial or policy-focused issue here. Magnan said he was introduced to Boisvert's wife by Boisvert last week, and realized there might be a conflict. He warned Boisvert to public announce the potential conflict before voting on the budget, or he would pursue the matter. Magnan seems motivated only by an effort to keep matters above board.

Boisvert isn't happy about all this, and I can't imagine he and Magnan will be enjoying a holiday cookout together this weekend. Check this out:

“I’m glad he filed it. Now maybe he can shut his mouth,” Boisvert said in the Telegram. “I seem to be in his crosshairs at the present time. But he means nothing to me.”

The city already has some rifts in it: The council and the mayor's budget process was testy, and the School Committee and mayor aren't speaking (literally, if you remember the mayor's role in committee budget discussions), and not a councilor and School Committee member are itching for a gunfight on Main Street. Happy times.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

On Politics and Budgets

So, in the end, the City Council pared $131,000 off a $95 million budget. If you’re scoring at home, that’s about one-tenth of 1 percent.

Certainly, there was more budget discussion than in a number of years, including the threat to completely throw the budget back to Mayor Dan Mylott for an overhaul. There’s a little more money for schools, and some Free Cash was saved.

However, in the end, was it all worth $131,000 – or one-tenth of 1 percent? Let’s review:

The council fired the first volley, lambasting the mayor’s budget. “The spending is out of control,” Councilor Jody Joseph said. “The councilors that’ve been here for a while are as frustrated as they’ve ever been,” Councilor Thomas Donnelly said.

When it looked like Mylott’s budget was being thrown back, he all but dared the council to do it. He called the council’s actions “political rhetoric and media grandstanding,” and knocked the council for not having a “clear, defining plan for the budget.” Most memorably, Mylott noted, “The budget is not a negotiable instrument.”

Things calmed down some this month, but how can everything be hunky-dory now. There’s a sense that was nose-holding by councilors last night as they voted to approve (except Annie DiMartino. I’ll say it again, is she running for mayor? Because she sure likes to hammer Mylott right now). I’d really like to know what Mrs. Tran said to get Councilor Dean Tran to vote in favor (see comment from previous post for Tran’s views).

In the end, Councilor Stephen DiNatale may have had most right last month, when he said, “I'm not suggesting this is all achievable. But I think it was important to send a message to the mayor.”

So, was a message delivered? And was all this political battling worth $131,000? Will Mylott remember this message next year, or will he burn through some free cash and levy to the limit? In an election year, with the council really go after Mylott next year (who would be running for re-election himself), particularly if a member or two is running against him?

It seems the political warfare doesn’t match the final price tag on the cuts made. But maybe this was just an important battle in a longer duel that will bear fruit next year. Either way, a lot of hot air was blown over $131,000.


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

It Should Be So Simple

Councilor Ted DeSalatore, who is suddenly battling Dean Tran for busiest councilor (at least in terms of media hits), reignites the seemingly simple idea of keeping City Hall open until 6:30 one day a week.

DeSalvatore's plan would keep some departments open until 6:30 on Thursday nights, after not opening until 10:30 that day. It means no additional work hours, and employees would get to sleep in one day a week.

This seems so simply customer-friendly, and importantly, these customers are not only paying fees for birth certificates, marriage licenses, and building permits, but they pay the taxes that pay these employees' salaries. To say residents are the ultimate customer isn't enough. In fact, as pretty much the equivilent to a shareholder in the city and its government, I vote to put the new hours into effect. (Now if I just could find 19,999 more people, I'd have a mandate of shareholders, for all the good that vote does me.)

Of course, something so simple can't be easy. There are unions to deal with, and the fact that Mayor Dan Mylott already isn't optimistic (uh-oh), as similar ideas have withered on the vine in the past. Of course, if the unions can be prodded into the change, they'll need a giveback. Whatever could that be? Hopefully if it doesn't happen, the city uses it against the union later.

DeSalvatore's petition is mindful of the city's changing population. More and more people work in Boston or along 128 (or even Devens) and getting to City Hall at 8:30 and getting to work by 9 is impossible for most people. Forget getting back to City Hall by 4:30, it's impossible.

For a city struggling to do the big things, sometimes the small things can be a way to tell people government cares and is doing what it can to help. Hopefully DeSalvatore can get support for this and make it happen.


Three Days to Go

At some point between today at Friday (probably today, no?), the City Council and Mayor need to get a budget done (or go 1/12th, which is highly unlikely).

So, today, we have nothing but odds. Feel free to make your predictions:

Will the Council approve the budget? EVEN ODDS
How many councilors will vote against the budget? OVER/UNDER: 1.5
How much, in the end, will the council cut? OVER/UNDER: $400,000
How many councilors will say they are "grudgingly" (or similar) voting for the budget? OVER/UNDER: 2.5
How many new police officers will be included in the budget? OVER/UNDER: 4.5
At the last minute, will Mayor Dan Mylott say, "Now that you've approved the budget, I just want to let you know I'm cutting $1 million off the bottom line. It was my plan all along, but I didn't want to butt in"? EVEN ODDS


Monday, June 26, 2006

Debate Season!

Debate announcements, apparently, are coming fast and furious.

Of course, last week Save Fitchburg and "Politically Speaking" announced two debates, one for the state representative Democratic primary, and one for the general election. Remember, we want your questions for the 90-minute extravaganza. You can e-mail them here or here, and we'll put them on the list.

The Telegram's Matthew Bruun writes it up today. He notes it's a unique pairing of non-mainstream media hosting this debate. Hopefully he'll cover the debate, also.

It looks like, at least right now, it's first of two for the primary. The Sentinel announces its forum with Fitchburg State College today. While the Sentinel doesn't do us the courtesy of mentioning our debate in its story, we'll extend it to them. We're nice guys. It's Sept. 14, a week after the big SF/PS bash, so we hope it will be just a rehash of the thorough vetting the candidates will get earlier.

We find zero coincidence that the Sentinel announced their gig days after we did ours. We were a little sour when we heard from Matt but not the Sentinel, because deep down inside we're media whores. At first, we didn't think they really cared. Today's announcement would lead you to think they do. Thanks for watching and reading, guys.


Deleted Post, New Comment Situation

For the first time, I am completely taking down a post because the comment section was completely out of hand. Amazingly (or not), it started on a post that asked folks to clean up their acts a little bit.

So, as promised last week, I'll be making some changes. At some point today, I'll create a system that eliminates the "anonymous" postings. You'll have to come up with some kind of name to leave a comment. To say everyone has been warned is putting it mildly. Let's see if this helps things at all.

More later today ....


Friday, June 23, 2006

The Preston Johnson Affair

While the Sentinel is sometimes shaky in its product (how about the box cards today around the city trumpeting "Police Chief Resigns" when it was Ashby's chief?), but the story by Aaron Wasserman this week on the Preston Johnson shooting was pretty damn good.

We'll use two quotes from the story to kick it all off:

"Whether you're a person of the city or a police officer, you should get the same charges as anyone else," Tonya Merchant said in the story. "Because (trooper Donald Gray is) a police officer, it's different?"

"This was a black guy against the police," Juana Pagan said. "We don't have any rights for anything in this."

Merchant's theme is prevalent throughout the story. It would appear that no one is quite sure exactly what happened when Gray shot Johnson. Was it in self-defense? Was it something else? Just how much danger was Gray in, if any? They are questions that are never going to be answered. To answer Merchant's question of "it's different," yes, it is. Police officers put their lives on the line every day they go to work. A Save Fitchburg brother is a cop, and we prefer he stays safe as much possible. Certainly, Gray's action deserve close scrutiny and review, but it's rare the facts are black and white in these instances.

As for Pagan's remarks, that's an unfortunate reaction that has to be expected. Hopefully it isn't true, but it's a legitimate reaction.

City officials need to make sure this issue is taken care of. Reach out to the community and smooth out any rough edges before they lead to more problems. Fitchburg has enough problems to deal with, any race issues or other matters that stem from this aren't needed. A pro-active, thoughtful and sympathetic response is necessary.


Thursday, June 22, 2006

Save Fitchburg, Politically Speaking, Announce Debates

Here it is:

We're co-sponsoring state rep debates with "Politically Speaking." Here's the press release:

For Immediate Release

Save Fitchburg, ‘Politically Speaking’>to Host
State Representative Debates

>>Fitchburg-focused Blog, FATV Political Show, Team
Up for Forums

>>In a first for the North Central Massachusetts area, two
>non-mainstream media outlets -- FATV’s “Politically Speaking” and >the
blog Save Fitchburg -- are teaming up to host two debates before >the
Worcester 3rd District state representative election this fall.>>

The first debate, scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 7, will feature the
>candidates involved in the Democratic primary race, which will be
>decided on Tuesday, Sept. 19. A general election debate will be held >on
Thursday, Oct. 26, in advance of the Tuesday, Nov. 7 election. >Both one-hour
debates will be held at 7 p.m. at FATV’s studios.>>

The debates will feature questions from the two moderators,
>“Politically Speaking” host and former City Councilor Ralph Romano, >and
Save Fitchburg editor Jason Lefferts, along with questions from >Fitchburg
residents submitted in advance to Save Fitchburg and >“Politically

“This is an important election for the City of Fitchburg, and it’s
>vital that voters get a chance to hear from the candidates before >they
go to the polls,” Romano said. “I’m proud that ‘Politically >Speaking’ can
play such an important role in the election season.”>>

“Save Fitchburg has quickly become a forum for residents throughout >the
city to discuss the issues and try to move the city forward, and >hosting a
debate is a natural progression of leading that >discussion,” Lefferts said.
“Both Ralph and I are very excited with >this opportunity to lead the
discussion this fall.”>>

Save Fitchburg was created in December 2005, and quickly has become >an
energetic clearinghouse for ideas and discussion on Fitchburg >government and
politics, with dozens of readers joining the >discussion everyday. It has
received over 29,000 views since >inception, and now averages over 1,500
views a week. Save Fitchburg >can be found at>>

“Politically Speaking” is a half-hour television program that >focuses
on policy and politics in Fitchburg and beyond. Hosted by >the insightful and
knowledgeable Romano, “Politically Speaking” is >Fitchburg’s premier
political television program. For more >information, visit For more information on
FATV, >visit>>

# # #


Cronin, DeSalvatore Make Up; Train Gets a Look

A couple from the paper today:

City Councilor Ted DeSalvatore and Police Chief Edward Cronin sat next to each other and didn't break into a slap fight yesterday, as they said they mended ways and are committed to fighting the crime situation on Elm Street.

Beyond the political news of DeSalvatore and Cronin at least publicly claiming peace, there's the news that the city is throwing a bunch of resources into the neighborhood. Walking patrols are in place from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., street cleaning and sidewalk repairs are on the way, and code officials are going to take a close look at properties in the area. It's the kind of serious attention a problem like this needs, and it's a good step for that area.

Also, some state and federal officials took a ride on the commuter rail yesterday. The story says they "traveled the line from Boston to Fitchburg" yesterday. We think that means they rode the entire line, starting in Boston. If so, we only hope (but doubt) they took a non-express, rush-hour train, so they could get the full experience of the packed, slow ride to South Acton and then the rest of the ride beyond.

This train thing is going to be a slow process, but a necessary one for the city. There's a lot of money -- and a big initiative -- at stake here. It deserves a close watching.


OK, one last time: We're on "Politically Speaking" tonight. Tell a neighbor.


Needles and Downtown

Landing soon on Gov. Mitt Romney's desk is legislation that would make the over-the-counter sale of hypodermic needles legal in Massachusetts. Could that be good for downtown Fitchburg?

The Gardner VNA's Fitchburg office has offered needle bleaching kits to drug users for years, creating a concentration of addicts downtown every day.

In 2004, Mayor Dan Mylott said in Commonwealth Magazine, "We don't feel that it has been helping in the reduction of addiction to injected drugs," says Mayor Dan Mylott. "We feel that what it has done is concentrate the whole population--or a majority of the population--of people who are using intravenous drugs into one part of Fitchburg. We don't think it's right. We don't think it's fair." (To read that whole fantastically-written and insightful story, click here.)

Advocates of the program, and of free-needle programs in general, argue these programs reduce the reuse of dirty needles, cutting down on the spread of HIV and other disease. Fair enough.

But now comes this legislation, which would make needles available at the local drugstore. In just a few minutes cozying up to Google, you can find 100 needles for $16 online. Let's say CVS is more expensive, and charges, who knows, 99 cents for a needle (we're not saying that's what a needle would cost, but if you can get a box of them for 16 cents each, doesn't 99 cents sound semi-reasonable? They certainly won't cost a fortune). That makes needles pretty readily available to anyone who wants one.

So, does that mean Gardner VNA quits its bleaching program? The city has been trying for a long time to change or eliminate that program. Wouldn't this be a good lever to reopen that issue, and perhaps end it? The only argument left would be cost, but is $1 really that prohibitive? If it is, doesn't that person have bigger problems than getting a free needle every day?

While the goal of the VNA program is noble and right, it is an issue for downtown. A handful of drug addicts coming by every day to maintain is not a good thing for any neighborhood, anywhere. Up until now, it's been a necessity (if you believe in that kind of thing, which we do), but this legislation changes the dynamics of the situation.

It appears unlikely Romney will sign the bill into law, but the override numbers appear to be in place. When (if) this becomes law, hopefully the city restarts a discussion with Gardner VNA and figures out a way to both elminate the daily build up downtown while making needle users are getting what they need.


Councilor Dean Tran is getting some serious mileage out of his sex offender residency restriction petition. FOX 25 had a piece earlier this week and the Boston Herald has a small brief buried in today's paper. The big hit, though, is the Metro cover story in the Boston Globe (note the graphic inside with the jump. It details the restrictions around parks and schools. Unfortunately, day care centers aren't included, which assuredly would add a bevy of new circles over swaths of the city). The petition has put Fitchburg at the forefront of an issue, and helps make the city look forward-looking and protective of its citizens. It's been good media for Tran, and for the city.


FINAL REMINDER: We're on "Politically Speaking" tonight, 7 p.m., on FATV (Channel 8 on your cable box). We think a big tub of popcorn is in order to properly enjoy the high entertainment.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Can God Save Fitchburg?

Not to be too religiously snarky here, but a new business is injecting a bit of the Lord into downtown, with a Christian-themed coffeehouse taking over the space that used to the bar Third Base.

This is a pretty unique business, and it will be interesting to see if it can catch a foothold in Downtown Fitchburg. The place will have Christian music on the sound system, including live Christian bands some nights. There will also be volunteers around to handle spiritual questions, but the owner says he won't be pushing religion down customers' throats. It opens next Thursday, June 29.

This is a certainly a drastic change from the old tenant. Hopefully it's a savior for downtown.

By the way, Councilor Dean Tran's sex offender residency restriction proposal passed the City Council last night unanimously and without discussion last night. This proposal got a pretty heavy review in committee, but no discussion last night? This seems like a pretty serious, legally complicated issue to get the quick passage last night. That said, good legislation for Fitchburg.


REMINDER: Save Fitchburg will be on "Politically Speaking" tomorrow night at 7 p.m. We'll be making a big joint announcement with host Ralph Romano that we think is really pretty cool, and certainly something of a first for Fitchburg. I recommend running to Circuit City and getting a big plasma TV and surround sound to be able to fully enjoy the experience.


The Commuter Rail Bandwagon

Kind of lost in the shuffle recently was the federal government's investment in building a new commuter rail parking lot in Leominster. It's all part of the (hopeful) plan to speed up service to Boston from the current 90 minutes to an hour.

The Leominster lot, currently about 140 spots, fills up quickly. For a lot of Fitchburg residents, it's actually a barely quicker commuter to hop on in Leominster and drive back to Fitchburg, because the driving time makes up for the additional train time to downtown Fitchburg. However, that Fitchburg parking garage is awfully nice on snowy days.

In any case, this is good news for Fitchburg and the city. It's another sign that there is a growing commitment to better rail service in the region. The state seems to be slowly moving toward making an investment, and the federal government having a stake in the issue is only good news (and would the feds drop $4.5 million on a parking garage if they didn't think rail use was going increase?).

Throw into the mix Stephen DiNatale's desire to see commuter rail improved.

When asked what he thought would be important to work on if elected state representative this fall, DiNatale's first issue was the commuter rail. He notes there has been no investment in the Fitchburg line in 30 years, and that it's vital to improving downtown and the entire city.

DiNatale said while the long-term work on speeding up service is done, other changes should be made. He said cars should be upgraded and kept in good shape -- little things like air-conditioned cars on hot days, which isn't always the case. When asked about moving the "express" train from 4:40 p.m. to after 5 p.m., DiNatale said that is an obvious area of investigation.

"If we’re successful in achieving (quicker service), that creates great economic stability for the region," DiNatale said. "One of our plusses is the housing. We’ve got great housing out here and it's extremely affordable. If you can to Boston in a hour, you can get a palatial estate."

It's going to take a while. DiNatale said it's likely a 10-year plan, but also said he thinks that's too long and wants to quicken the process. Perhaps the city should consider a 10-year plan for downtown -- creating new housing, making Riverfront Park a viable, well-used greenspace, and luring new retail to the area -- over the next decade, with the long view of bringing all those pieces together by 2016 and making downtown Fitchburg a vibrant, active core once again.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

No Teacher Cuts, What's with the Closed Doors?

The city is scraping up $130,000 to put into the school budget, which is good news, but what's with the School Committee meeting in executive session to discuss the superintendent's evaluation?

We have a pretty good understanding of the open meeting law, in that local government reporters are trained early and often to sniff out any possible violation of the law. We take a reporter's view of the law -- that the law narrowly restricts the reasons for executive session. That said, we're no legal experts, but it seems as if the committee may have violated the law. We'll be interested to see if the Sentinel pursues a ruling on this issue.

While it's good the city is putting $130,000 into the school budget (thus sort of ending our constant cries over the "missing" $100,000), let's not paint the city as heroes here. First, a big chunk of it, $70,000, comes from the city saving on unemployment costs because there are no layoffs. So it's really $60,000. Second, it shouldn't be that hard for the city to make a modest investment in the schools. This money barely covers the layoffs, and doesn't begin to get into textbooks and other areas to be cut, like "energy."

The city should be investing more in schools, but clearly that's not going to happen without a major battle. Mayor Dan Mylott will announce tonight where he's cutting on the city side to cover the new school costs. We'll be interested to see what areas he considered cut-worthy.


MEDIA ALERT: Jason is going to be on "Politically Speaking" this Thursday, June 22, talking up city politics and policy with host Ralph Romano. We're also going to be making a joint announcement on what we think is a pretty major step forward for our respective outlets, and something this is good for Fitchburg. We can't let the cat out of the bag just yet, but we're both pretty excited about it. Warm up the TiVo.


Monday, June 19, 2006

DeSalvatore Pushes, Hay Looks for Closure

Two for today:

Councilor Ted DeSalvatore continues his crime clean up effort with the idea of condemning multi-family homes that are problems. DeSalvatore offers that a way to elminate the problem is to elminate the housing criminals use.

There appears to be some legal issues regarding tenants in these buildings (protection for the troublemakers? Huh) and some heavy court time involved in this process. At least DeSalvatore is thinking -- and still driving this issue hard.

Our totally insane idea: Take the land over via eminent domain. Say you're taking it and turning it into a single-family home. It's costly, and we're not even sure we would stand by this idea in the long run, but it might be worth checking out.

The other issue today is Councilor Stephan Hay's proposal to shut down the airport. This one also doesn't look to have much support from other councilors or the mayor.

Hay's argument is that the city could do better by turning the airport into development space. Others argue the airport is part of the city's future and will be a viable part of the city's rebirth, and that there might be a big payment to the FAA for past funding that would be due.

We lean hard toward keeping the airport open, but it would seem both sides should do some planning and studying to convince the other.

For those who want the airport: What are the plans to expand the airport's services and what are the future projections for usage? Paint a picture of the airport five years from now, 10 years from now. What are the national trends for small airport usage, and how does Fitchburg fit that trend?

For those who don't want the airport: What would the residential/commercial/retail/whatever mix be? Would there be a big project attached (the story today mentions minor-league baseball)? What's the sense of the development community? Would that space be quickly worked on, or would it be difficult to attract interest? Finally, are there any environmental issues that would hold things up?

Hay's suggestion is thought-provoking, but a whole lot of research needs to be done before a decision is made.


Getting Control Back

We're back from a extended away from the keyboard. We see a lot of comments, and simply don't have the time to read all of them. We skimmed through, and the general tone seemed -- shockingly -- negative when it comes to the "Liberty Walk."

But, there were some positives that came out of this. We got a nice e-mail from Councilor Ted DeSalvatore over the weekend. He's energized, has some ideas, and thanks everyone for coming out. To have a councilor focused on this issue is a good thing for the city.

Other good news: 300 people came out to walk. That's a very, very strong number, and a sign that the community is paying attention and folks are looking for some small ways to have an impact. A motivated community is a valuable asset.

It's also good that people got to see the bad side of this neighborhood. There's certainly some "tough on the outside but scared on the inside" posturing going on in that neighborhood, but now people have a better understanding of what the city is upagainst. It's certainly not illegal to heckle someone walking down the street, but a total crackdown in that neighborhood -- on everything from drugs to jaywalking -- would likely help.

Hopefully, the city uses the "Liberty Walk" as an impetus to scrub down that neighborhood and start turning it around. It will take manpower and dedication. DeSalvatore has clearly latched on to the issue, however, and often end results start with one councilor demanding action.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Fitchburg Revolution

The New England Revolution are looking for a new home, joining Major League Soccer's trend of building soccer-specific homes for teams. The club is putting out some kind of "request for information" (details on that are scarce) around New England.

Why not Fitchburg?

We have talked in the past about the "one big thing" to put Fitchburg on the map. What about a soccer-specific stadium that holds 20,000 to 30,000 (and would likely be an nice outdoor concert venue)? Certainly there is a parcel relatively close to Route 2 that would be perfect for stadium and parking -- and perhaps the commercial/retail center the team is considering along with it.

Fitchburg offers a one-hour drive from Boston, and even less from the soccer-rich suburbs around 128 and 495. Figure out a way to connect the commuter train, and that's even better. Fitchburg also offers a population base as strong as the current Foxboro home. Along with the 'burbs, it has two mid-sized cities in Fitchburg and Leominster, and is a half-hour away from Worcester, the second-largest city in New England.

An added dimension to a Fitchburg proposal would be the relative proximity to the massive youth soccer complex being built in Lancaster. A Revolution stadium in Fitchburg would cement North Central Massachusetts as the state's home to soccer, with Fitchburg its capital.

Hosting the Revolution would bring 20,000 or more to the city throughout the summer. Through news coverage regionally and around the country, Fitchburg would gain exposure. Everyone knows Foxboro for one thing, right?

Who knows how much of a contribution the team would want from a host community. Who knows what the Revolution's grand plan for the complex would be (you'd have to think the plans would be grand, indeed, knowing the Krafts' desire to link retail and other business to its sports ventures). Who knows if they have a spot in mind that they already love.

The moral of the story is Fitchburg should at least sniff around this and take a look at whether or not this is something the city can and should pursue. It's the type of opportunity -- to host a major sports franchise -- that doesn't come along very often. Hopefully, someone in an official capacity takes a look.

By the way, "The Fitchburg Revolution" would make a great blog name.


Monday, June 12, 2006

DeSalvatore Takes It to the Streets

Here, in its entirety, is a press release kind of thing from Councilor Ted DeSalvatore. He's running a "Liberty Walk" (it's explained below) on Thursday night, and would like you to join him. Unfortunately, Save Fitchburg is out of town, so please give us the lowdown if you go.

In the e-mail blast that went with the notice, DeSalvatore notes Police Captain Brian Belliveau is involved in the event. If DeSalvatore is building a bridge here on the heels of the weekend news story, that's good -- and smart. If he takes this crime issue by the throat and chokes the life out of it, all the better.

It will be interesting to see the attendance on Thursday night, but good for DeSalvatore for taking the bull by the horns on this one.

Here's the release, with all the details you need if you want to go (it's been slightly edited for style and spelling errors):

A Liberty Walk is scheduled for the evening of Thursday the 15th. We will
assemble at the Faith United Parish at the corner of Rollstone and Main Street
at 7 p.m. The walk will begin no later than 7:15.

This march is a
collaborative effort from a number of people throughout the city to show their
support for City Councilor Ted DeSalvatore and his taking an aggressive stance
against criminally overwhelmed areas.

Why Liberty Walk? To put it
simply, we want to liberate the neighborhoods under siege. These neighborhoods
are filled with the criminally minded, aggressive, threatening individuals that
make up our present gangs and drug dealers or those that aspire to mimic them.
City Councilor Ted DeSalvatore has been trying to get the attention of city
officials a number of ways over the last 18 months and has recently decided to
step up his efforts and bring it to the attention of the general public through
the news paper and at the neighborhood level.

This is not an easy
or safe thing to do and Councilor DeSalvatore needs your show of support now and
a continued show of support until the job is done!

Come join us
this Thursday, 7 p.m. at Faith United Parish located on the corner of Rollstone
and Main Streets for a walk through the neighborhoods and help Ted get the
message out that they are no longer alone. Expect the walk to take about an hour
so bring water if you need it and don’t forget your walking

Rides will be available for those that can’t walk the route
but still want to be part of this historical event.

The location of
our (after walk) get-together will be announced Thursday night. Refreshments and
entertainment are planned.


Two from Monday

Hate to keep combining issues, but really, who wants to read three or four posts in one day?

Anyway, two from today's paper:

First, a rehash of the school funding situation. The reason it's brought up is because of this nugget from Mayor Dan Mylott:

"I think the schools are getting their fair share," Mylott said in the Sentinel.
"They're not being shortchanged compared to any other departments in the city."

Does that make it OK that the schools are laying off teachers and not buying textbooks? What's the message here, that the schools are on the same level field as everyone else, or that the whole city is in desperate need of cash and every department is hurting as bad as schools? Yech.

Second, Sen. Robert Antonioni says the commuter rail speed-up plans may get approval soon. That's good news, and the numbers in the story -- which point to strong growth in ridership over the last year -- are also good news. Unless you sit on super-crowded trains everyday that are just getting more crowded.

The increased ridership is good news, pointing to perhaps a few things. First, more people are moving to Fitchburg and the region from near Boston, and the commuter rail is a valuable asset for the city. Second, somehow the parking garage is working (more on that in a minute).

While this is positive news that the commuter rail is a strong enterprise, the city needs to keep an eye on a few things beyond the funding. It needs to make sure there are enough cars or trains to handle ridership. That ride gets tedious when it's very crowded. It needs to make sure rate increases don't wipe out the benefit of rail and make it too expensive to be worthwhile (especially for new riders who might ditch it at the slightest provocation). It needs to move that afternoon express train out of the 4:40 time slot (which helps no one who works a normal work day) and get it to after 5 p.m. It has to happen.

Finally, back to the garage. We're quoting Mylott like crazy today, so about this one:

"It was definitely a good project," Mylott said to the Sentinel.

Way back in Journalism 101, reporters are often told to treat quote marks with respect and only use really good material in them. Along the way in real practicing journalism, the need for tone and a change in voice reduces that maxim to "use the best you got." If that's the best Mylott can say about the garage, he really needs someone to help him with his messaging. Either way, the Sentinel shouldn't be using up sacred copy space for that clap-trap.

We've said it before, and we'll say it again. The mayor -- whoever it is -- should be the city's cheerleader on anything and everything. Wouldn't something like this sound better:

"We knew the parking garage would be a tremendous benefit to downtown and the entire city," the Mayor said. "It's great to see the effect it has already had helping downtown become a better place to live and do business."

That's not the best quote in the world, but it has to be better than, "It was definitely a good project." We're just saying.


Two from the Weekend

The Sentinel checks in with the Randy Richards story, which was told earlier this week here. Scroll down to find it.

The story doesn't fully answer the question of Building Department chief Michael Gallant's situation between Fitchburg and Ashburnham. Is he full-time in Fitchburg? If so, when does he work for Ashburnham? Gallant only says it's not an issue.

The story also includes Mayor Dan Mylott saying he's heard of problems in the past, and they're working on it. Mylott later says the department is appropriately funded. Hmmm.

Finally, the story doesn't really get into the "customer service" aspect of the department. Like Richards, Mrs. Save Fitchburg had an unfriendly visit to the office last year. Simply, everyone in City Hall should treat the people who pay their salaries like gold. At least two people in the last year say that's not the case.

Second, there's the story of Councilor Ted DeSalvatore and his neighborhood work/fight with the police chief.

While it's certainly good news to see a councilor taking a proactive stance on an issue -- particularly one that is so important to the city -- there are some political issues at play here.

First, there's no indication DeSalvatore has any kind of police or public safety training. He needs to be aware of any situation and how to handle it. It's his personal safety that's on the line a little bit here.

Second, he's a city councilor, so he is automatically vested with some kind of city authority when he does something like this. Is he overstepping his bounds?

Third, he's ticking off the police chief, who feels his territory is being stepped on (our analysis, not anything he's said). Not good internal politics on the part of DeSalvatore.

So, what to make of this? If it gets results, good for DeSalvatore, semi-vigilante of Fitchburg. But politically he's laying a lot on the line here.


Friday, June 09, 2006

Tran's Sex Offender Plan Moves Forward

Nice win last night for Councilor Dean Tran, as his plan to not allow sex offenders moving into the city to live within 1,000 feet of a school, day care, library, and other spots passed through committee with nary a scratch. It appears the full council will approve it in the next month or so as it goes through the process.

At the end of the day, this is a good petition by Tran that is protective of children in the city, and we like it (despite our questions from before).

One sort of sidelight to it: While it's good policy, it's politics that preys on our worst fears. Not all Level 2 and 3 sex offenders are kid-diddlers. Not that we'd like to even shake hands with these people, but when people talk about this legislation, they talk about child molesters. Realize that offenders that committed heinous crimes against adults are being "punished" (we can't think of a better word, but don't love it) for someone else's kid crimes.

The end result of this: Fitchburg is less hospitable to sex offenders than it was before. Not sure there's anything wrong with that.


Hay: I'll Ask the $100,000 Question

City Councilor Stephan Hay said last night he intends to do everything he can to increase education funding for the next Fiscal Year, including not voting for a city budget that doesn't include some remedies and asking why the city's share of funding is down $100,000 from this year.

"We will go back to that," Hay said of the $100,000. "What the hell is that? It's a legitmate thing (to ask). Don't tell me you value education and spend $100,000 less than last year."

According to Mayor Dan Mylott's budget, the School Department budget would increase $2.3 million next year. The city is receiving $2.4 million in additional Chapter 70 state education aid, leaving a $100,000 gap in what the city pays this year and for next year. Last week, Councilor Stephen DiNatale said he was also interested in asking Mylott about the gap.

Hay has said he would like to the see save some of its money in a stabilization account, capital fund, or other long-term line item. He also says his top two priorities in the buedget are education and public safety.

"I'm not happy with the School Department budget," Hay said. He said the city has an obligation to fund education for students, noted the need for a strong school system and public safety services as an enticement to potential residents and business, and said the budget presentation by School Supt. Andre Ravenelle is the budget he has ever seen from any city department.

Hay bases that last part on Ravenelle's inclusion of long-term planning in the budget. For example, Ravenelle outlines plans for $900,000 in capital costs, but spreads those costs out over three years (hypothetical number from Hay). Hay was thrilled to see a department head take such a long-term outlook on a budget.

That long-term planning, however, might have been part of the department's trouble. Hay notes that last year, when the $2 million budget deficit was announced, Mylott told Hay the Police Department would not fill six open officer slots because it had been doing OK without them for a few months. After Wednesday's school budget hearing, Mylott told Hay something similar, saying the School Department would just have to take a little while longer to reach its goals.

Hay anticipates the School Department will get some additional funding through Medicare reimbursements. It would likely be somewhere the neighborhood of $300,000 to $400,000. Additionally, the city has hired a consultant to review the last three years of Medicare reimbursements, because often Medicare is under-billed, and there is a three-year window to recoup additional reimbursements. Hay would like all of any back-reimbursements to go to the School Department, but the thinks half might be more likely.

We're interested to hear what Mylott has to say about all this when eventually asked. We're interested to hear why the city is investing new money in other departments, but not education. We'd be particularly interested if Mylott took the stand that the School Department did very well through Chapter 70, and didn't need increased city support (Mylott regularly complains the state doesn't provide the city enough money).

It's good policy and good politics for councilors to stump for education and public safety. They are the city's two most important areas, and voters understand that and prioritize those departments. We're pleased Hay and DiNatale are interested in finding out Mylott's rationalization on this, and are eager to hear his response.


Thursday, June 08, 2006

The $100,000 (unasked) Question

School Supt. Andre Ravenelle took his budget to the City Council last night, and of course discussion centered on the $1 million decrease in the School Department's request and Mayor Dan Mylott's budget decision.

Of particular note in the Telegram story is this short paragraph near the end:

Mr. Mylott has said he supports the budget, but that there is no additional
money to give the schools.

We did the math on this a few weeks ago, and we're sort of mystified why no one else has picked up on it and asked about it. When Councilor Stephen DiNatale was asked about it last week, he said he hasn't seen the numbers this way, but wanted an answer. The Telegram doesn't give an indication if the issue came up last night, but we're as fired up about it as we were two weeks ago, so we're going at it again today.

To recap: The city is receiving an additional $2.4 million in Chapter 70 education aid from the state. At Mylott's $44 million budget, the school budget is increasing $2.3 million. That means the city is holding back on $100,000 it spent last year on education.

No additional money? No sir, Mr. Mayor. No previously budgeted money is more like it. Where did that money go? What is more important in the city than education? The only answer we'd even consider is more cops, and that's included in the budget.

So now Ravenelle is talking about no textbooks until high school. Seriously? Am I going to send my kid to an elementary school without textbooks? You have got to be kidding me.

Is Ravenelle playing the traditional gloom and doom card? Probably. No books and cutting teachers with four years' experience is right out of the budget disaster playbook. But in this case -- where the School Department has been talking about books shortages for months -- there might be more than the usual dollop of truth in the whole thing. We'll find out when the pink slips are distributed.

We've said this a few times in the last few weeks, and we'll say it again: Fitchburg's (and many communities') top priorities have to be education and public safety, 1 and 1A, in some order or another. The budget proposal seems to make some steps forward on safety. But it takes a $100,000 step back on education, forget making a step forward.

For some reason, the $100,000 question hasn't been asked, forget answered. Commenters here are more fired up about whether or not they can call someone an "idiot" rather than looking at a seriouis policy question. The media have kind of ignored it, going with straight meeting coverage for the most part. Councilors and School Committee members have either ignored it, are unaware, or not made it enough of an issue to warrant coverage.

I know all three of the above groups read this space. This seems like a major deal. Put it this way: My kid enters first grade in three years. If there aren't textbooks, there's a good chance we find a town and school system that at least has a math book in the classroom. I'm guessing we wouldn't be alone. Can we please release the hounds on this issue and get an answer?

The city can work as hard it wants on drawing new residents to shiny new developments, whether its downtown or off Rollstone or Franklin roads. But if those people come to Fitchburg and read about an unsafe downtown or schools without textbooks, they're going to leave.

Mylott created this situation with his budget, but the Council and the School Committee are co-conspiritors here by not holding his feet to the fire on this. And everyone else in town is also if we don't hold the elected officials accountable for this travesty.


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Update on Randy Richards

Randy e-mailed this update tonight:

On friday, the last day that I went into the mayor's office to let Robert know that I was driving across the street to see a reporter from the S&E. About a minute after I left, Robert called and stated he just went upstairs to the building dept. and saw the check and watched them put it in the envelope to be mailed out. Surprisingly enough, I recieved the check in the mail on Sat. afternoon which was June 3rd. The check is actually dated May 26th. So that means they typed the check 8 days before they were able to drop it in the mailbox. I then recieved another letter from the mayor's office on Tuesday June 2nd. To my dismay it was an apology letter from Robert saying they were sorry that I had to make 5 visits to city hall and over 2 months of time had passed. No call or apology from anyone in the building dept. or the mayor himself. Robert cc'd a copy to the mayor. Thus the conclusion to this event.


The Building Department

Kind of timely considering the comments yesterday regarding the Building Department.

What follows is the story of Randy Richard. This is pretty much word-for-word from a document he sent us this week. We're guessing there's another side to the story, but his is pretty gruesome.

There are some city councilors and other city officials who read this spot from time to time. If you have any ideas for Randy and want to get in touch with him, e-mail Save Fitchburg, and we'll hook you up with him.

In the meantime, settle in (this is pretty long) and check out Randy's experience. It's not a pretty story.

My name is Randy Richard and I am 27 years old. I was born and raised
in Leominster and am a schoolteacher at Sky View Middle in Leominster. I
am also a licensed real estate agent working for a family owned company at Alpha
Real Estate in Fitchburg.

In March 2003, I bought a
condemned HUD house on Pacific St. by the college. The house was a mess. I
completely rehabbed it with my father by personally doing all the work that we
could do. Going through the permit process was an absolute
nightmare. I could never go into the office and have a question
answered. I always walked out with a fear of not knowing the correct
information. The worst was having to schedule the inspections. You
would think a city the size of Fitchburg would have a schedule book to keep
things in order. I would have to call the electrical inspector the morning
of the day that I wanted him to come by. Somewhat hard to do being a
teacher who tries not to miss work especially not knowing if he would even be
able to go that day. I even had to have my mother make a couple of
appointments because I couldn’t know for sure when he might get there, so I
couldn’t even plan on a day ahead. After having the permit process be such
a nightmare and having to have my mother attend the final building inspection
with Mr. Gallant himself, she said that he didn’t even go into the house to
check it out. He simply looked at the outside and said, looks fine.
That’s my first dealing.

I then bought a three-family on Hartford
Street in October 2004 and completely turned the building around, the former
tenants were moving out shortly after, busted by the local drug task force on
North Main Street in connection with the largest ecstacy bust in this
area. I didn’t need to pull any permits but it speaks to the quality that
I’m trying to bring into the city. I’m a well-educated (Master of
Education) young professional who is eager to improve real estate and achieve
financial success.

My next interaction with the Building
Department was with a building that I was going to purchase at 311 Daniels St.
in Cleghorn in March 2005. I figured that I would be doing the city a favor by
converting a building which was housing a small photo studio with 75 percent of
the building not being used. I was intending to create brand new
apartments with garaged parking and not even having to change the outside of the
building at all. I did all my research and knew that eventually I should
be able to do this because it had the proper zoning and all other requirements
would have been satisfied. I simply needed to get the permit process
started to show the bank that the mortgage would not be in jeopardy because the
value of the property would easily double. I had a signed purchase and
sales agreement so I was very serious about this. When I went to the
building dept. they had me write my letter telling them what I wanted to
do before I could actually receive my permit. You have to wait till they
respond to you in writing before you know that you can proceed. This is
where all the problems begin. There is no protocol on how to handle these
letters. If you ask how long you can expect this to take, the answer is,
Mr. Gallant is very busy working for both Fitchburg and Westminster (Do people
know that he doesn’t even work in Fitchburg full time, how much does he make in
Fitchburg, let alone Westminster?) and it might take a week or two. They
took five weeks to get my response back to me telling me that I need to take up
the matter with the Zoning Board of Appeals. How could they not just tell
me that at the beginning and save me five weeks. I called the zoning board
of appeals and the next meeting that they have is another three weeks
away. I could not take the chance that it might not go through and had to
let the seller sell the building to another offer that was received after
mine. I had a purchase and sales for $132,000 and figured the complete
project would cost me $150k and the building would be worth $220k. I
figure I lost out on about $70k because the city could not work at even a
respectable pace. I’m not expecting miracles, just a reasonable matter of
time. Even two weeks would be fine.

Fast forward to March
2006. A friend of mine runs a successful booking agency working with bands
and musicians. He asked me if I might like to work a few hours on the
side. So I said I’m a teacher, absolutely!! I wrote my letter to the
building dept. to seek the proper permit to do so. Here is the timeline
that involves this transaction.

March 31st. Dropped of
letter and paid fee. Asked Peggy the secretary how long I should expect
this to take. Told that she can’t say, Mr. Gallant is very busy. I
insisted that I needed a ballpark idea so I know if it goes too long to give a
phone call and find out what’s going on. Told it should be a week to a
week and a half.

April 24th. Decided to give them a full
three and a half weeks to see if any progress could be made. Called and
talked to Peggy on the phone and she seemed irritated with me that I was
questioning about why it was taking so long to get a response. Said that
she was digging out the letter now and that he would be responding to it
tomorrow with the rest of the letters that he needed to write.

May 12th. Called the Mayor’s Office due to the fact that the
Building Department was of no help when I contacted them. Talked to his
assistant Rob and told him what was going on. Rob said that he would let
the mayor know and call upstairs to the Building Department. and tell them to
get on the ball.

May 19th. Went into the Mayor’s
Office because I hadn’t heard back at all. Said that I was through waiting
and would just like to get a refund back because I was deciding not to do
business in this city. Rob said that Mylott was disappointed the first
time he had heard about this and would be notified again and Rob would call the
Building Department again to tell them to just refund my money.

May 26th. Still no response. Went into the Mayor’s
Office for the second time to voice my displeasure at being completely ignored
by both the building dept. and the mayor. Rob insisted that I was in the
right and that I should expect a call from the mayor or the building dept.
should definitely get my refund back on Tuesday after the holiday because he had
spoken to Mr. Gallant 15 minutes prior to my arrival and that Mr. Gallant told
him he was going upstairs at that moment to take care of the matter.

June 2nd. Still didn’t get my refund back, a letter from the
Building Department, or a phone call from the mayor or Building
Department. Because I knew that I wouldn’t receive it by Friday, June2nd,
I scheduled an appointment with the Sentinel and Enterprise. I went home
to check my mailbox after work, nothing, drove to the Mayor’s Office. Rob
sees me and says that nothing must have happened. I informed him that
nothing has changed and that this is the last straw. I was through dealing
with the mayor’s office because even though they are supposed to help tax paying
citizens, they ignored me just as much as the Building Department. I spent
45 minutes with S&E and informed them that this needs to be addressed
again. Last year they ran a story about the unfriendly atmosphere at City
Hall. I don’t care how friendly or unfriendly they are, I just want the
services that they are suppose to provide to be delivered in a reasonable time

I can’t wait to see what is going to happen in a
month or so when I go to apply for a permit to finish my basement into living
space. I’d imagine that they can’t possibly be more negligent than they
already have been. Maybe they’ll see my name and just want to get me the
hell out of there and give me what I want. We’ll see I guess.


Sex Offender Petition

Councilor Dean Tran's petition to create a sex offender exclusion zone goes to committee tomorrow night. A commenter overnight asked for a thread on it, so here you go.

We still have many of the legal concerns we had a few months ago, when first proposed. You can click here to read the whole thing (including the text of Tran's proposal), so we won't get into it all over again.

As Tran notes in his comment last night, it will be interesting to see who supports and who doesn't. We're also putting up a poll to see what you think, but we're pretty sure which way this one will go.


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Making a "Statement"

The School Committee went after Mayor Dan Mylott last night for the $1 million reduction in the school budget. Check out the end of the story, where Mylott agrees Supt. Andrew Ravenelle should present the full $45 million budget as a "statement" tonight.

What, exactly, is the statement Mylott would like to make?

That the School Department is caught with his pants down because the mayor sat back and allowed the School Committee to approve a budget Mylott was never going to accept?

That Mylott's city is in such terrible financial condition that it can't afford textbook or patch a leaky roof? And that the city's contribution is actually decreasing this year?

That Mylott is such a bad political manager that he let this situation get this bad?


The School Committee appears to be hopping mad, making two important bodies of elected officials ticked at the mayor. It could be a long June for that guy.

Mylott said he's going to use some Medicaid funding and find some other measures to bulk up school funding. It's not enough. The city's top two priorities should be public safety and education. The order is up to you. While the Police Department is looking at new officers and new vehicles, School Committee members are starting the override chant again after Mylott's bizarre handling of the school budget.

A school system is one of the front-line things families look at when they consider moving into a community. Mylott has all but made the schools an orphan with the way he's treated the budget this spring. Shame on him, for creating what is a shame for the entire city.

Hopefully the City Council supports the School Department tonight and figures out a way to buy a textbook or two. Councilor Stephan Hay said education and safety are his top two issues. Let's hope he and others find a way to salvage some of this mess.


Monday, June 05, 2006

Mary Whitney, Welcome Aboard

We're just pleased as punch to let everyone know former Mayor Mary Whitney, who is running for state representative this fall, finally created a campaign finance account last week.

According to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Whitney set up her account last Friday. No campaign treasurer or chairman are listed.

We had been on Whitney's case for weeks (well, months, really) to take this simple step. We're glad -- and surprised, quite honestly -- to see she did.

Rep candidates don't have to file reports until September. We'll be interested to see where things stand then, but we have the suspicion Whitney will not be at the top of the list.


Let the Games Begin

The budget process lurches out of neutral tonight, when the City Council and the mayor get together and start hashing all this out.

How serious the Council was about rejecting Mayor Dan Mylott's budget wholesale can be debated at this point. But one thing is clear: The Council did not like the budget, and was ready to make sure Mylott got the message that changes need to be made.

The debate this turns to where those changes are. Councilors have some ideas about what they'd like to see, but there appears to be no consensus on exactly where cuts are.

One thing that's very likely: A reduction or outright rejection of the proposal for new police vehicles. Three councilors have said it's an area they want to take a long look at, particularly after 10 new vehicles were purchased this year. Equally likely: The approval of new police officers.

One of the great debates of these budget sessions is likely to be how to best use the city's money. There is a growing desire to throw some money into a stabilization fund -- Councilor Stephan Hay thinks $200,000 to $300,000 is appropriate, but there are also some service questions outstanding. Councilor Stephen DiNatale, for example, wants to hear more about education funding and how the city's portion may have been decreased this year.

So, one of the questions going into this week is, How does the Council go about knocking money out of the budget to make room for stabilization funding or other measures? Does is try to make a big splash in one area, like the police vehicles, or does it just chip away here and there, building a pile of cash?

One last, important thing: This year's budget process is directly tied to last year's budget process, when councilors approved a budget from Mylott that was unbalanced. Veteran councilors say they learned last year they need to take a tougher stand when they don't like the budget. Councilor David Clark, DiNatale, and Hay all said last year's budget -- and feedback they've gotten since then -- directly led to changes in how they handle this year's process.

"I thought we made a mistake, and last year we should have sent it back," Hay said. "I would never accept an unbalanced budget again. This year it's not unbalanced, but I still had that fundamental disagreement about not spending every dollar that you get."

DiNatale and other councilors said they have had discussions with the mayor over the last few weeks, and feel there is solid ground to discuss the budget. DiNatale noted that the mayor wasn't evasive in their conversation, but that Mylott wasn't 100 percent clear in his answers. DiNatale hopes for some more polished information during the rest of the process.

So, it's off to the races tonight. It will be interesting to see what areas the Council and the mayor agree are expendible. It appears obvious that cuts are coming. Still to be decided are where the cuts will come from, and where the money will go.


Friday, June 02, 2006

No Rejection, Deliberations to Start Again

The City Council backed away from rejecting Mayor Dan Mylott's budget this morning, and instead is creating a new series of budget deliberations that will include the mayor at the meetings.

According to a councilor, the motion to reject the mayor was rejected itself, 11-0. Instead, the councilors are going to meet with Mylott and go over the budget, with a schedule to be remade. The clock is ticking a little bit, with 29 days to the July 1 start of the Fiscal Year.

Last night, Councilor David Clark outlined the new plan, and said it was a good move toward how he would like to see budget proceed.

"I want to hear the budget first hand from department heads and the mayor. It is his budget, when we accept it finally, then it’s our budget as well," Clark said. "I always thought the mayor should be in there presenting it, and I think that’s what you’re going to see."

Clark was dead-on after this morning's meeting.

Clark said he is interesting in particular to hear about public safety funding. He is very much in favor of hiring new officers, but he wants to hear more information regarding the purchasing of new motor vehicles. He said he also wants to have a discussion regarding whether the city should hire new office and/or buy new vehicles in one shot, or spread the hiring and purchases out over time. One of the reasons Clark favors more officers is to improve officer safety during the night shift.

"I remember there used to be two in a cruiser, now you see one guy in a cruiser. To me it’s just dangerous," Clark said.

Clark said it's also likely that some budget maneuvers will be made to increase school funding. One possible area is Medicaid reimbursements. The city is given one lump sum, and traditionally through a process it is divided between the schools and the general fund. It's possible that divvying up of the funding could be changed to the school's advantage.

Finally, Clark had some interesting insights on the budget negotiations, particularly ways to save money over the long term. Two ideas he floated last night: One is expanding the step system from 10 years to 15 years, but keeping the same maximum pay level. That would save the city thousands by holding off on maximum salaries for five more years. His proposal would grandfather current employees, which might make it easier to pass with current membership. The other item would be changing the city's health care payment percentage. Currently, the city pays 75 percent. Clark said the city should consider lowering that percentage -- again, for new employees.


A note to readers: Yesterday, I sent an e-mail to every city councilor who has an e-mail address listed on the city's website. I'm going to call those without e-mails, but that's a time-consuming process that I haven't gotten to yet. Clark called me back last night, and Stephan Hay has responded and we're talking to him this weekend. I also heard from one more councilor this morning after directly e-mailing the councilor for an update this morning. I'll fill you in who I do and don't hear from in the future. I think we're all interested in where folks stand, and who's willing to discuss with us.


Commenting on Comments

Hello, gentle reader.

Over the last six months or so, Save Fitchburg has become a wonderfully productive little corner of the political and electronic world. Roughly 200 to 300 people stop by every day to check in on what's going on in the city. People write comments with great ideas, insight, and a passion that is unmatched anywhere else.

Now, Save Fitchburg is branching out a little bit, and we need your help.

We've started to make the effort of doing some independent reporting. Actually getting on the phone or e-mail and talking to the policy-makers in the city. We think this is an exciting step forward.

But, in just a few conversations, we're realizing there is some hesitation from some folks, due to the tenor of some of the comments here. People have gotten beaten up pretty badly here, and no one wants to be next.

So, I just want to make it clear what the comments section should be as we move forward.

First of all, public officials are under no obligation to talk to us. But, I think this gives them an outlet to explain what is going on and reach an audience rich with people who give a damn. But they need to be treated with respect and civility. If they feel like they're walking into an ambush, then they'll take a pass.

So, we're going to be taking a hard look at comments in the future. No more name calling. Of anyone. Don't call a public official (or anyone, really) an idiot, a moron, or stupid. Keep it factual. The more I look around the blogosphere, the more I see administrators worried about libel. It's a concern of mine, too, so if it smells libelous, I'm taking it down. If it's disrespectful, I'm taking it down.

I'm not asking you to declaw, or step in line with whatever official might be involved in a day's post. Part of what makes Save Fitchburg a good public forum is the questioning of policy and what's going on. I don't want that gone. I just want it done with a decency and civility that will make people comfortable talking to us.

This is certainly a new media medium, somewhere between journalism, analysis, and a place to let off political steam. Everyone is a little leary of it. Probably 90 percent of the comments here are beyond reproach. If we can tighten up that 10 percent and everyone acts like grownups, we can expect better communication and thoughts from our public officials.

I know yesterday there was another request for mandatory signing in for comments. I considering it from time to time, but it's obvious that it wouldn't eliminate anonymity. I'm pretty sure "2ndson," "crockerfieldman," and "prose" aren't actual names. It seems to be a move that doesn't really cure the problem, so for now we're not requiring registration.

Thanks for listening, thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting.



Thursday, June 01, 2006

More Mayor-Council Bickering, More Bad News for Downtown

The Sentinel has even more inflamatory comments from Mayor Dan Mylott today. The best:

"Besides political rhetoric and media grandstanding, the council has not offered nor articulated a clear, defining plan for the budget," Mylott said in the Sentinel.

We touched on this earlier this week, but it's becoming an important question: Just how much can the Council do here? By law, it can only subtract, not add, to the budget. By throwing the budget back to Mylott and demanding infrastructure funding, are they circumventing that law? That's not a rhetorical question. We'd like to know.

Also, Mylott has a point when he says he's not cutting and it's the Council's job. The Council is trying to play a cute trick here: Demand cuts, get cuts, but be able to later point to Mylott and say they're his cuts.

Who knows what kind of changes Mylott is going to make. Will he just try to get this over with, or jump into a protracted battle with the council on this?

In other news, a downtown businessman pulls out of town, and does so with guns blazing. No further commentary necessary, the story pretty much speaks for itself.


A House (Or Hall) Divided

It's pretty clear that the mayor and the City Council are more than at odds over the budget. It's looking like open hostility between the two is going to rule the day. Here are the key points:

“I remain open and willing to discuss any budgetary issues with the council, but
let me make it very clear, the budget is not a negotiable instrument. If they
disagree with aspects of my budget, they should make the cuts, which are their
only legal authority,” Mayor Dan Mylott said, according to the Telegram.

“He told me he would work with me. Now he appears not to be open to any
suggestion. He’s holding everyone hostage, but we are not willing to back down
to threats this year," Jody Joseph told the Telegram.

No matter how you cut it, them's fightin' words. Let the political fireworks begin.

More importantly, this isn't necessarily good news for Fitchburg. First, it appears the Council has taken the politically expedient stand of cutting funding for services wherever possible. While that plays well with the cut taxes crowd, we're not sure that's what is best for Fitchburg, which continues to struggle to provide simple things like, you know, textbooks and safety downtown. Note that Joseph points directly to the PD in the Telegram story. Should Fitchburg really be cutting back on police costs? This isn't a simple argument.

Additionally, a fractured Council-mayor relationship does the city no good. Fitchburg doesn't need hurdles like bickering legislative and executive branches to stall things. The budget issue will likely drag right up to the July 1 deadline, taking focus away from other issues that need attention.

Without a doubt, the budget is the most important thing the mayor and the Council deal with each year. It's not a thing to be taken lightly. But this process is loaded with politics and ill will at this point. In the end, Fitchburg will not be making progress when this is all said and done.