Friday, December 29, 2006

Sausage and Politics

There's an old saying along the lines of "Never watch sausage or politics being made." Just enjoy the end result.

It's topical at this point, looking back on how the police union raise funding was settled. It was, unquestionably, a very messy process. But was the result tasty? It's a question on two levels: One is the basic decision of whether or not the city did the right thing. The other is the political result of the process.

Fundamentally, the result was a fiscally sound one. There's a segment who believe a salary freeze is in order, which would negate the premise, but the fact that Mylott engineered a raise makes that moot.

The council forced the mayor to dig up funding from other areas, and maintain some semblance of a free cash account. It might mathematical smoke and mirrors, but the funding formula in the end is more thoughtful and more conservative (?) and likely is better for the city budget this year in the long run.

(Just one quick note: State law allows snow and ice costs to be carried over to the next fiscal year almost always, which eases the pressure of paying those bills during nasty winters. It hasn't happened yet this year, but you know it's a comin'.)

The political product, however, is more complicated. The mayor-council relationship seems strained, but Council President Jody Joseph and the mayor showed they can work together to get things done. However, this was a month-long fight over, really, less than $100,000. What larger battles loom over the course of the year?

The council's new-found fiscal watchdog status is a good one for the city. It has forced the mayor to come up with somewhat creative and fiscally-sound funding ideas. It has added some more protection to the tax dollar. However, the relationship between the council and the mayor has changed. The two sides need to learn how to play well together, even if they are competiting with each other. It's a necessary byproduct if the city is going to get better.


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Art of the Compromise

The City Council and Mayor Dan Mylott worked out a compromise to the funding of police union raises, and agreed to take a little less out of free cash and grab some money out of some other accounts.

What did we learn through this process? Well, for one thing, no easy baskets for Mylott for the next year. He can expect to get challenged on everything the rest of the way, and likely make concessions as he moves ahead. For the council, they reinforced the recent feeling that it can force change on Mylott's plans.

The end result allows the raises to be funded and preserves some additional free cash. This may, as noted last week, be nothing more than some math formulas in the end, but as of right now there is more free cash available than before, and that's not a bad thing.

What is unknown is how this process changes the mayor-council dynamic into the future. This isn't the first time in the last few months Mylott has had to negotiate a deal with the council. As in the past, Mylott took a hard line early on in this process, but in the end made a deal.

So, what happens next time? Mylott can't start the process by saying "I'm going to talk to council and see what it thinks." It undermines his power and essentially turns the keys over to the council. If he starts from his usual default position -- digging in his heels -- will anyone believe it? Recent experience would lead us to wonder.

In any event, it's going to be an interesting year. Strap in.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

All Hail Romano

We're gonna ease out of the holiday with some fantasy football talk. You can add your thoughts, or talk about all the cool swag you got from Santa. Considering it's a holiday week, there might not be much more to talk about right now...

Ralph Romano walked away with the Legal Engineers title this weekend, riding the super-hot hand of Steven Jackson to the crown. Romano was frisky all year long, but knocked off the season's top two to win the title. He most certainly earned it, in the end.

We're licking our wounds with a few early-playoffs wins, and winning the top-points consolation round in another league. Just enough, um, doughnuts won between the two to keep us mollified, and to keep Mrs. Save Fitchburg agreeable to our football addictions.

Enjoy the quiet week. We'll be in and out.


Friday, December 22, 2006

Merry Christmas

Hi, everyone.

We're switching from the rest of the world and turning our focus on presents, Santa and things of that nature. If something awesomely newsworthy happens, perhaps we'll check back, but it appears as if the news elves have shut down the shop for the holiday.

We'll be back next week, but for now, Merry Christmas or whatever holiday best fits your style.

Enjoy it all, everyone. And once again, thanks for reading.


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Free Cash, Again

So, the discussion over whether or not to use free cash for the police union raises continues. Mayor Dan Mylott and City Council President Jody Joseph are talking things through.

Mylott said he's "not sure there's another way" outside of free cash to pay for the raises. It's either a hard-core bargaining position, or a damning indictment on how he put the budget together. Let's discuss.

When putting the FY07 budget together, Mylott knew raises were coming. In fact, we're fairly certain it came up during budget discussions and the general message was raise funding was included in the budget. Maybe it was an unspoken reliance on free cash at the time.

Mylott can't refund free cash during the course of the year, but he can free up "raise money" tucked into budgets for other things. This might get confusing, but read on:

Let's say Mylott takes $200,000 out of free cash for the police raises. Later, he needs $200,000 for snow and ice or something else. In the spring, he proposes a transfer of $200,000 from the police budget to pay for snow and ice.

It's really a series of accounting maneuvers, but the end result is that the police raises were in the police budget all the time, but Mylott was just moving the money around. Perfect? Not really, but perfectly fine.

The thing is, Mylott has given no indication that is the case. It could be a negotiating ploy -- he's still working with two unions and doesn't want to make it public knowledge that there is money socked away. It could be a case of budget dilemna, which all public discourse at this point points to.

Hopefully Mylott has given Joseph the dope on what he's up to, and that are things behind the scenes that makes the situation better than it appears. But until we know otherwise, it's OK to be concerned that this is a shaky situation.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Three for Tuesday

Here's three things for today. I think, for once, money and the mayor and Council aren't included. But you never know.

It appears as if the gears are working toward the Academy School becoming a pilot school. State education leaders were on site last week, and now have a better understanding of what the city is facing there. The pilot program would help the School Department focus on the issues at the school, and create some flexibility to hopefully allow it to get better quickly. Hopefully it works, because something has to there.

The city has decided not to take the bats to Club Karma, which is closing soon. There was some concern the club didn't work with police after a recent incident. Consider the club is going away, why waste the energy on a questionable case? Hopefully, incoming Bourbon Street serves the city better.

Finally, someone set the library's drop-box on fire. So officials shut it down. Good grief.


Monday, December 18, 2006

The Rise of Romano

If you're bored with fantasy football talk, we'll see you later. If you want to watch me eat a huge slice of humble pie, oh please, read on:

It's said one of the toughest things in sports is to beat the same team three times in the same season (baseball not included). But perhaps even tougher: Don't be an idiot.

The Aaron Brooks All Stars were led by an idiot, and fell to the Harley Riders, 94-86 this weekend. So sad.

You can draft well, dominate for months, and then get stupid. Worried about the weather, the All Stars sat Matt Hasselbeck and started Phil Rivers. Hasselbeck went for 10 points, and we were feeling like that was a good move. Until Rivers finished with -1. Do the math. Rivers could have gone for 100 yards and a TD and no horrible picks, and wouldn't be having this discussion.

That said, the Harley Riders pulled off the masterstroke. With stud TE Ben Watson out, Romano went to Desmond Clark (I guy I swear I tried to pluck off the wire earlier this year and was denied -- maybe by Romano) off the free agency list. The guy goes for 24 points (120-something yards, two TDs). Did Romano see that coming? I think not, but he got lucky. And that's that.

So, Romano goes on to the finals. We'll just try to play out the string and lead the league next week and win some bonus, um, points to soothe our battered psyche and pride.

Real Fitchburg stuff later. If we can stop crying.


Thursday, December 14, 2006

The News Gets No Better

Mayor Dan Mylott used his weekly press conference yesterday to push the City Council to approve his spending plan for the police union raises.

Yes, I'm tired of writing about this, but it's not going away, and there are a lot of secondary issues that go with it.

Today, let's talk about what this means in the big picture.

First, we talking $300,000 here. For a city with a $95 million budget, it's peanuts. But the city is so strapped for cash, it has become a major hurdle. It's a glaring spotlight on the poor finances of the city, and how there is little wiggle room for maneuvering.

And the problem isn't going away. According the Telegram this morning, Mylott said the Fire Department raises will get some cake from free cash. Some other union contracts will be funded with next year's budget. Hmmmmm.

The council does have a decision to make this week: Does it go through the next seven months without a safety net, or does it find another avenue to fund the raises? It's cuts, free cash, or no raises (and if you want to discuss an override, go back to the early days of SaveFitchburg and the "we're not rewarding mismanagement with more of our tax dollars"). It's not, really, a palatable decision, but it's what the city is stuck with.

What happens later in the year when additional costs pile up? What if it's a cold winter and energy costs are higher than budgeted? What if there's a ton of snow? What if a roof collapses on a city building? What if, what if, what if. The city's "what if" cushion was $330,000 before Mylott's proposal. Will a $130,000 cushion get the city through the year? Who knows, but chances are the city and the council be facing tougher choices than this later on in the year.

UPDATE (11:10 a.m.): In today's Sentinel, Mylott says he didn't fund the raises in the budget because, "Last February, I had no idea what the deal was going to be." Councilor Stephan Hay responds by saying, "It's poor management if you can't anticipate approximately what an increase is going to cost."

Hay is such a nice boy. We'd say, how can the mayor, the city's negotiator, not have a plan on how much he was willing to give the police union? He really didn't know in February how much the city was willing to give for a raise? He didn't have a limit? He didn't have a ballpark? He didn't think, maybe tuck a few bones away for this, because it will cost us something?

Every so often, something comes up that we mentally tuck away as "something we'll want answers for come election time." This most certainly fits the bill. Color us incredulous on this one.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

More Cuts Coming?

The City Council finance subcommittee threw back to Mayor Dan Mylott his plans to fund raises for police officers last night, perhaps setting the stage for more cuts to the city budget.

Councilors say they support raises for officer -- anything else would be political suicide -- but they don't support Mylott's plan to take a chunk of the raise money from free cash. The move would take more than half of the city's $330,000 in free cash, leaving little in the old savings account is something else were to happen.

The move is interesting in that a police union raise is usually a slam-dunk. For the council's fiscal concerns to override such a fundamental political premise is notable. It also should raise the red flag to the mayor that upcoming union contracts that are due soon won't be a walk in the park, either.

Here's a fundamental question: Mylott had to know when he put his budget together last spring just what the city could afford for raises. So one of two things likely happened: He didn't put enough money into the budget to cover the raises, or he gave a bigger raise than he planned on. Will that be the case for fire and DPW contracts? Or are those departments better funded for raises?

Finally, was Mylott's union raise policy "we'll figure it out later?" That almost seems to be the case here, as the city scrambles to find a small pile of dough for the cops. If the police union soaks up much of the available free cash, where do the small piles come from for other unions? The council is, in some respects, asking that question now -- a foreward-looking premise that (if it is the case) the council should be acknowledged for.

So, if Mylott can't raid free cash for the union raises, where does the money come from? Perhaps cuts from other departments. There are few other options at this point.

As has become his default argument, Mylott argues that again, the council isn't offering any solutions. The council has played a valuable, valuable role in recent weeks in identifying the chief problems in the city. Also, Mylott made it clear last spring that the budget is his document and he controls the budget matters in the city. There's no denying there's a problem, and the mayor is in the chief position of finding the solutions. Happy hunting.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Happy Birthday, Save Fitchburg

One year ago today, the first post for Save Fitchburg went up. One year later, it's the city's best home for discussion on policy and politics.

As of this writing, 87,596 page views have been counted on the site. For some reason, yesterday earned over 800 views. I'm not sure if it's a record, but it has to be pretty close. The page view average is 240 since inception, which is a bit misleading in that in the early days the page was viewed a few times a day. Since early September, the site has averaged about 400 views a day.

Those numbers are nice, but Save Fitchburg's impact is really what matters. There is a community of people in town who care about Fitchburg's future and what is going on at City Hall. Are they all here? Of course not. But many are. And everyday they are providing thoughtful analysis that is being heard in City Hall, where it matters.

So, again, thank you for reading and thank you for participating. Without you, Save Fitchburg would be some windy outpost, unread and uncared for. It probably wouldn't even exist at this point without the passion and care that shows up here every day.

Certainly, the next year should be very interesting. Considering the enthusiasm displayed during the state election, I can only imagine what a local election holds for this site.

So, here's to another year, and our continued effort to Save Fitchburg.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Council May Throw Stop Sign at Contract

Some city councilors, saying raiding over half the city's free cash account isn't really a good idea, are considering not approving the police union contract and 2.5 percent raise this week.

The deal would suck up about $196,000 of the roughly $330,000 in free cash the city has right now. Some councilors say it would leave the city in a tough position if it needed some cash quickly.

This is, if nothing else, a damning indictment of the city's precarious overall financial condition. When it come to political layups, nothing is easier than a raise for the cops. What councilor doesn't want to give money to a powerful entity that can sway votes, and serves a good purpose to boot?

At this point, this goes beyond the politics of budgets and the battle between the mayor and the City Council. This is now shining a bright light on the city's financial situation.

What would be nice in this process is a budget update from the mayor. What departments are running ahead of budget? What departments are running behind? Often times, some savings are realized, and with the fiscal year half over, those saving should start to materialize. Are there options beyond free cash right now?

The council's finance subcommittee meets tomorrow night to give a recommendation, and the entire council takes up the matter next week. But the overall budget situation -- with other union contracts likely settled soon -- makes it unlikely tha this problem goes away with this vote.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Wee Little Change

A brief announcement, because if I don't post it now, assuredly someone would notice sooner rather than later:

I have a new job. What does it mean? Well, I'm far more local, which is very, very nice for the mood and the family. You can read the link for the down-and-dirty details.

Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Cops Get 2.5 Percent

The city's worst-kept secret was fully let out of the bag last night, when Mayor Dan Mylott said police officers will be getting a 2.5 percent raise through a one-year contract deal.

The deal is for fiscal year 2006, so it's all retroactive pay and will make a nice holiday bonus for the boys in blue if it gets done before the end of the year. It'll cost the city about $300,000, some from free cash, some from money already in the PD budget.

Interestingly, Mylott couldn't talk about the contract last week when he and the council were bickering over money, but just a week later he announces the deal. It's certainly within his right as mayor to control the flow of information, but by doing so he kind of caused a headache and some more bickering between himself and the council.

There's still some union deals coming up with fire and DPW, so Mylott can open up the info spigot a little bit (yes, yes, union negotiations are closed-door and all that, but there has to be some reality in the process. At least tell councilors something is coming soon) and smooth things out some, or things can continue the way they're going.

Oh, by the way, Mylott -- from his reports -- is feeling just fine, thanks. He had an incident on Friday, was looked over, and was back to work on Monday.


Friday, December 01, 2006

Somewhere, Chief Cronin Is Smiling

Nancy Stevens, the mayor of Marlborough, vetoed the city's proposed sex offender residency laws yesterday. The proposal was very similar to the Fitchburg regulations passed earlier this year, although it did include a wider restriction zone, which left only very small slices of the city open to Level 2 and 3 sex offenders.

Check this out, from today's MetroWest Daily News:

"Earlier this week, Stevens had said she would sign the measure that would bar Level 2 and 3 sex offenders who offended against children from living in most areas of the city.

Yesterday, Stevens said the ordinance provides a false sense of security to residents and little to no enforcement power to police.

'I am concerned about the constitutionality of it,' Stevens said at a press conference in the Bolton Street police station. 'I am putting this back on the City Council and challenging them.'"

Of course, this is exactly the same thing Police Chief Edward Cronin has said about the Fitchburg rule: Ineffective, tough to enforce, might be against the Constitution. Clearly, Cronin and Stevens are on the same page on this issue.

It's an "I told you so" moment for Cronin, and while we recognize the issues, it doesn't take away from the fact that the Fitchburg law -- which limits how close Level 2 and 3 offenders can live near schools, parks and daycares -- will make sure those offenders don't live near those places. It might create the aura of safety, rather than actual safety, but isn't much of how safe you feel really a feeling, not a fact?

At the end of the day, perfect or not, this is a good law for Fitchburg, and one well worth fighting for when the inevitable law suit arises.