Monday, March 31, 2008

5 Million Questions

Part of the reason Lisa Wong was elected mayor last year was to tackle the city's budget mess. Facing a $5 million deficit next year will put that to the test right away.

City councilors are already preparing for a brutal budget season. Wong has been pretty public about delivering info to the councilors, but none of the news is good. The council seems to be somewhat content to sit back and wait and see what she does, which makes political sense, because Wong is going to be making some unpopular decisions pretty soon.

The $5 million hole is on the government side, and doesn't include the School Department. So you're looking at over 10 percent of the city's budget being cut. There's already a hiring freeze in place, but chances are, jobs are likely to go in some departments. Then what?

Interestingly, except for the brutal potholes that don't seem to be filled very quickly this winter, the biggest complaint people have after last year's round of budget cuts is the lack of an animal control officer (although on the school side there has been a drumbeat of concern over class sizes). In short, the last cuts didn't really get to the point where the average resident was seeing a noticable decrease in services (except for the potholes).

Will Wong be able to maintain that illusion in the next budget? That will be one hell of challenge.

The good news for Wong is that she didn't make this situation, she's inheriting it, and even Wong detractors recognize that. She's still figuring out what's going to happen, but she has about six weeks before the magic May 15 date the council needs the budget. Will she roll some ideas out in advance, in an effort to get ahead of some things, or will she just throw it out at once and deal with it in one shot?

At the same time, it seems obvious that fee increases are coming. How does that go over at the same point as big budget cuts?

The last few budget seasons have been nightmares, as the mayor and council warred and items like the trash fee proposal were awkwardly proposed. This budget season will be as much about packaging, public relations and messaging as it will be about numbers. If Wong can get through June without getting ripped by councilors (which might be difficult, a few are already starching her out on other issues. Some battle lines are developing), that might be her best trick yet.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Look Out, Carlo

As tipped here earlier today, Denis Meunier is out as commissioner of the Department of Public Works, Lisa Wong said this afternoon. You can read about it at, yes, the Fitchburg Pride website. And as of this writing, nowhere else.

Wong said she wants a DPW commissioner with an engineering degree, which Meunier doesn't have. If nothing else this week, we've learned that Wong is clearly now in charge of city government, as she takes care of all family business. If she books a trip to Havana in the near future, we'll have a real problem.

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Back to Connecticut, Dirty Gamblers

The House, as expected, but the stake through Gov. Deval Patrick's casino plans yesterday, dismissing it easily, 108-46.

While Patrick's plan was flawed in many ways -- three casinos seem too many, and the in-town Boston idea was just a bad, bad idea -- the idea of casinos in Massachusetts just make too much sense. But instead of moving forward with plans here, hundred of millions of dollars will continue to go over the boarder into the Connecticut. But that's not important now, because industries that can generate nine figures for the state are all over the place.

Enough of the sour grapes. Interestingly, local House guy Steve DiNatale manned up and voted for casinos, probably earning him some measure of scorn out of the Speaker's Office. And he wasn't alone locally. Flanagan, Rice, Evangelidis, Naughton, and a bunch of others from Central Mass bucked the speaker and voted for a casino. 10 in all from Central and North Central Mass. The only region with more was the South Shore, where they understand this was chance to make the state some money, and not just have the Mashpee Wampanoags keep it all (OK, maybe some more sour grapes, whatever).

To read more about this little phenomenon, and to check out a Google map that show's where all the pro-casino votes came from, head on over too... the Fitchburg Pride website. As if you had to guess.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

DeMoura Speaks

A question-and-answer with prospective police chief Robert DeMoura is available at the Fitchburg Pride website. It includes his thoughts on plans for the department (nothing too new if you've been following this), and his thoughts on coming into the department as an outsider ("Truly, I am no outsider, I am a police officer.")

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

DeMoura Named Police Chief

It was here earlier through comments, but the press release is in: Lowell Deputy Robert DeMoura was named police chief today. Read all about it the Fitchburg Pride website. And for now, nowhere else.

UPDATE (4:23 p.m.): There's a Q-and-A with the mayor on the Fitchburg Pride website, talking about why DeMoura, and a few other chief-related things. Go check it out.

While we're on the topic, the grumbling is already starting, which shouldn't be a surprise. But should this result really be a surprise? On paper, and from what we know of the mayor, DeMoura was a far more attractive candidate to her. I actually got into this a little bit last month, which you can read here if you want a refresher. But because DeMoura seemed to be the obvious choice, that doesn't mean this was a bag job, set up by someone else, or anything else. It's already getting around out there, but I'll wait for some pretty solid facts to back it up. I also haven't had anyone explain to me very well how the outsider rigged a bag job. Usually that's the insider's deal. So anyway, simply, not a huge surprise, and not exactly a sign of egregious backroom dealing, either.

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Another One for the W4 Councilor

I think, in a moment of extreme dread and oncoming depression, I mumbled -- not yelled -- "oh, no, not that guy," at about 11:05 last night.

At that point, Kevin Garnett had thrown the ball away and it ended up in the hands of Robert "Big Shot" Horry. But last night, Big Shot didn't come through, and the Celtics did. And this morning, whooo wheee, I'm here to write about a great game and team that might just be a real, live, title contender.

Whenever you beat the defending champs, that's good stuff. Whenever you beat the defending champs in their place, that's very good stuff. Whenever you beat the defending champs in their place when they clearly bring their A-game, that's great stuff. Whenever you beat the defending champs in their place when they clearly bring their A-game and you're down 22 in the second quarter, that's ridiculously amazing stuff.

Winning, of course, makes watching more entertaining, but last night's game was an absolute delight. It was entertaining, energized, full of passion and big plays. It was physical, it was bumpy, it was one of the better games you'll see this year.

The Spurs played a ridiculously beautiful first quarter. The Celtics played with fire in the second, and played some of the best six minutes of the season at the beginning of the third. The fourth quarter bogged down toward the end, but it was tense, big shots were made, and it was worth staying up for.

For Celtics fans, this was, of course, a quality, quality win. Not only did the team win, but Rajon Rondo played Tony Parker to a virtual draw. He was phenomenal after a slow start. Sam Cassell carried the Celts in the second quarter, and hit essentially the game-winning three late in the fourth. It looked like he might have -- might have -- done a slight version of his big balls dance. Which rocks. I love Sam Cassell, and that won't be the last big shot he hits this year. Garnett was shaky in the last minute (missed jumper, that bad, bad throwaway) but his energy picked the team up when down 20, and his defense was outstanding throughout.

For non-fans, you missed a good one, and it was a good example of how the game has changed for the better. The Celts' two biggest crunch-time shots were threes from Eddie House and the Cassell bomb. Both (particularly House's) were created through ball movement. The days of isolation drives are fading fast. Particularly for the Celts.

The best news? It's pretty clear the Celtics are title contenders. The road will be tough. They'll likely have to get by LeBron James in the second round, and the Pistons in the East finals. Neither is an easy chore. But from what we've seen over the last month (12-of-13, Garnett back healthy, a strong bench, huge pickup in Cassell, the further growth of Rondo, solid minutes from Tony Allen), the Celts should be a strong favorite to get out of the East. The question is, can they hang with a West team for seven games? The West is far, far superior, but the C's have shown enough -- particularly last night -- to increase the hopes that they can make it happen.

All that said, they're back at it tonight, and all signs point to them taking the loss. At Houston, second game of back-to-back, and Houston has a nice little (22-game) winning streak. Such is life in the NBA, but like their title chances, you have to think that maybe tonight they can pull it off.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

A Few Money Notes

A few budget-related items:

Is a fee a tax? We'll find out how local folks feel about that question in the next few months, I'd guess. The Building Department is ramping up a fee increase, and Mayor Lisa Wong has pointed to larger fees in general as a possible revenue source. When Gov. Mitt Romney increased fees during his term, he was killed for it as a tax increase measure, and it was a popular talking point against him while he was running for president. Will residents feel the same way if it costs more to get a dog license, for businesses to pay more for a liquor license, or for someone to build a new home? Or will they fork over the few extra bucks without even really realizing the difference? Should be an interesting situation on this one as it moves forward.

Is the city's projected budget deficit really $5 million? Here's why I ask: This level-services talk is a lot of old-school budget thinking. But Wong has discussed, time and again, creating a new budget process. In fact, in a recent interview, she pointed directly to not just automatically all line items to keep services at today's levels. According to the Mayor's Office, the plan is still to move toward the "performanced-based" budgeting and make some changes. So if that's the plan -- and that was going to naturally lead to a reduction in costs -- isn't that $5 million really an out-dated, old-school figure? Isn't that number probably lower? Those questions hasn't been given a yes-or-no answer, but it will be interesting to see if the changes can lead to some savings, or if it will be cuts alone that fill in the gap.

Finally, you may have read over the last few days a few things about health-care costs for municipalities. One thing that seems to have been missing in the story and today's editorial is the fact that for the city to join the state's GIC insurance program, the city's unions have to agree to the change. The city can't just unilaterally make the change. So to make it happen, the city would need to negotiate, one union at a time, the change. You talk to municipal leaders around the state and call that provision a "poison pill," and not one argues that term. And trust me, I've tried to find someone to say, "No, no, no. It's not really a poison pill." But no one will do it. One guy (not local) said the savings wouldn't be worth the hassle of endless and headache-causing union negotiations. Even State House folks admit the union mandate is a problem. And you wonder why fewer than 20 communities have signed up for something that seems so logical. Health care costs for cities and towns -- just like for you and I -- are going crazy, but the current GIC situation is a non-starter, and will only gain real traction when the state yanks out the union provision. Which is unlikely to happen any time soon.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

And... We're Back

OK, I know there's something about $5 million shortfalls and all that, but honestly, I'm just not up to speed enough to talk about it. Except bad times.

Speaking of bad times, check out this story from P1 in today's Globe. It's about Randolph's school system. I jumped into the story thinking, "Huh, maybe we're not so bad off in Fitchburg." About six paragraphs in, our very own Andre Ravenelle jumps into the story saying, well, we're not so bad off in Fitchburg. Luckily. Thank God.

I'm guessing Ravenelle had a lot more to say than actually got in the Globe, but the system does look good on a couple of fronts. First, we're not Randolph. Second, the department has done a few things (like getting grants) that has kept it slightly ahead of the killer wave.

So, there you go. We're hanging in. For those who want receivership, not good news. For those who want to see some hard work and some solutions -- any solutions -- toward maintaining and fighting and scrapping for the future, good news. For those who think it shouldn't be so hard and that there needs to be some sort of long-term solution to the problems facing cities and towns and the state, bad news, because things aren't going to get better any time soon.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Tomorrow, Say Goodbye

Sometime later today, perhaps this evening, I'll be walking away from the old computer and not looking back for about a week. Not about a week, until next Wednesday. So, that means comments will slowly rot in moderation until I get back. Unicow, you've been warned.

Mrs. Save Fitchburg and I will leave the kids with the grandparents for a few minutes, and go here. Little Miss Save Fitchburg will continue her infatuation with this. Later, we'll all be hanging out here. We will not be going to see these guys, for two reasons. First, preseason sports suck. Second, I hate myself for being a fan.

So, there you go. I'm going on vacation. You're on your own from tonight into the middle of next week.