Monday, August 25, 2008

Union, mayor back at it

If you didn't see Saturday's Sentinel, the police union wrote Mayor Lisa Wong a letter claiming she is out of touch and not properly funding the department. Wong said the out-of-touch claim is ridiculous.

Not good times for the mayor. The library folks are already displeased, and the union returns with more fire. And the police department got a little more money through the budget process.

So that's two departments that are looking for money, and are blaming Wong for the financial issues in their departments. There's probably a line where "no money" crosses into "out of touch." Has that line been crossed?

It appears pretty certain the police union is not buddies with Wong, and likely won't ever be. More bad news for Wong, especially in that they don't seem to feel the need to be shy about it. You'd have to think they'll be searching for a candidate to back next fall. You also have to wonder if other departments and unions are going to join the fun.

While we're here, it's worth noting that city councilors told the Sentinel they hadn't seen the letter. But the Sentinel had seen it, and I'm guessing it didn't come from the Mayor's Office. So you'd have to think the union is going to grind its ax in full public view the rest of the way.

But the bad news is now starting to back up on her. Her options are being reduced for next year. She can make run at overrides, or not. If she doesn't make a run at overrides, the library, police and others won't be getting more money and will likely get cut. If she does go for overrides, she'd going to tick off a whole lot of residents who don't want anything to do with an override. The likely outcome would be worst-case: She throws out override questions, everyone gets angry and shoots them down, and the departments still don't get any money, so everyone's angry.

So, what's she going to do? The original override plan went in the dumper with the deadline foul-up of earlier this summer. But at some point -- sooner rather than later -- she's going to have to decide one way or another which way to go on this. Either commit to an override effort or not. And by that I mean either move that way or don't. She can't wait until the holidays to roll out an override effort for February or March for next year's budget. It's gotta happen soon to get people prepared and understand what's going on. She talked about leadership a lot during the campaign, and now might be the time to show it.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Couple of Things

Getting back from vacation and still sort through the rubble, but here's a handful of things.

First, two days later, the lead story from Sunday's Globe continues to bug me. If you missed it, the story basically says that while property assessments are going down, property taxes are going up.

It's a nice showoff for computer-assisted reporting, and shows that the DOR stuffs a lot of interesting information on its website. Honestly, if I had the time, I'd dig around there more often, but too often just go to find something specific. But the problem with the Globe story is that it relates two things that don't really have anything to do with each other.

This has been discussed here before, but it bears repeating: Property values are only part of the equation when it comes to property taxes. The real focus needs to be on the tax levy.

The levy is the total amount a city or town can collect. As you may have heard, that amount can increase 2.5 percent plus new growth each year. As you may also have heard, most communities increase that full amount each year.

From there, the tax man calculates the total property value, and sets the tax rate. Then the tax rate is assessed on your property value. If you property value holds steady (as seems to be the case pretty much in some areas of Fitchburg lately), you're likely to pay more in taxes if the tax rate goes up (which, I belive, it did).

Simply, communities are taxing more under the provisions of 2 1/2, and with assessments declining, the tax rate gets bumped higher, which creates a higher tax bill. The tax levy is created without assessments in mind, and tying the two together is disingenuous. Sure, it sucks to see your property devalued while shelling out more in taxes, but the two really don't have anything to do with each other.

End of that particular rant.


While the Save Fitchburg Family was away, Brian Knuuttila lawn signs sprouted up all over the place it seems like. Shockingly, this race is less than a month away. It's stealthy crept up, it seems like.

I honestly am not excited about Knuuttila's chances in this one. The Memorial Day Disaster sticks out in my mind, not just in the bizarre circumstances, but also his admittance that he's going to get horribly outspent. So there's that. I also see better visibility from Flanagan at big events. Despite all that, I wonder if Knuuttila can pull off the upset, although it will be very difficult.

You'd have to think Knuuttila is going to easily carry Gardner and the towns between there and here. He has to. Absolutely has to. You'd have to think Flanagan is going to destroy Leominster and carry the towns to east and south. That leaves Fitchburg.

Knuuttila, however, can't just win Fitchburg. He has to win by huge numbers. Maybe 3-1. Maybe more.

Consider: Flanagan's chief core community is Leominster, which is twice the size of Gardner, Knuuttila's home community. Also, the only other contest race around the area is in ... Leominster, where there's a House seat (Flanagan's) being contested. So you have to think there will be more turnout there than there will be in any other community. And you's have to think that's good news for Flanagan.

So, Knuuttila is depending on a huge win in Fitchburg, where turnout could be a problem in that there's nothing else on the ballot worth noting. I would think he'll need to make up thousands of votes in Fitchburg. I wouldn't be surprised if it's 2,000 or 3,000.

Then, consider that 8,000 came out last year for the gigantic mayoral election. Will that many people come out for a state Senate race they've been paying no attention to -- and one without a local candidate (yes, Knuuttila fans, begin outburst here)? Let's say 6,000 people come out, a fairly ambitious number. Knuuttila would need to win, 4,500-1,500. Is that even possible?

Knuuttila has shown some strength in Fitchburg, and it's not silly to think he's going to win the city. But for him to win this race he's going to have to absolutely dominate in Fitchburg. If you like him, you'd better get out and vote for him.


Finally, while away, I read the RFP for North and Main has been extended. If you're a conspiracy theorist on that particular situation, you're beside yourself. I wonder what exactly is going on here (part of coming back from vacation means you can't track stuff down immediately, only wonder what's up). If you want a CVS in there tomorrow, this is not good news in that you'd have to think that bid proposal was pretty easy to write. In theory, this delay keeps the door open for some other kind of development. I don't know what the deal is, but sometimes even though there are good intentions, appearances make things look a sketchy. I think this might be one of those times where appearances look bad. Who knows, maybe in a month there will some private developer making a bid that blows everyone way. But if there's a low-ball, non-pharmacy developer who ends up winning this process, let the howling begin.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

A Little Presidential Time Out

It's been a while since the last look at the presidential election, and the timing is right to discuss my love affair with McCain's "The One" ad (that's it, above).

I love it for many reasons. I love it because it so completely mocks the sense of greatness Obama seems to carry with him. I love it because it is so blatant (and mean-spirited). I love it because it hammers at Obama's biggest weakness -- his lack of experience. I love it because Charlton Heston as Moses appears.

I love it more than this one, which is the one that gets most of the attention in the silly days of summer, although it's probably just as effective:

Finally, I love it because it is so pitch-perfect for this stage of the campaign. It's the summer, and this campaign has seemed to drag on forever. People don't want more issues right now. They want, for better or worse, to be entertained between innings of Red Sox games. What better than Brittany Spears, Paris Hilton, and Moses?

These ads really a little slice of genius, I say. They make their political point, they're funny, and they're mocking and disrespectful, but not to the point of outrage. Brilliant.

While Obama should be killing -- his Middle East trip, his momentum, McCain's lack of momentum in the last month or so, his money advantage -- polls are stagnant. I'm not sure how much the ads have to do with that, although the ads do tap into the undercurrent question that I think is on people's minds. Is he ready to lead? Is he The One?

A lot is going to happen between now and November, and the race will get more boring after Labor Day, when everyone thinks voters will start really paying attention. But for now, I'm loving "The One" ads.



Hold Your Fire

Sometime this afternoon I'll be leaving my desk and not even looking at a computer until next Sunday. Yup, that's right. It's time for the annual August Save Fitchburg week-long shutdown. If you have something to say in the comments, I'd have it written by early afternoon, if I were you. Blog administrators around Fitchburg, you've been warned.



Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Override Question Plans Ditched

Mayor Lisa Wong said today the plans to place a bunch of non-binding override questions on this November's ballot are not happening. You can get some background through the story at the Fitchburg Pride website. In fact, I'd say read that short story first, and then read on here.

Let's just say this situation is kind of confusing, in that there's different deadlines for different types of questions. It took two calls to the Secretary of State's office for me to get it all straight, and in the second call, we weren't sure if the non-binding part of the situation or the override part took precedence (it was the non-binding), and that was an important distinction because there were two separate deadlines.

Anyway, as of last week, city officials were saying they were aware of the deadline, and expected to move forward. But early this week, a new curveball popped up (which I found out in my second call to SOS) in the form of the need for special legislation. That, really, was the deal killer.

The SOS needs stuff by Sept. 5. If it was simply local approval, the council could have passed the questions on Sept. 2 and walked the questions to the secretary's office in plenty of time for the 9/5 deadline. However, the special legislation could only move forward after the council approval. Or, it would have to be filed, passed, and signed in three days. During informal session. On what might be precedent-setting legislation in that no one is sure if a community has offered non-binding override questions before.

Before yesterday's meeting at City Hall, Council President Tom Conry said in an e-mail "I suppose" the deadline could be met. Rep. Steven DiNatale was also talking like a guy who thought things were moving forward -- but honestly said he wasn't sure it was possible.

But the reality of the situation is that the three-day window between the Sept. 2 council meeting and the deadline was probably too small. For this to have gotten done, the council probably needed to see and approve the questions before the August recess. I'm not sure when everyone figured all this out, but the result is the deadline and the window are going to be missed.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

An Ode to Coggshall Park

The Save Fitchburg were at Coggshall on Saturday for a little while (not for the first time this summer), and it was a good reminder to just how valuable a resource the park is in the middle of the city.

For starters, the place was packed in the early afternoon. The playground was jammed with kids, plenty of people were milling around the pond, Family Dawg was steaming up dogs, and a wedding was getting ready to go off at the Gazebo. Parking spots were few and far between. If you think Coggshall is underused, you weren't there on Saturday.

There was even a noticable lack of geese (I really dislike geese, harkening back to the days when my parents had pet geese that were the nasty "pets" you'd ever meet. They were everything you hear bad about geese. Aggressive, territorial, dirty. But I digress) and geese poop. There are signs all over the place asking people not to feed the geese and ducks, and for the most part people are on board. It's making a big, big difference, because the pond and paths alongside are much better than they were last year or two years ago.

There was one natural downer: On an earlier visit this year, we found a handful of turtles sunning in a corner of the pond near the pathway to the gazebo. The Save Fitchburg children were none to please to find no turtles on Saturday.

Now that the SFC are able to walk their little legs longer distances, we've done the loop around the pond, and on Saturday ventured into the trails up the hill behind the pond. It was a pleasant walk, rewarded with a nice view from the outcropping of rocks at the top. It's a short walk, and worth the trip.

I know from time to time folks here -- and around the city -- think Coggshall is a waste of space and should be plowed under for development. If you were there last Saturday, you'd understand that would be a terrible, terrible idea, and that Coggshall is one of the city's better facets.



Friday, August 01, 2008

Trash Fee or Override?

I know most people would answer the above with "neither," but humor me here.

The initial trash fee plan would probably cost me about $200 a year. The annual fee alone would cost $100. I figure at the $1.50 per bag, I'm good for about $100 a year. If the city passed an override, according to FY08 figures, every $1 million in override money would cost the average homeowner $74 a year.

I know we're talking shades of less horrible here, but I'd argue that an override would cost less than a trash fee. While it still seems unlikely an override would pass, I think it's really unlikely that voters would approve more than $1 million in new spending. Geez, it could $2 million and I'd still probably be saving money.

That said, the trash fee has a better chance of getting done than override. While the council might still be considering a trash fee, I see no circumstance where a majority of the council would support an override effort. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if not one councilor supported an override effort.

I know, I know. Most people say cut, don't spend more. But the fundamental fact is that revenues won't keep up with new, basic costs like energy, personnel and insurance. It just won't. So you just keep cutting year after year, or you do something. If the city can get new growth moving, this becomes a smaller issue, but when will new growth significantly help the city? I'd say not in the next few years. Five years? 10 years? What do you do in the meantime? People don't like seeing the library cut to part-time and don't like to see police officers and firefighters laid off, but until something changes, those kind of things will be an annual fact of life.

So, even though the final answer will be "nothing," I think it's an interesting question. What would people rather have -- a cheaper override, or a more costly trash fee? When you forget the politics and the knee-jerk reaction to the term "override," it might be the better option for your wallet. And the way this override discussion is likely to be focused -- a series of questions targeting specific departments and expenditures -- it would give voters the opporunity to target that new spending the way they wanted.

Eh, there's my Friday ramble. Time to tell me I'm an idiot and that we should just keep cutting.

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Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Over the last week or so, the word everyone used about the Red Sox and Manny Ramirez was "marriage." As in, "their marriage might soon be ending."

Don't be silly, they were never married. They never could make that commitment to each other.

Instead, they were boyfriend-girlfriend, always considering marriage, but never getting there. They constantly fought, put up with each other, and finally, they broke up.

When Manny signed with the Sox almost eight years ago, the Red Sox were fairly good looking, but not the handsome stud they are now. Manny, however, was the It Girl. Beautiful beyond belief. The Sox did everything they had to do (if you can find the ESPN show with Dan Duquette all but begging, check it out) to make Manny their girl.

Ever since, Manny has acted like he knew the Sox would never dump the hot chick. The Sox thought about breaking up a few times (the closest was probably that waiver-wire winter stunt a few years back), but could never pull the trigger.

And that's the thing. Sometimes it's clear to everyone else that you need to drop that girl, but there's something that makes you want to make it work out. In the case of Manny and the Sox, it's pretty clear what that was. No matter how clear it was to the world -- even the Sox -- that they were better off without Manny, the Sox couldn't cut the cord. The fans are the same way. We loved Manny, even though we knew he wrong for the team and for us in so many ways.

But eventually everyone gets there in their own time. In a lot of ways, it's kind of sad. What seemed so obvious for so long, what seemed like the best thing for the Sox to do, ends up being messy and depressing. The Sox finally got to the point where their desperate desire to make things work out was overwhelmed by the obvious need to move on. It's never easy, but they finally did it.

And to do it, they had to do it ugly and messy. Manny went ballistic in recent days, and the Sox (admittedly) overpaid to break up with him. Craig Hansen never quite found his way here, and Brandon Moss is a nice player. But when you give up the best righthanded hitter of a generation and $7M to pay his salary, throwing in two more ML-ready players is a heavy price to pay (Note: What the hell were the Florida Marlins looking for? From all reports, they wanted more than Manny and the money. Hansen and Moss weren't good enough? Lordy. Who the hell do they think they are?)

So, the Sox get Jason Bay in return. I almost want to describe him as a slightly better Trot Nixon, based on all reports. Sounds like a dependable 25-30 HRs, 100ish RBI, .290ish hitter who plays good defense. Sound familiar? Maybe Bay is JD Drew without the fragile history and all of Philly hating him. They also get a bit of financial maneuvering in the future. Bay has one more year on his contract, but you'd have to think the Sox will try to sign up to a longer deal. Let's say it's in the $10-$12 million range (he's at $7.5M or so right now). That leaves $8M on Manny's team option for next year. I vote for a high-quality reliever, but that's just me. The point is, the Sox have a few extra dollars to spend.

Consider the next two (hopefully three) months the Sox rebound phase. Maybe they come out of this relationship strong, make the playoffs, and even go deep into October again. Maybe they don't get it together, miss out on October, and move on next year.

That's the thing when you finally come to your senses and break off a long-term relationship. You don't know what's going to happen on the other side, and that fear that it will be worse than it is now is one of the things that keeps you hoping for the best. But then you realize that that hope is better served for the future, and the only way you get there is to put the past behind you. More often than not, that hope turns into a better future. It might not this be October, it might be next year, but even if it means a rocky few months on the rebound, the Sox are better off than they were yesterday.

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