Thursday, January 29, 2009

Budget Blathering

So, here we are, looking at a loss of probably about $3 million in state aid in next year's budget. Let the screaming begin.

I'm not patient enough to wait for the city budget to download right now, but I'm willing to bet $3 million that the increase in tax levy and new growth won't cover that decrease. So, the city will have less money next year than this year.

A lot will be said and done between now and July 1. Some of it good, a lot of it bad, some of it just mind-numbingly repetitive and either unsubstantiated or just wrong.

In that spirit, I spent a chunk of my car ride home thinking of all the things I don't want to hear during this budget season. Part of that thinking was motivated by a comment I read somewhere else. It's #1 on this little list. I'm sure they'll all come here in the next five months, and some point said referring to these topics will make me lose my mind. But whatever. I don't have much to lose.

#1. The city should run like a business. Well, yes, it should. But what does that mean, exactly? What happens in business when it's not making enough money? It lays people off or it raises prices. Plenty of places are laying off. Jeez, McDonald's raised the price of a double cheeseburger this fall because costs were getting too high. My point? Business can do two things in tough times: cut, or raise more money. The city is in pretty much the same quandry. So when you say the city should run like a business, what does that mean, exactly?

#2. There are too many school administrators. This is an old-time favorite from last year. It got to the point last year where I started shyly asking spurters of this one, "So, um, like who?" I quickly realized that those who were spouting had no clue. I started asking it almost tauntingly, knowing those saying it couldn't support it. I never got bagged. Forget details like state-mandated positions that might be protected. These people couldn't name a position, forget a person. I asked this question last year here probably a half-dozen times, and never got an answer: Specifically, who? Please, I really do want to know. It will come up again, so let's go, people.

#3. Throw the useless ones out of City Hall. Sounds good. Again, who are they? This goes with #2, and might seem a little more easy to figure out, but who is it? Can someone with real knowledge tell me?

#4. My special thing. Let's admit it, we all have it. I have mine. It's the schools. I've never shied away from it. You have your special thing. Likely, it's police or fire. You don't want it cut. Think the library folks are happy? No. You think the 90 percent of the population that is generally unaffected by the changes at the library care? No. That's an extreme example, but it's true across the board. Departments don't operate in vacuums. What happens over here effects stuff over there. The library changes saved the city $800,000. Think of the cop jobs it saved. It probably kept the Summer St. fire station open. At this point, every dollar kept in one department means one fewer dollar somewhere else. So, embrace your special thing and advocate for it. Try to come up with some way to preserve it. But if it gets cut, remember, there's, um, "revenue enhancements" on the table that can help out. Such is your choice.

#5. We're not Leominster. Agreed. This is not a condition that popped up last week, last month, last year, or last decade. It's been so long, the paths so divergent, that it's no longer acceptible to compare the two cities. It just isn't. Sure, you want to make the point that Fitchburg stinks, but the current situations in the two cities weren't born overnight. It's taken a long, long time to get here. To not recognize that and not consider it is just not very right. It sounds good, but at this point it means nothing.

#6. We can't afford it (Or, stupid Unitil). This one we'll hear this year -- a lot -- until the budget is settled. Trash fee? "No way. We're taxed up the ass as is." Override? "Have you seen my electric bill? No way." There's an emotional logic in that. But it has nothing to do with each other, except your wallet. Let's go back to the old McDonald's double cheeseburger reference from above. Do you think when Ronald McDonald convened his kitchen cabinet to discuss raising the price they said, "You know, Wendy's just raised the price on their burger. Maybe we should hold off on this." Hell, no. We have a lot of time to debate whether or not new fees and taxes are a good idea. But it really doesn't have much to do with Unitil. You might not believe this, but Unitil isn't the root cause of all things dark and evil in Fitchburg.

Look, the next five months are going to be a tough road. People are going to demand certain things don't get cut, and most of them aren't going to want to consider a trash fee, override, or anything else that cost more money. Just go into this knowing the city will have less money next year than it does now, and health insurance and other items are only getting more expensive. Just remember to think about the situation, remember that every action has consequences to the entire budget, and that this is most certainly not going to be easy. I look forward to reading many, many comments that tell me all the above is ridiculous.



Sticking with Their Story

Unitil finally finished its tour of local media this week, with a story in today's Sentinel (finally) on the aftermath of the ice storm. It's more of the same, but one thing in particular bugged me.

That one thing is the continued argument by Schoenberger that the real bad damage stopped on the Fitchburg side of Route 2. He argues that Leominster wasn't hit as bad, and part of that is because the conditions weren't as bad there as in Fitchburg.

There's certainly something to be said for the fickle finger of weather's fate, but at the same time, I still think it's a bunch of hooey. Schoenberger made the same claim in his interview with the Pride earlier this month, and it was something of a bone of contention (you can go to iTunes or here and listen, if you'd like. That portion is pretty deep into the interview).

Here's the thing: Towns like Princeton, Holden, Sterling, Rutland, Paxton, and so on were all pretty much 100 percent without power after the storm (Sterling was at like 90 percent without). Those towns were killed by damage. Go look at a map. What Schoenberger is pitching is that Leominster took a softer hit than Fitchburg. He admits north of Leominster was killed, but for some reason ignores the damage in the burbs to the south, west and east. I just don't get it. For all the half-truths and vagarities that have come out of this, this one for some reason cheeses me off, because it's so obviously not true. Dean Mazzarella may be SuperMayor, but the guy can't single-handedly change the weather. Can he?

If someone from Princeton or Holden reads this, God help Schoenberger. Those snotty towns were in a battle to prove they were the worst-hit community in the state. Holden people were particularly disappointed to hear that I thought Fitchburg looked about the same as their fair town in the immediate aftermath. They'll say they took it worse. I think we're talking a negligible difference in the grand scheme of things. Something Schoenberger either isn't aware of, but won't admit. Either way, it's one particular story line of his that gets me going. Clearly.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

How Much on Wednesday?

I know everyone is focused on tomorrow's frivolity with Unitil, but on Wednesday, the governor's budget comes out, and it will shed some light on the city's budget situation, for sure.

Patrick said last week he might cut up to $375 million from the current local aid figures. That doesn't include potential mid-year cuts.

Factoring in Lottery aid, this year's aid to be held harmless from Lottery shortfalls, and additional assistance, the total in those sections are roughly $11.1 billion this year. That means, roughly, Patrick is looking at a 25-30 percent cut in local aid. For Fitchburg, if it were equal across the board, the city would be looking at a $2 million to $3 million cut in state aid. Don't know what new growth is looking like this year, but I can't imagine it's very much.

In short, cuts are coming, and we can start trying to figure out from where on Wednesday.



Sunday, January 25, 2009

DiNatale's Choice

What was rumor on Friday and pretty much a done deal yesterday became fact this afternoon. House Speaker Sal DiMasi is stepping down on Tuesday. His replacement could be chose on Wednesday.

For second-term Rep. Stephen DiNatale of Fitchburg, this sets up an interesting time. Make the wrong move now, and forget it. It's over for him. Enjoy the back of the room and the basement office.

DiNatale's best move would have been to nudge up to one of the favorites a while ago and try to break into the circle. Odds are, that's Bob DeLeo of Revere or John Rogers of Norwood. If I were betting man, I'd be betting on DeLeo this week. But I wouldn't be betting the mortgage. Was DiNatale betting early? Or is he waiting to see where the winds are blowing this week?

DiNatale's opportunity to really make a move is likely passed. He either jumped in or he didn't. If he didn't, he now has to make a decision: DeLeo, Rogers, or dark horse X. He needs to pick right. The right choice means he stays viable, stays in th game, stays relevant. The wrong choice, and he loses all of the above, and is relegated to also-ran status for a while. Such is life when a speaker is elected.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Let the Yelling Begin

The hooting and hollering over Unitil starts this afternoon (like it ever really ended) with the City Council's public hearing on their response to the Ice Storm of 2008. If you can't be there, you can follow along with live, blog-style updates at the Fitchburg Pride website. Yes, I don't work there anymore, but I can still pimp it out.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

No February Vacation

On Saturday, I saw my parents and made plans to trundle off three of their grandchildren to Maine for a chunk for a February vacation. A few minutes ago, Mrs. Save Fitchburg and I began the long discussion of whether or not the oldest Save Fitchburg spawn will skip school to go.

The crux of the story: The next time a school official tells you they don't teach to the MCAS, don't believe them.

Simply, the school department wants to get teaching time in before the MCAS. So instead of skipping April vacation (three months away, not four weeks), going on Saturdays, or holding out and waiting for a potential DOE waiver, kiddies will go to school February vacation (President's Day withstanding).

What about parents or teachers who have vacation plans? Whether it's an overnight trip to ski country, or a week trip to Disney? They now face a difficult decision just four weeks before their plans are scheduled. Do they ditch the money and go to school, go ahead with plans and ditch school? If there are a lot of skipped classes, will it affect AYP? In many cases, the attendance AYP factor is a narrow pass. Would big skips be a problem? I guess we're going to find out.

School officials point to a survey where 56 percent of staff favored going to school during February break. Somehow, I think a fewer percentage of parents are in favor. I can hear the cranky oldsters hollering "Those whippersnappers need to go to school," and that's a waiver debate for another time. The issue here is the timing, and it stinks.

Since MCAS was instituted, school officials everywhere have gone to great strides to point out that while curriculum covers MCAS subjects, they don't "teach to the MCAS." But this move will be an inconvenience for some, and a major problem for others. To squeeze in four more days of teaching before the MCAS. The decisions facing parents and the vacation plans suddenly either in ruins or wrapped in guilt are other victims of the ice storm.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

See? I'm Really Not Going Anywhere

I won't be in this week's Pride (I think), but I will be on FATV Wednesday night, 7:30, with Gentleman Bill Gates. Like George Gantz, I won't be able to give him a great answer on why estimated bills are so high, but I will be able to talk about the two-year anniversary of the Pride, my time there, and so on. So, you can catch my ugly mug at 7:30 Wednesday night.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

You Won't Get Rid of Me So Easily

Hi, everyone.

I'm hearing some buzz that my somewhat (intentionally) vague column in today's paper has cranked up some talk about my future. So, in order to keep things relatively under control, a few thoughts:

No, I'm not moving. We're staying in Fitchburg. That's very unlikely to change in the future.

I have a new job, back in the world of public relations, and I'm looking forward to getting to it. That said, I will terribly miss the day-to-day work at the Pride. It probably was the best job I've ever said.

I will still be in the Pride on a regular (monthly, more if events of the day/week/month demand more) basis. I might do some more web stuff. I'll still be doing Save Fitchburg. There might be some other stuff, we're still sorting some of that out.

I have no doubt the future of the Pride is bright, and that it's not going anywhere. Not sure what the long-term plans are, but reporter Karen Mann is still around, and that's all that matters. She's fantastic. This new endeavor has nothing to do with the state of affairs in the Pride in particular or newspapers in general. My belief in the power and potential of independent, local nespapers hasn't changed one little bit, and my belief in the future of Fitchburg is unchanged. It's real, and it's happening.

I will miss being editor of the Pride, without question. But this is a good move for me and my family, and it's a great opportunity for us. When you put out a paper and a front page like this week's -- with a great story on Unitil, a vital look-ahead on campaign season, and a well-written celebration of one of the people that make Fitchburg and its institutions special -- it's tough to go out while kicking ass. But the Pride will continue to kick ass.

At the end of "Goodfellas," Henry Hill complains about his suburban existence, particularly when goes out for dinner and gets "egg noodles and ketchup," like all the other "shmucks." When it comes to next Friday, I'll be with the other shmucks, picking up the paper at the nearest distribution point. It'll be sad being on the outside, but I'll know I'm picking up a great product that is a reflection of the promise and future of the community I'm living in.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Kaddy? No. DiNatale? No. Tran? No.

In tomorrow's Fitchburg Pride is a story that probably won't make those who want Lisa Wong out of the Mayor's Office too happy.

In short, there aren't a lot of likely mayoral candidates at this point, and if you're thinking of getting in, you're starting to spread the word now. But no one seems to be lining up the troops.

Joel Kaddy, Marcus DiNatale and Dean Tran -- probably the most popular names in the rumor mill -- all say they aren't planning on running this fall. They and others said they haven't heard anything in terms of buzz around potential challenge. As Steve DiNatale noted, if you're serious, you're knocking on doors as soon as the snow melts, but you're already figuring out inner circle and how to raise cash. Remember, it was well past $30,000 by the time Wong and Donnelly were all done. That's not small potatoes.

Who knows? Someone might be hedging bets, someone might be super-quietly laying the groundwork, someone might come out of the blue in the spring (a la Wong). But for now, it looks pretty quiet.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Audio of Unitil Interview

If you're totally into it, you can listen to the entire Fitchburg Pride interview with Unitil CEO Robert Schoenberger and VP George Gantz now. Head over to iTunes, find the Pride's "Two Good Minutes" podcast, and you can listen from there. Or, you can wait until Friday and listen to it here. Or, you can ignore it all together. It might not exactly be riveting listening, but it's out there if you wanna check it out.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Unitil to Seek Rate Increase

Unitil officials told the Fitchburg Pride today that it will eventually seek a rate increase, partly to pay for some of the expenses borne out of the ice storm.

Begin hyperventilating... now.

The discussion over paying for the ice storm was one of a number of issues touched upon during an hour-long interview with CEO Robert Schoenberger and VP George Gantz.

Also discussed, in no particular order:

Some Ohio crews expected to help Unitil bailed, and that was a serious setback to repairs.

Changes should be made to how mutual aid is delivered to effected areas, perhaps not so much based on a utility's crews in the area, but on "worst/first" basis, where all available crews work on the biggest problems first, no matter the utility serving the area.

The estimated bills were based on past usage, but uses higher supply charges from a supply contract finalized over the summer. It's common practice, and adjustments will be made in January. Estimated payments -- even no payments -- are fine.

The company has no plans to get out of Massachusetts.

Schoenberger and Gantz said they felt Unitil was getting better in Fitchburg, and customers were responding, before the storm. Schoenberger acknowledged his company might never have a "love affair" in Fitchburg.

Unitil is working on improving call center operations.

Gantz said he was impressed with Mayor Lisa Wong's messaging and discipline following the storm. He was more evasive when discussing critical comments from public officials.

Schoenberger and Gantz acknowledge a two-pronged PR effort on the local and state level. Jeremy Crockford, from Unitil's new PR firm, O'Neill and Associates, said Boston media received early attention because much of their reporting was erroneous and needed corrections. Gantz described local media coverage as "aggressive," but "fair."

Those are some of the quick bulletpoints, if you're still seeing straight after the start. There's a story that hits on some of this stuff right now at the Pride Website. There will be a larger story in Friday's Pride, and on Friday we'll be putting the audio of the entire interview online for your weekend enjoyment.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

The Cleanup Question

I commented briefly on this in another post, but it's worth its own post at this point.

Last night, the City Council went off on the city's cleanup efforts. Mayor Lisa Wong defended it, pointing to costs and reimbursements.

As I said in my comment, I don't really want to go through a day of "council said, mayor said." It's repetitive and doesn't get to the heart of the matter.

Here's the real question: Is it worth the cost to clean up quick, or should the city go through the longer hoop-jumping to get reimbursed for the cleanup. It is, according to projections that no one is disclaiming, a $1.5 million question.

In a vacuum, of course you want a fast cleanup. I think you could make an argument right now, today, that coming up with $1.5M for a quick cleanup would be a chore for the city. Did any councilors say last night where they'd get the money from? Looking down the road, the governor this week looked for expanded cutting powers, with mid-year local aid cuts looking more and more likely. You can bank on cuts in next year's budget.

So, you can't answer the question in a vacuum. I'm guessing the councilors have gotten a lot of calls, and want it stopped. But can the city afford to pay for the work themselves? And if you think the federal government is flexible in its rules, ask Townsend how that's working out for them (that town is ineligible for fed reimbursement, because Middlesex County didn't reach the disaster minimum cost).

It's easy to call up a councilor and say "Goddamn it, the branches still aren't picked up and my street looks like crap." But that doesn't take into account the financial side of things. There might be money for this, but there's red tape to deal with first, like it or not. If DPW goes out and starts doing it tomorrow, you can pretty much forget about it.

So, does the city have $1.5M to clean up the mess? That appears to be the question of the day. I'm leaning toward the reimbursement process until someone can detail where the money is coming from.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

No Gantz, Let's Bash Elsewhere

If you didn't see the comment below, George Gantz is taking a pass on tonight's FATV appearance, up to his butt in "emergency" situations around the area. At least they're aware of the "emergency" situations over at Unitil this time. It's been scattered outages, and they've very quickly and proudly announced they've been taken care of quickly today. Good for them.

To fill some more space here in Post #750 (holy crap. 750? I write too much), let's turn our attention to the Boston TV stations, which did themselves oh so proud yesterday and today.

I haven't watched the evening news today, but caught the 6s, the 10s, and the start of the 11s last night. They were in full bluster because there was an ice storm! Just weeks after the last one!

If you remember back to Dec. 10, there were some warnings of some outages in the forecast. Certainly not what we got. This time, the weather guys were pretty on the ball. If anything, the storm was a bit warmer than forecast, but they repeatedly said while there would be ice, it wouldn't be anything like last time. Well played.

On the news side (and I'm looking at you 25, and particularly 7), it was significantly different. If you skipped the weather and just watched the news side, you were expecting Round 2. It really wasn't cool. It was exasperating. It was a reminder that you should skip TV news and read newspapers (particularly the Fitchburg Pride). It stunk.

Anyway, just a reminder that TV news is no good.

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Who's Unitil's Audience?

A reporter bitches (again), but also wonders if his paranoia is founded.

In essence, as Unitil goes about a massive PR effort, I wonder if their target audience is the ratepayers in the region, or state officials in Boston, who really hold the company's fate in their hands.

Consider: Unitil has offered the Pride a sit-down with the Unitil CEO, but I saw him on WBZ last night. Why Boston media before local media? Also, why run a full-page ad in Monday's Boston Globe? For the 20 people in Fitchburg, Townsend, Ashby and Lunenburg who pick up the Globe? Or was it to put a big splash in front of officials in Boston?

Look, PR strategy is PR strategy (in this case, Boston heavyweights O'Neill and Associates are involved), and Unitil's end goal is likely to escape as much harm as possible on the state level, and hope by the summertime everything is back to normal. Getting on BZ and into the Globe furthers that strategy better than being here.

So, you'll see Gantz on FATV tonight and maybe at some point we'll get that CEO interview. But in the meantime, pay attention to where Unitil is putting stuff -- and where it's going first -- and you can decide who they're really sorry to. Us, or state officials.



Tonight's Main Event

Clear your schedule and have some snacks on hand tonight -- with the phone nearby perhaps -- as Unitil VP George Gantz takes a spin with Bill Gates on FATV tonight.

First, a word from FATV: There's been some talk of some folks "stopping by" to see Gantz tonight. There will be no studio audience for the show, according to FATV. If you want to call in, the main number is 978-343-0834. I assume that's the number to call. FATV's message at this point: Please call, but don't stop by.

We'll most certainly be watching, and chiming in here either through blow-by-blow blogging, or wrapping it up at the end. That 7-8:30 time slot is tough with bedtime stories to be read and tots to be tucked in, so if we got the blow-by-blow route, there may be some delays as we hit "pause" on the DVR. In any event, by night's end we'll have some words on the whole thing here.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Somebody Loves Unitil

Doing a random search of Unitil, I stumbled on this from It's dated Dec. 24, 2008. You know, when most of Fitchburg had power back on. But not all of it.

Janney Montgomery Scott initiates coverage on Unitil Corp. (NYSE: UTL) with a Buy and $23 fair value.

Janney analyst says, "The company has a stable electric and gas utility business in New England and a solid working relationship with its state Commissioners. The recent acquisition of Northern Utilities increases the company’s gas utility customer base and expands its footprint into Maine. In the short-run, earnings growth will be generated from acquisition-related operating efficiencies, while long-term earnings growth will stem from the traditional utility model of capital spending on infrastructure coupled with diligent rate case management, as the company brings returns at Northern Utilities up to par. Unitil offers investors an attractive 6.9% dividend yield, which management has stated it is committed to maintaining."

Unitil Corporation (Unitil) is a public utility holding company.

I know what you're thinking. There's only two comments with the post, but they know what you're thinking, too.



Here We Go Again (?)

Depending on when and where you get your weather news, we might be in for some more trouble tomorrow.

Last night's 7 news on 56 talked about up to a half-inch of ice tomorrow afternoon. This morning on 25, Fitzgibbons said there's no reason to expect anything like last time. And you know what I mean by "last time."

In any case, the mayor sent out an advisory yesterday afternoon telling folks to, you know, stock up on batteries, flashlights, that kind of thing. Just in case. I'll likely be refilling a gas can or two for the olde generator. Just in case.

If the power does stay on tomorrow night, it could be a doozey over at FATV, where Gentleman Bill Gates has Unitil Veep George Gantz on for 90 minutes. The first half will be an interview (which we're very intrigued to see) and then they're taking calls for the last 40 minutes. You have to assume they'll be on the old seven-second delay, and that there will be extra security at FATV HQ tomorrow night. Gotta give Gantz credit for walking into this one.

The Gantz appearance/beating can be considered part of a fairly aggressive rebound strategy by Unitil. They had the much-derided letter last week, they had full-page ads in the dailies yesterday (including El Globo, which is clearly a PR move), and the CEO is being peddled for edit board interviews. They're on the PR offensive, trying to make up lost ground. That's a lot of ground, though. And when you have Gordon Edes against you, well, you're really in trouble.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Library Director Out

The tale of Library Director Ann Wirtanen is coming to an end, with Wirtanen heading to the Winchester Public Library, the Fitchburg Pride has learned. She leaves the Fitchburg Public Library Jan. 15.

It's been a tough one for Wirtanen over the last year. She was none-too-pleased by the cuts in library funding and the attendant state decertification. It only got worse when many people noted her lack of response to improve its situation itself, instead doing little more than complaining about the situation. Things got even worse in the aftermath of the ice storm. It's no secret she was displeased over the library being used as an animal shelter. It's also not much of a secret that she expressed her displeasure rather loudly.

Without a doubt, Wirtanen was defending her department, and at the end of the day her responsibility and focus is the library. But the way she went about things didn't do herself or the library any favors, and after the shelter fiasco, there was some talk her days could be numbered.

Whatever the case, she's heading out. Consider this nugget as she makes for the door:

“The Winchester Public Library is well supported by the town. They value the library and it shows,” said Wirtanen.



Hay for President

Stephan Hay was elected president of the City Council this morning, as was generally expected.

Some folks aren't big Hay fans. I like him. There must be some reason he got the nod from his colleagues.

I'll say this, Hay has some big shoes to fill. Tom Conry did about as well as could be expected for a council president. He was on the ball, available, listened, and ran a tight ship. At mid-term, this council looks significantly better than the council(s) before it. Hay will have to keep the council moving in the right direction, as aid cuts, Unitil, and other horror shows pop up in the next year.