Preview: City Council agenda (January 31)

The Worcester City Council meets Tuesday at 7pm. The agenda is here.

This week: “sanctuary city” status, decriminalizing agriculture, infinite street and sidewalk items. If you know of anyone else who’d like to get our weekly preview via email, the link is here.

  • Sidewalk Repairs: There are so many items about specific sidewalk repairs on the agenda this week. If you’ve been wondering about your sidewalk, you might want to check the agenda.
  • Lake Quinsig Docks: One item asks the City Manager to provide “access to docks, where Lake Ave. North was repaired on Lake Quinsigamond, to nearby residents as they have always had for generations.”
  • More Train Service: Mayor Petty has an item asking that city, state, and federal officials meet to figure out how to increase MBTA and Amtrak service between Worcester and Boston, Springfield, and New York City. If all goes well, in the next few years we will add hundreds of housing units a short walk from the train station, a housing expansion equal to roughly 1% of our total current housing.
  • Stop Your Recycling from Blowing Around the Streets: Councilor Russell has an item asking the city to start cracking down on people who are overloading or badly packing their recycling bins, which causes their recycling to fall out and blow all over the neighborhood. As someone whose fence is perfectly oriented to snag the windblown recycling in our area, this idea makes me happy. Note also that there has been a proposal to switch from bins to clear trash bags for recycling, a change which would eliminate this issue.
  • Allowing Commercial Agriculture: At one point it looked like city government might draft some zoning rules such that it would be possible to farm commercially in Worcester. Lately, this seems to have stalled out. So this week Councilor Rivera has an item asking for a progress report on this.
  • Tax Breaks for Developers: Councilor Lukes has an item asking if, in the past five years, we’ve had any developers fail to comply with the terms of their tax breaks (Tax Increment Financing), and if so what the consequences for them have been.
  • Home Businesses: Councilor Lukes has a couple items asking for a report from the City Manager on all aspects of “home businesses” in the city. These are similar to items she submitted not long ago—I asked her what was up and she says “something else” has come up that “reminds me that our home business ordinance [discussion] continues.”
  • Sanctuary Cities: Whatever you want to call it, a lot of US municipal police departments avoid overly cooperating with federal immigration police unless it involves violent crimes, on the theory that plenty of people have friends and family in the country illegally, and that lots of people are going to be reluctant to talk to the police if there’s a risk somebody is going to get deported, and that we are all better off if people feel ok talking to the police to resolve actual violent crimes, thefts, and the like. This non-cooperation with immigration police takes various forms, for example if someone gets arrested and they are here illegally, the police would detain them the same amount of time they would detain a citizen they’d arrested, rather than holding them longer so that ICE could send someone to pick them up and deport them. Councilor Lukes has a series of items this week asking the Council to officially say that we want the Worcester police to cooperate fully with ICE in deporting illegal immigrants. Councilor Gaffney has a tiny item on the same topic but I can’t figure out if his item is written in such a way it would actually mean anything (also typos, c’mon Councilors, what the heck). People opposed to Lukes’s proposal will be demonstrating at City Hall starting at 6pm.
  • Surveillance and Dumping: Councilor Rivera has an item asking for a camera in front of the Benefit St community garden to discourage people dumping trash there. (Just a random thought: changes in how we handle snow removal really seem to be working, it is like Shock & Awe out there everytime it snows. What would it cost to make similar revisions in how we treat dumping?)
  • Dog Park/Rules: Councilor Rivera wants a sign explaining dog rules at Maloney Field.
  • Executive Session: The City Manager would like part of the meeting to be an executive (private) session for the Council to discuss a lawsuit between the city and Green Landscapes LLC.
  • Private and Public Streets: Laurian Banciulescu wants the city to convert Denmark St. from private to public.
  • Rezoning Norfolk St: The Planning Board and the Economic Development Committee both want the Council to reject the request to rezone some parcels on Norfolk St to residential.

Worcester School Committee meets Thursday

Cross-posted from Tracy’s blog.

The Worcester School Committee meets Thursday; you can find the agenda here.
The big news will be FY18, of course, but that report isn’t yet posted.

However, there is some news for FY17; namely, that the city DID in fact forward $70,000 from free cash when they closed the fiscal year to assist in saving the kindergarten aides! We aren’t there yet (if I’m reading this correctly, we’re still $300,000 or so short?), but we’ve made progress.

In the process, some budget related news: FY17’s statewide charter reimbursement line (identical to that proposed for FY18) was funded at only 46%, shorting Worcester $714,532 and the whole state by $54.2M.
There are some recognitions, retirements, appointments, and one resignation which is of note: Grace Howard-Donlin, who resigned effective last week, was the appointed director of the international baccalaureate program, and had been charged with planning that. It appears that the last gasps of a hope of any such program in Worcester have (once again) died.

There’s a report on the charter school tuition assessment  (which maybe I need to re-read, because I’m not sure why this was being asked…)
There’s responses coming back on the Space Monkey Challenge (and dangers thereof) and attempting to expand the AVID program.
There’s a request for this year’s incidents reports.
There’s a request that math activities accompany summer reading lists (as they do already).
There’s a request for a report on dual enrollment.
There’s a request that Worcester’s colleges perhaps kick in for Worcester’s students AP exams.
The administration is sending the student handbook to subcommittee, and they are recommending these additional new classes:
High School:  Accounting 1; AP Seminar; Document Processing
Middle School:  Chorus; Dance Ensemble; Dance for Fitness; String Orchestra
Those will go to Teaching, Learning, and Student Support; there is as yet no description of any of them.
There are also requests that the School Committee accept donations of $292.20 and $1,212.49 for Woodland Academy and $400 for Forest Grove.

And the administration is requesting that the following schools and projects be forwarded to the MSBA:

Burncoat High School: Window Replacements*
Elm Park Community School:  Window Replacements
Lincoln Street School:   Window, Roof and Boiler Replacements
Rice Square School:   Window Replacement
Thorndyke Road School:   Window Replacement

*Yes, this is the ridiculous idea that started circulating at the last school committee meeting that the secondary school that most needs rebuilding should just get windows.

PCBs remain in executive session; there is also collective bargaining with teachers and a grievance from an HVAC worker.

I’m going to try to make the budget report this go-round.

Preview: City Council agenda (January 24)

The Worcester City Council meets Tuesday at 7pm. The agenda is here.

This week: rezoning, police, waterfront property taxes. If you know of anyone else who’d like to get our weekly preview via email, the link is here. If you want to read about the agenda in more detail, here’s the writeup in the T&G.

  • Boards and Commissions: Robert Bolivar is being appointed a Constable; Courtney Ross Escobar is being appointed to the Historical Commission. The City Council will vote whether to reappoint Talena Ngo to the Citizens Advisory Council; Christian Escobar to the Conservation Commission; and Bill Eddy to the Worcester Housing Authority.
  • A Little Rezoning: The City Manager would like the council to approve rezoning some land zoned for manufacturing to residential in the James Street and South Ludlow Street area. (Map below.)
  • Revised Tax Breaks: A couple years ago, to encourage someone to build 60 apartments at 100 Wall Street (the old El Morocco), the city offered a $1.2 million tax break in the form of a “tax increment exemption.” It’s taking them longer than originally planned, and the Manager would like the Council to amend the offer to reflect this delay. Rather than construction beginning this summer, it will now begin the summer of 2019.
  • Still a Drought: Has all the rain helped our drought situation? A little bit; this week, we’re moving from Stage Three back down to a Stage Two drought.
  • More Police: The Manager and the Police Chief would like to add 7 more police officers to the force. If I am reading the memo right there are currently 344 officers, with 23 positions vacant. Filling the vacancies and the new positions would have us at 374 officers. They would also like an additional 5 of those positions to become supervisory roles: sergeants, captains, lieutenants.
  • Waterfront Property Assessments: Residents with waterfront property are unhappy they have seen unexpected increases in their property values this year, and thus increases in their property taxes. The City Assessor has a report to the Council explaining that these increases reflect higher selling prices for such property of late, rather than a new formula for calculating the values. The local taxpayer activist group AWARE is critical of this report, pointing out, for example, that property on gross or boring bodies of water still saw an increase comparable to property on nice ponds etc.
  • A Market at the Aud?: Councilor Rosen proposes that we turn the long-vacant Worcester Memorial Auditorium in Lincoln Square into an “indoor retail and farmers marketplace” while we continue to wait for a motivated developer to do something else with the building.

Preview: City Council agenda (December 20)

The Worcester City Council meets Tuesday at 7pm. The agenda is here.

This week: Mt. Carmel, Airbnb, property taxes. If you know of anyone else who’d like to get our weekly preview via email, the link is here.

  • Mt. Carmel: The diocese wants to shut down Our Lady of Mt Carmel parish, tear down their damaged church, and sell the land. Some parishioners are strongly opposed to this idea. This week, the Council has the opportunity to make the area a “historic district” as part of preventing the diocesan plan from happening.
  • Tax Rates: The discussion continues about what our 2017 tax rates for “residential, commercial, industrial and personal properties” will be. The Council has some control over this but many parameters are set by the state.
  • Airbnb: There are several items from the Economic Development Committee asking the Manager to report on options for taxing, regulating, and generally cracking down on “short term accessory rentals” aka Airbnb.
  • Buying Cable Boxes: Councilor Rosen has an item asking if Worcesterites can maybe just buy cable boxes, rather than renting them for $7/month. Our cable service in Worcester is from Charter, a monopoly they negotiate with the city government.

Preview: City Council agenda (December 13)

The Worcester City Council meets Tuesday at 7pm. The agenda is here.

This week: Property taxes, reservoir land, boards, and commissions. If you know of anyone else who’d like to get our weekly preview via email, the link is here.

  • Tax Rates: The discussion continues about what our 2017 tax rates for “residential, commercial, industrial and personal properties” will be. The Council has some control over this but many parameters are set by the state.
  • Surveillance Cameras: Ermal Krol is asking the city to install surveillance cameras at 75 Townsend St. to stop people dumping trash there.
  • Boards and Commissions: Jose Castillo and Samantha Fiakofi are being reappointed to the Worcester Arts Council; the Council will vote on whether to appoint ex-Councilor Barbara Haller to the License Commission, to reappoint Deborah Hall to the Advisory Committee on the Status of Women, to reappoint Robert Haddon and Joseph Wanat to the Zoning Board of Appeals, and to reappoint Vincent Pedone to Chair the Worcester Redevelopment Authority.
  • Dealing with Snow: As part of a previously-discussed revamping of the city’s snowplowing plans, the Council will vote to increase the pay rate for City employees when acting as “Snow Customer Service Representatives.”
  • More Watershed Land: The city is acquiring about 100 more acres of land in the watershed of our reservoirs. We’re paying the AMC $35,000 for 1.6 acres of land near Howard St, Anita Burque $85,00 for 58 acres, and $185,000 to David Nichols for 36.49 acres. (All of these are technically eminent domain “taking,” but all the participants are willing.)
  • Early Voting: This was the first election that allowed Worcesterites to vote early at polling places. 25% of votes were cast early.
  • More Tax Breaks for Seniors: The Manager is asking the Council to vote to double the property tax exemption available for certain residents older than 70, from $700 to $1400. He anticipates 411 Worcesterites would be eligible. (AFAIK this doubling is something which happened last year also.)
  • OPEB: The city reports that our liability for Other Post-Employment Benefits for retired city workers went up 10% in the previous fiscal year.
  • Street Changes: The Planning Board recommends the Council approve a petition from Craig Blais asking that part of Pond St be removed from the official map (as part of a development project).
  • Mount Carmel Next Week: Although it’s on this week’s agenda, the item about creating a “historic district” around Our Lady of Mount Carmel will be tabled till next week, as there’s so much finance stuff to discuss this week.

Worcester School Meetings This Week

(Cross-posted from Tracy’s blog.)

There are two Worcester school meetings this week of interest:

The Worcester School Committee Finance and Operations subcommittee meets Monday at 5:30 (that’s at the administration building, 4th floor); the agenda is here.

This is the first quarter meeting, so it closes out FY16, updates FY17 in full, and with accounts of particular concern…which are concerning. It’s only the end of the first quarter, so there are no recommended transfers as yet, but currently FY17 for WPS stands at over $700,000 projected in the red. The reasons are telling:

  • The loss of the state kindergarten grant when the Legislature cut it for this year: $694,132
  • Special education tuition beyond anticipated: $442,912
  • supplemental programs, in largest part additional need for translation due to updated Department of Justice requirements (hey, did we know anything about that?): $264,529
  • transportation, due to the city not increasing capital spending, and thus WPS having to cut back on needed new buses (and rent instead): $130,468

That, of course, adds up to more than $700,000; if you look at the report, you’ll see projected balances, as well. But this isn’t a good place to end the first quarter on. And the first snow falls tomorrow.

And do notice how many of those have to do with the state needing to update the foundation budget.

There’s a report on the MSBA-funded work done in WPS since 2012. A question of interest: the reimbursement comes back to the city; has the city been using the funds to pay off the MSBA-related borrowing? Or has it gone into the general fund?

Finally, there’s a response to Mr. O’Connell’s query regarding the signing of warrants. The full letter from City Solicitor David Moore is here. To say that this has rather startling policy implications, if fulfilled, would be an understatement, as Mr. Moore goes well beyond the municipal charter–which is in line with Lowell and Cambridge’s charters, where committees sign warrants–into querying the position the school committee holds in state law (and drawing conclusions I will say that I have seen nowhere else).  He also never speaks of ch. 71, section 34, which is where the authority is derived. I also find the tone of polite horror at school committees having to sign off on every expenditure a little entertaining, as it’s done in nearly every district in the state (yes, including cities).

The full Committee meets Thursday at 7 at City Hall; the agenda is here. The report of the superintendent will be on expanding preschool; there is as yet no posted backup.

There are reports of subcommittees, appointments, retirements, congratulations.

Mr. O’Connell requests a salary schedule.

Noting the update on school improvement plans that passed this past year, he also is asking for a process of consultation on school improvement plans.

Administration is requesting the School Committee accept $1700 in donations to Goddard Scholars.

Miss Biancheria would like to know how principals are evaluated.

She also is requesting that buildings be inspected with regard to: water systems, foundations, leaking roofs, heating systems, and
wrapped pipes…sounds rather like the facilities plan noted in the subcommittee report.

Miss Colorio would like all teachers and other licensed personnel renewed through “the new data base tool from DESE” by which I assume she means this, which is just a database, not a new way to renew.

She also would like a robocall to go out on the recovery high school and on Worcester Opiate Educational Forum.

There are two prior year invoices, including one for $74,967.76 for special education transportation services.

There is an executive session: the teachers and the IAs are still in negotiations (hm…nobody else?), they’re going to talk about PCBs some more, and there’s a lawsuit: Lyons v. the Worcester Public Schools. That’s at 6 pm, prior to the meeting.

Preview: City Council agenda (December 6)

The Worcester City Council meets Tuesday at 7pm. The agenda is here.

This week: Tiny houses, marijuana regulation. If you care about these issues, it would be appropriate for you to show up and speak for a couple minutes at the beginning of the meeting. If you know of anyone else who’d like to get our weekly preview via email, the link is here.

In other meeting news, at 5:30pm December 7 the Planning Board will meet to discuss Brady Sullivan’s site plan for redeveloping the old courthouse. The Worcester Community-Labor Coalition has been putting pressure on city government around this, wanting various concessions and noting many concerns other cities have had about them. If you are concerned with any of these issues, this would be an appropriate place to speak out.

  • Library Board: The Council will be choosing 2 new members of the Library Board of Directors.
  • Economic Development Report: The quarterly report highlights the WRTA vacating its Grove St location (making it available for other uses), improvements to Union Station, 365 anticipated “luxury housing rental units” at CitySquare, UMass Memorial Health Care expanding their downtown presence 25%, and the decades-vacant South Worcester Industrial Park finally getting sold off and built up.
  • Private and Public Streets: Hilltop Group Holdings has petitioned the Council to make Denmark St a public street (maintained by the city etc).
  • Tiny Houses: The Council’s Municipal Operations Committee is asking the Manager to recommend new regulations “to include the trending use of tiny houses, granny pods and home medical pods.”
  • Stop Parking on the Sidewalk: Municipal Operations also wants the city to start cracking down on people parking on sidewalks.
  • Mounted Police: The Public Safety Committee wants the Worcester Police Department to get some horses.
  • Dirt Bikes on Streets: The police have had a special unit cracking down on people using off-road vehicles on the street. Public Safety says they did a great job. I saw some people speeding down Piedmont Street Friday, before that I hadn’t seen any of this activity for a month or two.
  • Marijuana Regulations: Mayor Petty wants a report from the city’s lawyers on “all possible options” for regulating marijuana sales in the city. Councilor Lukes wants to know if we can prohibit marijuana sales completely.
  • Wind-Blown Recyclables: Councilor Rosen wants the Manager to come up with a plan to revise our recycling system. The latest plan I’ve noticed is to have people put out their recycling in transparent trash bags, rather than in open bins where paper and bottles blow around the streets, get soaked by rain, etc. This is like the third time in recent months I’ve seen an item like this, I don’t understand why this is dragging on.
  • Traffic Tech in Newton Square: Councilor Rosen wants us to “use new and innovative pedestrian safety technologies” to make it easier for pedestrians to transit the traffic circle at Newton Square.
  • City Bond Rating Improves: Councilor Lukes wants there to be discussion of the city’s bond rating, which determines how cheaply we can borrow money. Two of the agencies rating us have us stable, the third has given us the highest bond rating from them we’ve ever had. Good news! Councilor Lukes wants more information on the many ways this might impact city government in the coming year, even things like “the eminent domain powers available to the WRA.”
  • Simpler Leaf Disposal: Currently, you can rake your leaves into the gutter on a certain day, and city street sweepers will remove them that week. Currently you have to be on the ball and know which week is the week for your street; Councilor Bergman wants you to generally be able to ditch your leaves on November 1 and not have to worry about all the complications.
  • Mt. Carmel Historic District: Municipal Operations wants there to be a Historic District established around Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, which very recently the diocese wanted to demolish and sell, a plan put on hold after great outcry from politicians and the public. Currently the church is being repaired and a foundation is being established to maintain the building for the long term.

Preview: City Council agenda (October 18)

The Worcester City Council meets Tuesday at 7pm. The agenda is here.

This week: Not too much on the agenda. If you know of anyone else who’d like to get our weekly preview via email, the link is here.

  • War Memorials: Over the next month, the downtown Vietnam Veterans and EX-POW memorials, currently adjacent to Notre Dame church, will be renovated and moved to the Franklin Street side of the Common.
  • Crosswalk Crackdown: Councilor Toomey has an item asking whether we can raise the fines “for violating pedestrian right of way in crosswalks.” At the moment I would guess maybe 10% of Worcester drivers are good about stopping for someone to use a crosswalk.
  • Home Businesses: Councilor Lukes has an item asking for a list “of all home businesses in the city” and various questions about what we require of them. What percentage of home businesses in Worcester do you think are actually registered with the city? This item reminds me of the recent debates about Airbnb in Worcester.
  • New Main Street Mural?: The people who own the parking lot across from the Palladium want to put up murals on retaining walls abutting the lot. The Council needs to approve an easement. Councilor Lukes has concerns and has tabled this item “under privilege” until this week.
  • A Tangent: Since Worcester has had various debates about new services like Uber and Airbnb in recent years, a recent US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision may interest those who read these Council notes. The Court ruled that Chicago is allowed to have different regulations for Uber vs. taxis, and could refrain from regulating Uber at all. The decision is by the legendary Judge Richard Posner and worth reading if you care about this stuff. I liked this paragraph, in which he makes an argument I wish the Worcester City Council would take more seriously: “‘Property’ does not include a right to be free from competition. A license to operate a coffee shop doesn’t authorize the licensee to enjoin a tea shop from opening. When property consists of a license to operate in a market in a particular way, it does not carry with it a right to be free from competition in that market. A patent confers an exclusive right to make and sell the patented product, but no right to prevent a competitor from inventing a noninfringing substitute product that erodes the patentee’s profits. Indeed when new technologies, or new business methods, appear, a common result is the decline or even disappearance of the old. Were the old deemed to have a constitutional right to preclude the entry of the new into the markets of the old, economic progress might grind to a halt. Instead of taxis we might have horse and buggies; instead of the telephone, the telegraph; instead of computers, slide rules. Obsolescence would equal entitlement.”

Preview: City Council agenda (September 20)

The Worcester City Council meets Tuesday at 7pm. The agenda is here.

This week: Lots of changes in parking, improving snow removal. If you know of anyone else who’d like to get our weekly preview via email, the link is here.

  • Street Changes: There are lots of street changes on the agenda. Two of the bigger ones: Hana Lasell requests speed bumps etc on “Ruth St. and the surrounding streets of Van St. and Underwood St.” Michelle Medeiross resident-only parking on the block of Sterling St. between Harlem St. and Fairfax Rd., “both sides, twenty four (24) hours a day and seven (7) days a week”.
  • Hazardous Waste Disposal Day: Worcester residents will have the opportunity to get rid of hazardous waste properly on Saturday, October, 2016. More info.
  • Worcester-EPA Agreement: The city and the EPA have long been in conflict over Worcester’s polluting the Blackstone. We now have an agreement with the EPA that will allow us to create an “integrated plan” for dealing with these impacts. It will be years before the plan is done. Reading this report, I have no idea how to judge this agreement.
  • Snow Removal: The Manager has a report noting that the city did a bad job dealing with snow last year. They have various plans to do a better job, basically making more equipment and personnel available.
  • Regulating Zoning of City Nonprofits: Last week, Councilor Bergman had an item about “enacting legislation to regulate and restrict non-profit organizations in residentially zoned districts.” I noted that this item seems to come up all the time and lead to nothing. This week, the City Manager has a report noting that this item last came up about a year ago and is still on the agenda of one of the Council committees.

Preview: City Council agenda (September 13)

The Worcester City Council meets Tuesday at 7pm. The agenda is here.

This week: Homeless encampments, the mural menace, drought. If you know of anyone else who’d like to get our weekly preview via email, the link is here.

  • Nuisance Bus Stop: Daniel and Cindy Phan ask the city to relocate the bus stop in front of their home at 208 Pleasant St. There’s a whole litany of complaints here, but the bus stop one in particular is interesting—I haven’t noticed anyone complain about a public bus stop before.
  • Official Homeless Site: The Public Health Committee (Petty, Rivera, Economou, Mero-Carlson) wants the Manager to issue a report on what a Worcester “sanction site” might look like, a place homeless people could camp at legally and officially, with showers, medical clinic visits, etc. The City Manager has clarified that this is not going to happen, this is just part of the discussion of what to do about existing homeless camps. Currently, there are around 90 people in the summer (and 20 in the winter) living outside in the city behind houses, in the woods, and anywhere else they can find.
  • Maximum Lukes: Recently, an international group of artists came to the city and, with official support, created a bunch of huge, stunning murals downtown. Councilor Lukes, as is her wont, intends to spend the city’s time nitpicking this majestic achievement. Her agenda item, in full: “Request City Manager report on process for selection of murals in the city pursuant to the PowWow Worcester event, including the funding and funding sources, what type of juried process was followed, whether a further event with the same selection process will be held, how the participating artists were selected, the address of the artists, what payments were made for the benefit of artists, why more local artists did not participate, and what kind of outreach to the public, property owners and art community was followed, how long will the murals be shown and what kind and cost of maintenance is planned.”
  • Restricting Group Homes etc: Councilor Bergman has an item on “enacting legislation to regulate and restrict non-profit organizations in residentially zoned districts.” Currently state law allows non-profits to buy residential properties and use them in ways consistent with their missions. The Council has been trying to restrict these uses for a long time with no luck. Councilor Bergman knows zoning as well as anybody, so perhaps he has a new idea in mind here.
  • Stage 3 Drought: The Manager has a report on the drought. Usually our reservoirs are at 81.7% at this time of year; currently they are at 55%. Watering your yard, washing your driveway, etc are prohibited.
  • Wage Theft: Mayor Petty and Councilor King have an item asking the city to stop awarding contracts to employers guilty of wage theft.
  • Banning Leaving Free Stuff on the Curb: There’s a proposed ordinance that would clarify city law such that leaving stuff on the sidewalk with a “free” sign would be considered illegal dumping.
  • Dogs in Parks: This agenda item is back again this week.