February 12, 2023
There was a political scheduling conflict last Tuesday night. Just as Lowell City Councilors were working through the 18 motions they had filed for that night’s meeting, President Joe Biden was giving his State of the Union speech. In a way, they were talking about the exact same thing: How substantial amounts of money that was appropriated by the Federal government is being funneled to local communities to improve the lives of residents. The programs included the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA); the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act; and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Lowell is awash in Federal money, some of it already committed and much of it still to be allocated. Tuesday night the topic arose in a reply to a couple of recent Council motions for an update on plans to use ARPA funds to buy new fire trucks. The Fire Chief’s response stated that proposals from two manufacturers are currently being reviewed with a decision to be made shortly. He added that the ARPA money should be encumbered by the end of this month.
In his response to questions from Councilors, the Fire Chief stated that $10 million dollars will be used to purchase ten new vehicles. For front line service, I believe the fire department now employs eight engines, four ladder trucks, and a rescue truck for a total of 13 vehicles which means that buying 10 brand new ones now will upgrade almost the entire fleet. Given a unit cost of approximately $1 million per vehicle, this is a big load off of the city’s regular budget (although fire trucks are usually purchased as part of a bond with repayment spread over time rather than paying out the entire amount in a single fiscal year).
The challenge going forward is for future Councils to have the fiscal discipline to replace fire trucks on a regular basis. Let’s say you have ten fire trucks each with a life expectancy of ten years. That means that a new fire truck should be purchased every year so that the fleet is constantly refreshed and that all of the equipment does not become obsolete at the same time. Certainly this is a nice problem to have, but when budgets get tight, big capital items like fire trucks are the first things to be cut which leads to a crisis further down the road.
The Council also spent some time criticizing the Lowell School Committee’s efforts to hire outside legal counsel to investigate claims of improper hiring practices in the school department. I have enough to do in following the City Council, so the School Committee escapes my scrutiny on most issues. Consequently, I haven’t watched the many school committee meetings at which this has been discussed.
However, from the comments made by City Councilors, I do have a couple of observations. Some Councilors suggested that bringing in outside lawyers to investigate the situation could expose the city to greater liability than if the investigation was conducted in-house by the City Solicitor’s office. That may be true since the City Solicitor’s “client” is the city of Lowell, but it also illustrates the potential conflict that would arise from the Solicitor’s office doing such an investigation. Would the Solicitor’s duty be to find out what happened? Or would it be to minimize possible legal exposure of the city? So if the goal of the School Committee is to get an report about what really happened, using outside legal counsel to conduct an objective investigation would seem to be the route to go. And I don’t see a problem with the School Committee trying to learn the facts and then decide how to proceed.
Other City Councilors expressed concern about the cost of outside legal counsel. However, I believe the city regularly hires outside lawyers to conduct a variety of tasks, so using lawyers other than those working in the city solicitor’s office is common. The FY2023 city budget appropriated $135,000 for “professional services” some of which might be for outside lawyers. In FY2021, that same line item was $165,000.
In Tuesday’s Lowell Sun there was a legal notice that read as follows:
To the owners of the hereinafter described parcels of land, situated in the City of Lowell in the county of Middlesex and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and to all others concerned: You are hereby notified that on Wednesday, February 22, 2023 at the office of the Collector of Taxes, City Hall, pursuant to the provisions of General Laws Chapter 60, Section 53 as amended, and by virtue of the authority vested in me as Collector of Taxes – It is my intention to take for Lowell the following parcels of land for nonpayment, after demand of the taxes due thereon, with interest and all incidental expenses and costs to the date of taking unless the same shall have been paid before said date.
There followed approximately 250 properties, sorted by owner name with each entry including the city’s parcel ID, the street address of the property, the registry of deeds book and page of the current deed, and the amount of taxes owed. The “taking” mentioned is a legal concept rather than a physical taking of the property, at least at this point. I’ve written previously about the tax taking process in Massachusetts. It’s complicated and time-consuming. Hopefully, people on the list will see it and get down to the Treasurer’s office and pay what’s owed which will take them out of this process. In some cases, the amounts owed are small – for example, one is just $71; but others are for several thousand dollars.
With last Saturday’s plunging temperature causing residents to boost their thermostats only to have the inside temperatures keep going down, many homeowners undoubtedly thought, “Maybe I should get some more insulation.” At that very moment, the US Post Office delivered a “Dear Homeowner” letter from the city of Lowell promoting the Mass Save home energy efficiency program. What fortuitous timing!
The letter stated that through the Mass Save program, homeowners may be eligible for:
No-cost air sealing improvements
75-100% off approved insulation upgrades
Up to $15,000 in heat pump rebates
Zero percent financing (up to $25,000) for energy efficiency upgrades including heat pumps
No-cost energy-saving products like programmable thermostats, water-saving devices, and advanced power strips.
In the spring of 2021, I took advantage of Mass Save and was very satisfied with the results. But I had a good idea ahead of time of what to expect which really helped me navigate the process. On richardhowe.com this weekend, I’ve written about my experience with Mass Save. If you’re contemplating using the program, I recommend reading about my experience before you begin.
This is a city election year and Lowell Votes is now taking applications for its 2023 Candidate Empowerment and Readiness Training (CERT) program. This is a “how to run for local office” course that would be invaluable for anyone thinking of running for office or volunteering on a campaign. The course is held on several Saturdays in the spring and the application deadline is March 3, 2023. Applications are available on the Lowell Votes website.
If you’re looking for things to do this spring, we’ve just scheduled two Lowell Cemetery tours. One will be Saturday, April 29, 2023, the other on Sunday, April 30, 2023. Both will begin at 10am from the Lawrence Street entrance to the cemetery (which is 1020 Lawrence Street for GPS purposes). The tours are free and require no advance registration. They take 90 minutes and involve walking on roadways and occasionally, uneven terrain. Both will cover the same topics. Another set of tours in the fall will cover the Shedd Park side of the cemetery.
Thanks for reading richardhowe! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.