February 26, 2023
With this being school vacation week, I was surprised that the City Council held its meeting last Tuesday; usually they cancel during vacation weeks. However, since not a lot seemed to get accomplished during the meeting, they might have been better off taking a break and letting the Administration catch up on all the Council motion responses still outstanding.
Perhaps the most important discussion involved a response to a Councilor Erik Gitschier motion from December seeking more opportunities for “behind-the-meter solar solutions” for the city. My house has a “front-of-the-meter” system which means that when I use electricity, it comes to me from the electric grid then through my electrical meter, so I pay some provider for it. With a “behind-the-meter” system, the consumer manufactures their own electricity, usually from solar panels, and uses that electricity themselves without it passing through the meter.
The report on this motion explains that last September, the city issued a Request for Information (RFI) on this topic with responses due in October. I assume that companies interested in doing business with the city responded to the RFI, but the city has not made any decisions on what to do.
However, the information received from the RFI was blended with other information in the memo-response (which is worth reading in its entirety). I thought two sections of this report were particularly important. The first listed possible sites for solar facilities and divided them into three phases based on most to least beneficial and feasible. This analysis emphasized that add-on costs, like having to replace a roof to make it suitable for solar panels, have a way of upending the finances of these projects and making the net cost a negative rather than a positive.
The second point was cautionary. Here’s what the report says:
With the Direct Pay option through the Inflation Reduction Act available to public entities, ownership can appear an economically attractive option. However, often municipal departments have all they can handle in maintaining buildings and grounds. Funding, maintaining, and paying operating costs become burdensome and get neglected, resulting in lower-than-expected system performance. Energy storage systems require active management, and that is normally outside the scope of responsibilities and resources for municipal departments.
Substituting “HVAC systems in new schools” for city-owned solar systems gives this caveat the ring of truth. Even before the city suffered from a chronic lack of employees, the city was unable to effectively operate and maintain heating and air conditioning systems in newly constructed schools which led to nonfunctioning systems, collateral damage from broken pipes, a shortened life expectancy of systems, and accelerated the need for costly replacements. To believe the city would do better operating solar systems than it has done with HVAC systems would be the triumph of hope over experience.
As for the sites recommended by the various consultants, those in Phase I are:
Ayotte Parking Garage
Downes Parking Garage
Early Parking Garage
Lower Locks Parking Garage
Roy Parking Garage
Lot A (adjacent to Wannalancit Mills)
Lowell High new gym/freshman academy
McAuliffe Elementary School
Robinson Middle School
A couple of residents who are longtime advocates of sustainability in Lowell (Jay Mason and Jon Grossman) spoke on this motion response and urged the council and the city to move expeditiously to start implementing some of these projects. Several councilors echoed the sentiment and urged the city administration to get moving. But still other councilors questioned why particular sites in their districts weren’t included in the report and asked that they be revisited.
A motion by Councilor Vesna Nuon asking for an update on the consequences of the big water main break last November drew a Race Street resident who is still unable to return to his home due to damage from the flooding. The homeowner’s insurance claim was disallowed by his insurance company and the homeowner is unable to afford the repairs needed to make the house habitable. Several councilors asserted that since this case might result in a lawsuit against the city, further discussion should be held in executive session. Since the council was already scheduled to go into executive session on another matter after this meeting, councilors voted to hold another executive session next week to discuss this case.
Disagreement among councilors emerged on a Councilor Dan Rourke motion that asked for a report on the “feasibility of issuing two separate tax bills; one for city operations and [one for] school operations.” Councilor John Drinkwater said he frequently hears from city residents that they don’t have any kids in the public schools so why should they have to pay for them? Drinkwater said such sentiments ignore the benefits to the entire city of the public schools and that implementing separate tax bills for city costs and school costs would just exacerbate such feelings. Several other councilors agreed with that sentiment. Councilor Rita Mercier said people have enough of a challenge paying the bills the city already sends out, so she didn’t want even more bills going out. Several other councilors stated that while they did not support separate city/school tax bills, they saw no harm in just getting a report on the feasibility of doing it.
Someone asked CFO Conor Baldwin about this, and he went into an extended monologue about how expensive it is to build and maintain schools. He sounded to me like someone worried about where the money to repay the bonds for the new high school and other school-related maintenance costs would come from.
This is the second week in a row in which councilors have emphasized the city versus schools divide. (Last week it was who was liable for the contents of schools damaged by broken heating pipes.) Something is motivating councilors to keep stoking this split, but for now I’ll refrain from speculating about it further.
In the end, the Council adopted the Rourke motion by a 8 to 3 vote with Councilors Drinkwater, Gitschier and Wayne Jenness voting no.
The cost of the Lowell High project came up in a response to a January motion by Mayor Sokhary Chau asking for an update on additional state reimbursement for the pandemic-related cost increase of the project. City Manager Tom Golden’s response included a copy of a bill filed by State Senator Ed Kennedy (joined by Representatives Vanna Howard, Rady Mom, and Rodney Elliott) that would divert at least $150mil in Federal Covid-19 relief funds sent to the state to the School Modernization and Reconstruction Trust Fund with the money being used to “reimburse previously approved school building projects that can show a demonstrated cost increase brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and global supply chain issues.”
Manager Golden said that he intended to send letters to the incoming chairs of the Senate and House Ways and Means Committees once they get settled in (they’ve just been appointed for this session) expressing the City Council’s firm support for this bill.
Over time, successive mayors and city councilors have included promotional matters in council meetings, usually at the start. These are things like giving citations to individuals or organizations or allowing those opening a new business to introduce themselves.
I understand the motivation: some number of residents watch council meetings via the Lowell Telecommunications cablecast or stream, so this is a way to “get the word out,” especially in our fragmented media landscape. Still, when council meetings were routinely slamming against the 10pm finish time mandated by council rules, it was natural to question the council’s priorities: Is it more important to spend 30 minutes on citations or would that time be better spent discussing council motions that otherwise would be given inadequate time at the end of the meeting or even kicked over to the next one?
However, this week the council presented a citation and a key to the city to Lura Smith, and I don’t think anyone would question the propriety of spending time during a council meeting honoring her. A native of New Orleans, Lura and her husband Robert came to Lowell 50 years ago. Working first for Wang and then for many years in the office of the president of Middlesex Community College, Lura became a force for good in the community. The celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day she organized quickly became a signature event in Lowell but she has contributed so much more to the community.
In her brief remarks, Smith acknowledged that Lowell “has its problems” but added “it’s further down the road than most places.” She added that she and Robert are still in the community but that if anyone can’t reach them, “you should find one another.” Lura closed by admonishing elected leaders to “keep moving the city forward: We’re all in this together.”
The trailer for the forthcoming movie The Boston Strangler was recently released. The movie debuts on Hulu on March 17, 2023. Here’s the movie’s “storyline” from the IMDb website:
Based on the infamous Boston Strangler murders, this is the true story of Loretta McLaughlin, the first reporter to connect the murders and break the story of the Strangler. She and fellow reporter Jean Cole challenged the sexism of the early 1960s to report on the city's most notorious serial killer and worked tirelessly to keep women informed.
I mention this here because some of the movie was filmed in Lowell at the Superior Courthouse on Gorham Street and the District Court on Hurd Street which both had been vacated when the Lowell Justice Center opened in March 2020. As I understand it, neither of those buildings were used as courtrooms. Instead, their combined 1960’s vibe provided perfect settings for several interior shots in the film. The trailer may be viewed on YouTube.
Finally, this weekend’s cold temperatures make me thankful that I have a reliable home heating system which is now only two years old. But when I installed it, I first considered a heat pump but opted for a traditional gas-fired boiler. I wrote about that decision on richardhowe.com this weekend. If you’re interested in heat pumps, or just want to learn more about them, please check out my post.
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