WRRB At-Large City Council Forum notes

At-large CC forum

50-60 attendees

In the audience: Tony Economou, Jim O’Day

Moderators: Andrea Negri, Christina Spellane, and Eric Nieland

(Opening statements – I will hold on typing unless it’s something new to me)

Bergman: echoes Bob Kennedy’s opening statement: “The future of Worcester is in our hands” – he is one of the good hands.

King: need more inclusivity, more representative government.

Lukes: “I started school not speaking English, and I often think my colleagues wish I’d never learned” (much laughter)  Flaw in our politics if we do not have high voter turnout.

Straight: being a newcomer part of what he has to offer.  Has lived in other cities and can bring different perspective.  Served in US Navy for 6 years.  After that, received bachelor’s and master’s degrees.  We have seen a lot of progress in the city over the last few years.  Bringing down taxes for everybody.  Hopes you will consider him on November 7 – but whatever else, go out and vote.

Toomey: “I may not be the most exciting candidate out there but I do work with my colleagues”

Q1: Main Street, downtown: what is city’s next priority?  Where should city focus attention?

King: city in midst of renaissance, result of leadership of City Manager.  [I’m forum-ed out, folks, but — How quickly we forget Mike O’Brien.  Not just his wonderful hair, but – let’s be real – if things are happening downtown, the momentum was really started, perhaps, with Tim Murray but continued for many years with our previous city manager.]

Lukes: if we could be more successful with PILOT with non-profits [It’s like all Nicole’s third rails in one forum!!!]  Need to look at community investment outside downtown.  Only 32% of school population is white, going through major changes.

Straight: neighborhood development.  Short-term tax incentives to redevelop real estate, vacant buildings/lots.  Look at some of tax exemptions on small business side of things.

Bergman: neighborhoods tangential to downtown (lower Belmont, lower Pleasant, which has a lot of vacant storefronts).  [Needless to say, Nicole feels there are a lot of vacant storefronts downtown…]  Likes uniform look of awnings.  Thriving demographic changes in neighborhoods.

Petty: continue to look at recruiting and retaining businesses.  Make sure everybody shares in our successes.  Make investments in public safety.

Toomey: RT 20 – we should stay on top of it.  Surge of interest with Amazon, next biggest economic corridor for us to build on.  Can’t wait for Amazon to come in.  Public safety and schools are priorities.  One of our schools was built in the 1800s.

Rosen: Downtown should be considered as a neighborhood.  Remember downtown as a child.  Hopefully with all the residents it will lead to retail spinoff.

Q2: public safety important issue to residents.  While crime stats compare favorably with similar sized cities, all the ‘burbs look better from a safety perspective.

Toomey: just had citywide crimewatch, crime is down.  We have great police department.  Invested in a number of public safety initiatives: community policing, mounted police.  We are second largest city in NE, not going to be the same as a sleepy little town.  One of biggest issues is that from safety perspective, police officers dealing with a lot of mental health issues.  Not just safety.  Fires have gone down as well.

Bergman: Height of 374 police officers, down but so is crime.  Need full complement of police officers if we will address certain issues.  Better lighting, more foot patrols.  Safest parts of city have highest proportion of homeowners, need to encourage this.

King: engages daily with WPD as frontline social worker, running summer league for 22 years.  Filed order recently to bring back bike patrols.  Park safety is important.

Lukes: job description of police officer has changed over the years as needs of community has changed.  Government only as good as the people in it; police chief is very good.  Community policing is enormously effective.  Establishing body camera program.  Believes in civilian review board.  [Lukes going over the limit]

Toomey: have major investment in ShotSpotter, police been right on top of shootings that have happened.

Q3: as winter approaches, challenging driving conditions.  Are we prepared for winter storms?  What additional resources are you willing to commit?

[I thought we were going to talk about homelessness and cold conditions…I guess not!  As long as we can drive!  And why wasn’t the proposed increase in compensation to private plow operators asked??]

Petty: this year will have proper equipment, management, will continue to look into it.  Probably over a million in equipment over the past year.

[Whoever mentions the Snow Dragon first gets my vote!!]

King: first year on Council, clearly some issues with plowing.  We have a City Manager in place, he did a top-down review of snow removal operation.  We have seen additional resources and equipment.  Those who are elderly, etc., can contact someone to assist.

Straight: after what we have just heard, I am very excited for this winter.  He noticed that the problems that he saw were contractors and not city personnel.  There was a week where a whole lane of a street was covered in snow, so hopes things will be better after these reviews.  [Best response of the evening – I can’t get it all but this is good.]

Toomey: this year will be much better.  Bring in WPI for assistance.

[No one has mentioned the lack of treating many streets before the snow really hits…!!!!]

Q4: PawSox…that’s it, I’m ready to leave.  You know what the question is.  Who is more tired of this question: the candidates or Nicole?

Bergman: Pawtucket is a different example.  Although taxpayers of RI and Pawtucket have some risk, it is manageable.  Question of risk and safety.  PawSox – if level of risk is manageable, could pose huge potential for city.  This would help our inferiority complex.  Ditto Amazon.

Straight: It’s more of a risk-benefit analysis.  Thinks PawSox would be a draw.  People investing money should be ones benefitting.

Rosen: if he could, he would buy tickets tonight.  [note that no one has, as yet, mentioned the Creedon family.]  It’s like opening a business; you have to invest money.  [I thought the PawSox WERE a business; perhaps THEY can invest money when they open a business.]

Petty: would love to have the Red Sox here.  As far as public funding, we should treat as any other developer.

Bergman: rewards would outweigh the risk.

Q5: WRTA – disproportionate impact to low-income, etc., folks when there are cuts to funding, routes.  Commuter rail.

King: when there is an issue with funding, advocated on Beacon Hill.  We need to engage legislators.  Bus on time could be difference between homelessness and having an apartment.  Fair share legislation: money for infrastructure and schools.  Work with transit authority – not just lending an ear, being sensitive to needs of community.

Rosen: WRTA is really hurting.  A lot of people aren’t using the bus.  [I WONDER WHY!!!!]  We need more riders.  Chamber, WRRB, etc., need to encourage people to take the bus.

Lukes: technology is changing.  We haven’t caught up with it.  Self-driving cars, Uber, Lyft, [I think we need someone to talk about ACCESSIBILITY right about now].  MBTA is “an employment agency masquerading as a transportation service.”

Bergman: need to have an independent study.

King: emphasizes reliability.  Opioid crisis: folks need to get to treatment providers.

Q6: as a result of dual tax rate [ALL THE THIRD RAILS…WHERE IS FLUORIDATION??].  Worcester’s tax rate among the highest in the state.  High taxes [do we really have high taxes or high tax rate…?]

Straight: increase economic development.  Bring in more businesses and residents.  Increase senior exemption.  Short-term tax incentives can spur development.

Lukes: just listening here to the talk about tax exemptions.  Just shifts it to someone else.  Giving exemption to one group – we still need to fund services.  Someone else will be paying.  In Shrewsbury, value of property went way up, then selectmen lowered tax rate.   Properties in Worcester are cheap.

Toomey: tax RATE that everyone gets upset about – assessments in Shrewsbury went UP.  What you are approving in budget corresponds with tax rate.  Need to broaden tax base.  More businesses, more opportunity for free cash.

King: when we talk about dual tax rate to single tax rate, has been political issue that has been around a long time.  His father was small business owner, very sensitive to that.  Need to find more $$ for budget, need fair share amendment (for those making over $1million).  Tax rate: not on back of disabled, veterans, elderly.  Not feasible to do at this time.

Straight: all those groups that Mr King mentioned are exemptions.  These are the people we as a society want to help.

Q7: what metrics to assess manager, auditor, clerk?

Rosen: Ed Augustus is intelligent, capable, conscientious, loves the city.  Seen so much change in the last four years.  Supports him 100%.  As far as auditor – sometimes he surprises me, takes him a while to do research.  He should be better prepared as time.  City Clerk does terrific job.

Toomey: currently do have tool they use.  We are the ones who make priorities.  [Sorry, discussing the Boston accent with my companion and missed the response]

Petty: manager brings deals together.  We used to have review of each of those departments, have gotten away with it for past ten years, perhaps should review.

Straight: CM is doing a heckuva job [paraphrase; I’m getting punchy].  City clerk is wonderful, no experience with auditor.

Rosen: economic development, public safety, public health, parks.  He meets with Ed Augustus at least once a month.  “Let’s keep him, we need him.”

Q8: Bond ratings…city pays $35 million in debt service, not including OPEB.  How to lower cost of borrowing?

Lukes: 25% goes to city operations, then fixed costs, debt, OPEB.  Was up to $1billion, down to $800 million.  CM Hoover punted and put in a cushion of $8-10 million.  We don’t tax to the max.

Petty: Keep on the same path we’ve been on.  Five point plan, now seven point plan.  [I never thought of it this way…Mike O’Brien’s standard was the pentagram…?]  Saved $2 million this year due to better bond rating.

Bergman: a lot of cities our size are envious of our bond rating.  Sometimes we lose sight of increases in salaries, etc., “beyond our control”.  Merge school costs and city-side costs.

Rosen: OPEB challenge for all cities and towns.  Bond rating agencies are pretty tough.  They give us a very high bond rating.  They know wherever we can we put money towards this liability.

[this debate is turning me into a Mike O’Brien fangirl.  Bond ratings, the most boring topic ever, was a big deal.]

Lukes: wants to have things both ways.

Q9: Worcester is a creative city.  Arts have positive impact on econ dev.  Do you think city has role in financially supporting the arts?

Toomey: stay out of their way because they’re doing a great job.  Drives community, have people engaged from their community. Michelle May just did 10th year of Cirque du Noir.  Start on the Street.  Need to engage folks to provide housing, live/work spaces.

Straight: agrees with Toomey.  Sorry, missed it.

Petty: $125 million in revenue comes from arts.  4,000 jobs.  $9 million tax revenue.  Many we create a fund for the arts.  Add money from ticket sales for arts funding.

Rosen: arts in the parks, 100 events, certainly exceeded it.  Namechecks the Joy of Music Program, so I will agree with that shout-out.

[no one has yet mentioned the Happiness Pony.]

Q10: Affordable housing, no adjacent community has achieved 10% recommended by state law.

Petty: this is one of the issues we should address as a Council.  [One should really ask these people, so many of whom are incumbents, WHAT THEY HAVE DONE.  My goodness, I don’t want to hear someone who has been in office for years that this is something that “should be addressed.”  Just do it.]  Mentions Main South, other projects.  Supports affordable housing for everyone.  Getting expensive in the city.

Rosen: Worcester needs both affordable and market-rate housing.  Need to have regional approach.  The solution is not Worcester takes more unless surrounding towns pay into the affordable housing we provide.

Bergman: problem not with towns but with the state.  If you don’t do 10%, no stick/penalty; if you do more than 10%, no carrot/reward.  Fact that people who own properties spend more in community.  We need to increase homeownership.

Lukes: being a homeowner is expensive proposition.  We don’t understand population in Worcester, constantly changing.  More issues with homelessness, landlords in triple deckers keeping empty apartments because they can’t deal with business of being landlord.  She lived through this with inherited property.  Revenue coming in was as much as tenants could pay, and did not cover expenses of owning the home.

Q11: downtown’s commercial vibrancy of yore.  Pedestrian-friendly business corridor emphasis relatively new.  Urban design/planning.

Bergman: should be urban design guidelines [not his exact words] for planning board.  New WRTA building looks like it was built in the 1970s.  just because Worcester’s cold doesn’t mean we can’t use bikes.  Evolve to accommodate other types of traffic, still have some ways to go.

Lukes: debate forums painful for candidates.  This year we have gotten a consensus on architectural design review.  “You’re not going to cut me off at 30 seconds, I was just getting warmed up”  If city doesn’t look good, won’t get good first impression.

King: need to have inclusive urban design.  Need to ensure that as Council.  WRA.  Asked for master plan for Main South area.  Comprehensive approach to econ dev.  Participated with Human Rights Commission, navigating with wheelchair.  Moving in right direction.

Toomey: need to do research and look at trends.  People want to live downtown, want to be able to walk to restaurant, theater, etc.

Q12: Tension over issues of race, gender, class.

King: start with representative government.  Most diverse city council in history.  Have to ensure people are part of the process.  Need boards to have diverse representation.  Steer clear of dog whistle politics, have seen some of that on Council floor.  Most councilors have spoken up when they see that.

Toomey: nothing more exciting than when she attends social, cultural, or ethnic events.  Doesn’t see a lot of people crossing over from individual culture.  Would like to see a world parade, or world marketplace.

Straight: city has done some good in this area.  Elections office put out PSAs in different languages.  Crowdsourcing efforts about meetings (didn’t understand this one).  City Council can set the tone and encourage participation.

Petty: worked hard over past 6 years to make everyone feel welcome.  Hired chief diversity officer, in process of hiring another one.  Making sure diverse in hiring practices.  Work with Century to provide translation services.  Clergy working with police.  Jobs for youth, Rec Worcester.

Q13: in 2016, more than 1,000 overdoses.  53 were fatal.  What do you think city should do about drug addiction?

Straight: high on list of his priorities.  People become addicted in different ways.  Not a disease that discriminates.  No other way to address except dedicating resources to it.  Lack of beds and services.  Narcan distributed and has saved lives, but need treatment so that people can take back lives and get well.

Petty: education and taking stigma away.  Have trained police, fire, health workers.  Police and fire have Narcan.  Karyn Polito – diverting people into treatment versus prison.

Rosen: crisis that knows no boundaries.  Make sure doctors no longer prescribe opiates to young athletes, especially.  Would have sports teams, young people educated.  Have to prevent it.

Bergman: equal opportunity disaster.  Council is not the experts, should defer to the experts.  Shouldn’t be treated as a crime but as a disease.

[To those of us who listened to so much stigmatization from various Councilors of yesteryear regarding yellow boxes and various treatment efforts, this is a sea change.  Would that these people, at least one of whom answered this question, had felt differently 15-20 years ago!]

Straight: part of taxes from marijuana shops should go to opioid addiction efforts.

Q14: Mt Carmel, Notre Dame

Rosen: has been working with Preservation Worcester.  Little hope for ND, dwindling hope for Mt Carmel.  We need to look at other historic buildings and developers for proactive preservation.

Bergman: respect private property rights, but needs to be balances with the city’s need.  Once old buildings disappear, new buildings never as attractive.  Needs to be good faith efforts during year of demolition delay.

Lukes: from public policy viewpoint, need to try to preserve these buildings and more.  Look at buildings as form of public art.

King: Council clear about Mt Carmel situation.  Important structures.  Top 10 list developed by the city [as opposed to PW’s top 10 list…?!]  There can be some work done in re econ dev.  Not just about Italian Community, served youth, low income housing, across cultures, heart of community.

Q15: trash collection system.  New approaches to litter, dumping.

Lukes: several years, has tried to have ban on plastic bags.  We have moved too slowly.  Look at whole issue of recycling and reuse.  City can cut back on trash by 90% by 2040.  Need plan in place to move in that direction.

King: has suggested to manager: increase hours of drop-off sites; bins should help keep items inside.

Toomey: non-profit collection bins had a lot of dumping, were able to establish permitting.  Need more cameras in problem spots.  Need to fine folks.  KEEP WORCESTER CLEAN.  [OK, now I really miss Mike O’Brien.]

Straight: trash caught in weeds on side of road.  Hold state accountable for cleaning up on and off ramps of highways.  Clear plastic bags to contain recycling.  Money picking up trash, should put towards bulk trash pickup program.

Q16: public education – 60% of budget, educates 85% of youth.  Strategic plan being developed.

Rosen: SC should consider foundation budget.  If formula were changed – $90 million more for WPS.

Toomey: [Dianna and Brian came here after their forum].  When she was on the SC, advocated for change in Ch 70 funding.  Put pressure on state and federal government to pay their fair share.  We should be educating adults to prepare for new jobs, expand economy.

Petty: we are $90 million behind.

Bergman: more challenges in schools by virtue of different immigrants, socioeconomic differences. Formula will not be solved at the council level.  We can engage in a class action with similar communities as a last resort.

Straight: likes some options mentioned above.  Look at innovative ways to save in school system.  BPS saved $3-5 million by optimizing bus routes.

Lukes: when we look at $90 million figure, we’re not going to get that.  Look at Innovation Districts like Union Hill.  (Sorry, might not have been the exact wording, been typing too long.)

King: always competing priorities.  Investment in ed a priority.  Middle schools sports can be brought back with outside funding.  Great delegation, work with them to move things forward.  Black and Latino Caucus with Sonya C-D, moving to adjust the formula.

Closing statements – I will skip


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