Thursday, October 26, 2017

Financial Policies for the City

On Monday, 10/23/17, Mayor Gray submitted Administrative Order 2017-05 to the City Council, "City of Amesbury Financial Policies: A Community Compact Initiative." This was a welcome submission.

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue's Division of Local Services (DOR-DLS) has long encouraged cities and towns in the Commonwealth to establish in writing policies and procedures to guide financial practices and decision-making. In fact, the DOR-DLS website has a number of fact sheets summarizing what 'best practice' policies would look like and achieve - you can find these fact sheets HERE. Bond raters like to see that a community has a sound set of explicit management policies, as well, as a part of evaluating how good of a 'bet' a community's bond issue is for investors and issuing a rating for that issue.

Apart from some relevant sections of our Home Rule Charter that articulate some financial standards, policies, and process, Amesbury has long operated without written, formal financial policies in a number of key areas, including: treatment of unexpended funds, capital planning, debt management, reserve accounts, etc. This is NOT to say that Amesbury has been operating without policies in these areas, just that they were not written down, for use by the executive and legislative branches to guide decision-making. In fact, for years, the reports that bond rating agencies produce when Amesbury prepares a bond issue have noted this, that we have policies, just not written up (and publicly available).

For example, from a 2013 Standard and Poor report for Amesbury: "Budget assumptions are done conservatively and reserves are managed in accordance with Amesbury's stated policy. The fund balance policy seeks a minimum fund balance in stabilization of 5% of expenditures. The city does not have a formal debt management policy but targets total debt service at no more than 5%-10% of general fund expenditures." So, we have had policies in place, but in an informal state.

As a City Councilor serving under two Mayors, this lack of written policies has always presented challenges. The City Council plays a crucial role in our form of government of evaluating and then modifying, rejecting, or approving a wide variety of appropriations, from the annual operating budget, to spending out of reserve accounts, the funding of reserve accounts, use of unexpended funds (such as 'free cash') on capital and other costs, and the approval of debt. This amounts to tends of millions of dollars in expenditures annually that the Council acts upon, as initiated from the Mayor. The absence of written policies contributes to something of an ad-hoc approach decision-making, without a set of reference points/policies to work from.

If you take that responsibility seriously, then you need to have coherent and sound guidelines in place to make those decisions. I've long had my own standards in place for making my decisions and in this year I've had opportunity to partner with colleagues to express those standards in the context of specific spending requests. You can read about all that HERE.

In early 2016, the City accepted a 'Community Compact' grant from the Commonwealth; one of the things that this grant funded was for the City to engage with a consultant (The Abrahams Group) to develop written financial management policies. Work on these policies proceeded without any participation from the Council and it was indicated that the product in draft form would not be made available for review or discussion. Closing in on the final months of the current Council session and with both Councilor Lavoie and me not standing for re-election, we were highly motivated to see some financial policies in place by the end of our terms in office. We partnered with Councilor Stanganelli to develop our own set of proposed financial policies for the City; we filed with with the City Clerk for our October 2017 meeting. With the Mayor's policies submitted, we plan on withdrawing our proposal in November, as a redundant document. You can read our filing HERE.

A few final words. There is a lot to like in what the Mayor submitted and there is a LOT of common ground between our sets of policies. Both articulate policies in key areas: reserves, free cash, stabilization funds, capital planning, and debt management. Both set targets to fund reserve accounts at levels higher than currently funded. The Mayor's policies goes beyond what we submitted and calls for the establishment of a 'Capital Stabilization Fund' in order to retain and reserve fund appropriated for capital projects into future years, in order to support a 'pay-as-you-go' approach to capital spending.

For our submission, we consulted (and borrowed from) financial policies from other Massachusetts small cities. Similarly, the Mayor worked with a consultant who has also produced policies for othe towns and cities in Massachusetts. In fact, it looks like we all used some of the same sources, as there is some verbatim language that appears in both our documents.

All this to say, Councilors Lavoie, Stanganelli and me were all pleased to receive the Mayor's administrative order. We will likely offer some feedback on the document but only with some suggestions for improvement.

And now, the next step will be for the Mayor and the Council to put the policies into action and use them productively to guide financial decision making moving forward.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

To Dispatch or Not to Dispatch....That Was The Question

In May, Mayor Gray brought a request to the City Council that we grant him full authority to negotiate a withdrawal from participation in the Essex County Regional Emergency Communications Center (ECRECC) by triggering a 2 year process for withdrawal. Last week, at our 6/13/17 City Council meeting, the City Council voted to approve the Mayor's request.

I received a lot of questions from constituents about what all this actually means, though, for the record, I didn't receive any direct communications from constituents for or against this request. It's fair to say that me and my fellow Councilors had to take something of a crash course on what the ECRECC is, how it operates, how it fits into the 911 system managed by the Commonwealth, what it means that we participate in the ECRECC, what it might mean if we pull out, and what the costs are of both staying and and pulling out.

To learn about this issue, I read all of the material that I could find, met with the Mayor and the Police and Fire Chiefs, spoke by phone with both the ECRECC and the State 911 Directors, spent a morning touring the ECRECC in Middleton with fellow Councilors, and participated in a 3 hour City Council workshop solely dedicated to this issue.

In this blog post, I'll try to answer a few basic questions about the ECRECC and the statewide 911 system, lay out my own thoughts on the issue, and explain my vote.

What is the ESRECC?

Here's this concise summary, straight from ECRECC's website [emphases added]:
We are located in Middleton, Massachusetts and operate under the authority of the Essex County Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff Kevin F. Coppinger.  The ECRECC is the Regional 9-1-1 Center that provides emergency communications services to the communities of Amesbury, Essex, Middleton, Topsfield and Wenham, Massachusetts and is responsible for answering emergency 9-1-1 calls and dispatching resources such as police officers, firefighters and paramedics to citizens requiring assistance.
Additionally, the ECRECC is the primary answering point for wireless 9-1-1 calls in Essex county, northern Middlesex county, and 3 communities in Suffolk county. The wireless function is responsible for answering 9-1-1 calls and relaying them to the appropriate Public Safety Answering Point, or PSAP.
OK, what does that mean?

Let's start with the second paragraph first. The ECRECC is one of only three places in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where ALL 911 CALLS MADE go to be answered. The other two are in Framingham and Northampton. Most folks don't realize it but if you made a 911 call in Massachusetts, that call rings to one of these three locations ONLY. You can read more about the State 911 program HERE. At ECRECC, over 75% of all 911 calls received are wireless and this percent continues to go up annually, as more people do away with land lines.

Next, as stated above, once a wireless 911 call is answered by ECRECC, the call is relayed "to the appropriate Public Safety Answering Point", or PSAP.  

What is a PSAP? 

A PSAP is the 'answering point' where a detailed information is taken from a caller about their situation and, if necessary local emergency services - police, fire, EMT - are dispatched, or sent out in response.

This gets us to the first paragraph in the ECRECC blurb above. Since 2015, and as part of a process of consolidation, regionalization, and the reduction of the number of PSAPS in the Commonwealth mandated by the Legislature, Amesbury has had its PSAP/'dispatch' functions managed by ECRECC. There are 351 communities in the Commonwealth. In the Central and Western parts of Massachusetts, the majority of communities participate in regional dispatch centers. The picture is fairly different in Eastern MA, on the North and South Shores, as well as the Metro-West area. Here's a current map - communities are color coded to their regional collaborative. Amesbury is part of the lavendar colored ECRECC PSAP in the upper right. Communities in white are 'Primary PSAPs' and operate on their own.
 What is Amesbury's relationship to the ECRECC?

Amesbury participates in the ECRECC regional dispatch center through an Intermunicipal Agreement that was authorized by the City Council in 2010. In 2005, the MA Legislature enacted a law that required the State 911 Department to work towards regionalizing and consolidating PSAPs, in order to reduce the number of PSAPs in MA. The Commonwealth oversees and supports 911 systems across the Commonwealth. It is an inefficient and costly proposition for the Commonwealth to support 351 free-standing PSAPs. The ECRECC was formed as part of this effort and leveraging the existing regional wireless communications center already in Middleton (one of the three in MA for wireless).

As a member of ECRECC for PSAP services, the ECRECC not only receives all landline and wireless 911 calls for Amesbury, it also dispatches emergency vehicles from Amesbury's Police and Fire Departments, using hardware and software with geo-coded functions to manage caller information and to track vehicles on the ground in real time. Amesbury pays a 'per capita' fee to the ECRECC for this service, based on population, somewhat like a subscription.

Starting to make sense. What do we get by staying in the ECRECC?
 There are a few advantages to participating in something like the ECRECC. There are obvious economies of scale and value in sharing costs in such an arrangement:
  • Hardware and other capital overhead
  • Software purchase and maintenance
  • Staff training and certification
  • Minimizing staff 'down time' and maximizing staffing patterns 
Also, as part of the Commonwealth's incentives to share costs, regional PSAPs such as ECRECC have access to capital/system development and enhancement grants that stand-alone PSAPs do not (leaving the taxpayers at those stand-alones to bear the full burden of costs). There is also significant system resiliency (to use a current phrase) in a shared system, especially in terms of personnel/staffing.

In terms of call answering and response dispatch times, the ECRECC has performed at or above national industry standards.

Sounds good. What's the downside to the ECRECC? Why did the Mayor want to get out?

 The City Council was presented with a few reasons to withdraw.
  • The ECRECC used a geo-location and tracking software that was widely disliked by the users (and it was the only PSAP in the Commonwealth using this particular system).
  • In order to receive alarm signals as a PSAP and then generate dispatch from local Amesbury systems 'hard wired' to ring at the Fire Department (think school buildings, nursing homes, major businesses), the ECRECC installed a transmitter on Powow Hill that in some cold weather situations had proved weak.
  • Because there is no dispatch center in Amesbury monitoring the channels of surrounding police and fire departments, because none of our surrounding communities participate in ECRECC, and because the Middleton-based ECRECC can't easily monitor all of the various emergency channels in Essex County, Amesbury's Police and Fire departments experienced something of being on an 'island.' Individual vehicles can monitor local channels but it doesn't happen in a centralized way. This can be important when, say, a car chase just as the one we had the other night passes from town to town rapidly.
  • Concerns that the ECRECC per-capita 'membership' fee would go up (it hasn't changed since we joined originally).
  • The Mayor and the Police and Fire Chiefs disliked the collaborative decision-making structure of the ECRECC.
It's worth noting that there were no performance problems on the ECRECC's part stated as reasons to withdraw by the Mayor and Chiefs nor was any data presented by the Mayor or the Chiefs to this effect. 

So, what are the bottom lines?

For me, the most compelling argument for withdrawing from the ECRECC was the third one, about being on something of a 'island'. The other ECRECC participating communities are more contiguous. I've seen lots of both Police and Fire responses that involved resources from multiple communities and in fluid situations, so I can see how that might be an issue.

As far as the software and the transmitter on Powow Hill, grant resources are currently in the works from the Commonwealth that stand a good chance of funding software replacement to the preferred platform and structural upgrade to the transmitter. So, both of those objections were likely to be cured in the coming months.

Withdrawal will not change the fact that over 75% of all 911 calls (that is, 100% of all wireless 911 calls) will continue to be answered at ECRECC. It would change the fact, however, that dispatch of resources would be handled locally, post-withdrawal. (ECRECC would take the call but as soon as nature and location was determined, the call would be transferred to the re-established PSAP in Amesbury for full 'intake' and then resource dispatch.)

Amesbury would lose the economy of scale and leveraging of resources that comes with the ECRECC. It would also lose access to some grant funding for capital costs; Amesbury taxpayers will carry 100% of future personnel, training, certification, hardware, software, and overhead costs for this activity (rather than sharing them).

Amesbury would gain greater autonomy in managing on the ground resources. It would improve its ability to coordinate with surrounding communities.

We know even at this point that withdrawal will cost us more. The Commonwealth is about to upgrade ALL PSAPs to a 'NextGen 911' system. Were we to remain in the ECRECC, State 911 would pay for 100% of this cost. If we withdraw, we will be responsible for 100% of this cost (estimated at approximately $100,000). We will have to upgrade and annually maintain hardware and software. We will have to hire over 6 new personnel, with all of the pension and benefit obligations associated. Of course, some (but not all) of these costs will be offset by not having to send our annual 'membership' monies to ECRECC. The City Council was provided with some rudimentary future cost data but it was pretty clear that the cost estimates provided were inadequate and did not include some known (and at least one apparently unanticipated) costs.

What happens now?

Under the terms of our signed agreement with the ECRECC, we have to give '2 years notice' of withdrawal. The Mayor has now been authorized to give this notice of intent to withdraw and 'start this clock.'

At the same time, this proposal to withdraw and create a new PSAP must first be approved by the Commonwealth's 911 Department. It is not a given that the Commonwealth will approve this request, though the likelihood is high that they would. That said, we count bank on the fact that this approval, if given, will come with conditions. You can read what they told Athol/Gardner and what they told Hopedale at these links. The Hopedale situation is most like ours. They mandated that Hopedale either join or form another regional dispatch center within three years of approval (and, in fact, that is what happened - their dispatch is now handled by another community).

The determination of the Commonwealth to our request presents what I see as the highest risks to Amesbury, both in terms of potentially defeating our whole motivation to have greater autonomy (by requiring us to join with someone else instead) and in terms of financial unknowns. We don't have a price tag on the mandatory 'NextGen 911' upgrade that will fall on us nor do we know if there will be any financial 'clawback' requirements from either ECRECC or the Commonwealth.

Final thoughts

With withdrawal and the creation of a new PSAP, we are swimming against the entire funding and policy tide of the Commonwealth. But we hope to gain in autonomy what we will lose in higher costs. I can not imagine that taking this step will be anything other than a short- or, at best, medium-term situation. What the long-term direction of the Commonwealth will be - in this state that is notoriously decentralized in terms of governance - in regards to emergency dispatch policy and infrastructure is remains to be seen, but with advances in technology and deeper penetration of wireless cell phone use, it won't be towards stand-alone systems.

With the big unknowns related to what the Commonwealth might tell us, I offered an amendment on 6/13 requiring a 2nd confirming vote on withdrawal by the City Council, once we had that response from State 911. It seemed like a fundamental part of due diligence to get this information prior to confirming withdrawal. (I'd conferred with Councilors Scorzoni and Lavoie on this amendment in advance.) However, it was not seconded by anyone in the thick of things and there seemed to be little appetite to slow down this train, apart from Councilor Stanganelli. It is our job as Councilors to be cautious. I hope that the Mayor is similarly cautious about finalizing any withdrawal that presents Amesbury with unacceptable negatives.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

School Budget Capital Requests and Responsible Spending

Election season seems to have started early this year, judging from the salacious headline and some of the quotes in today's Daily News: "Councilors Reject $250K for Schools".

Indeed, Councilors Scorzoni, Lavoie, Stanganelli, and I did in fact vote against a request from Mayor Gray to fund $250,000 in various 'capital/non-recurring' expenses out of the City's special Smart Growth Stabilization Fund.

Let us be clear, however. As indicated in our comments at this vote, we were NOT opposed to the costs themselves NOR were we adverse to considering alternative means of funding them. We WERE concerned with the means by which the Mayor proposed to fund these costs.

Taken in the entire context of over $1.5M in year-end outside-the-budget appropriation requests (including covering $830,000 in current year budget deficits), the four of us had reservations about how the Mayor was approaching a variety of costs, including these school related requests.

We summarized our concerns in a letter to the Mayor that we sent in May, shortly after receiving the raft of year-end requests. We also suggested how we might collaborate on some alternative strategies. You can read the letter HERE.

To be brief (never easy), our objections to this particular set of bundled costs were:
    • 90% of the costs in this request (except for athletic uniforms) are capital costs - it is standard best practice to amortize capital costs across multiple years. For a municipality, this means bonding them. The City has long been addicted to funding all capital costs - save for costs in excess of $1M - out of Free Cash and other reserve and one-time sources. This is a fundamentally unsound and unsustainable approach, both short and long term.
    • The Mayor proposed using $250,000 from the Smart-Growth Stabilization Fund for these expenses. This Fund, as established and authorized by the City Council in 2007, has a very narrow range of purposes for which it can be spent, to wit: The purpose of the Fund will be to offset the impacts, additional costs and expenses of Low and Moderate Income Housing Projects applied for under Chapter 40B, 40R, or 40s, and projects applied for under Chapter 43D 'Expedited Permitting.' It stretched the imagination to see how known school capital costs (and athletic uniforms) might fit into this Fund authorization.
 You can read the original ordinance that established the "Smart Growth Stabilization Fund" in 2007 HERE.

The City Council HAS approved spending out of this account in the past, including for OTHER requests on Tuesday night (6/13/17, Lake Gardner Beach Improvements, Quality of Life Committee, DPW Sign Boards) and THIS $250,000 request in 2015. So, we aren't adverse to using the Smart Growth Fund for eligible costs.

This might all seem like insider baseball but the fact remains that one of the reasons that Amesbury struggles with its tax rate is its haphazard and undirected approach to capital planning.

This has long been a concern of mine. In 2015 and at the Mayor's request, I sent him THIS MEMO detailing how I thought we could improve our capital planning and spending. We have made some modest improvements to our planning since then but we still have a long ways to go.

As a group, we look forward to working with the Mayor to identify more stable and sound means of taking care of these very real needs at our schools. With three of us who opposed this request with children in Amesbury Schools and with our long track records, our support of the Amesbury Public Schools and its mission remains solid.

Friday, March 17, 2017

South Hunt Ice Rink Complex - Planning and Traffic Questions

Unless you've been under a rock all winter (or someplace warm and far away), you know by now that plans are afoot to develop a large multi-rink ice skating complex on South Hunt Road, on property just behind the slopes at Amesbury Sports Park and the buildings that host Turner Motor Sports and Seacoast United's indoor soccer facility. Global Property Developers plans on investing $30 million in developing a complex of ice rinks that will host local and regional teams for practice and games, as well as host national and international tournaments.

The complex will be sited on the cleared tear-drop shaped site pictured here. That is I-495 running across the top, with South Hunt Road running parallel to it.

You can read more about the proposal HERE in this December article from the Newburyport Daily News.

The City Council received a presentation in December from Community and Economic Development Director Bill Scott about the project. You can read the presentation HERE. There are clear benefits for Amesbury from this project: significant tax revenue, daily traffic of users coming to Amesbury from around the region, spill over economic activity.

As I understand it, the ice rink development is consistent with the underlying zoning for the 48 South Hunt property. This means that the project is 'by-right' and should not require any special permitting. The Boston Globe reports that permitting is proceeding and that the developer hopes to break ground this summer.

I think that the site and its context on South Hunt Road is generally well-suited for this type of development and that the project will bring a variety of straight-foward benefits to Amesbury.

I do have one area of concern, however, and that is the impact of traffic related to the development on adjacent and connecting roadways, neighborhoods, and intersections.

South Hunt Road is a narrow road, with no shoulder and with modest amounts of traffic (even with the DPW facility). It goes past and through residential areas (including S. Martin Road) and terminates at a tricky intersection with Rt. 150, where off- and on-ramps are situated just across the street.

At the same time, the proposed ice rink complex will be 250,000 - 300,000 square feet in size on a 49 acre lot, with anticipated year-round operation 7 days a week, early morning through the evening.

For comparison, the new Super Wal-Mart at the intersection of Rt. 107 and Rt. 1 in Seabrook is 189,564 square feet in size (total new development at that plaza is 380,000 square feet) on a 51 acre lot. If you've been there, you have a sense of the scale, the size of the parking lot, and the substantial upgrades to the adjoining roads and intersections that were integrated with that project.

These two pictures below show the before and after of both the site and the nearby roads and intersection.

The 2005 Google Earth image shows the undeveloped site on the upper left. The 2015 Google Earth image below it shows the completed project. The new ice rink complex will be about 80,000 sq/ft less than the total of the buildings built in the new Super Wal-Mart plaze (upper left/2015); the lot size will be roughly the same.

It's hard to see the detail but with the new plaza, roads and the Rt. 107/Rt.1 intersection were all widened. Lanes coming (east) on Rt. 107 went from 3 to 5. Lanes on Rt. 1 south went from 4 to 5 (at the intersection). The access road coming in down the middle went from 2 to 4 lanes at the intersection with Rt. 1. Rt. 1 north from the intersection increased to 3 lanes.

For the new ice rink complex, access has been a crucial issue. The property at 48 South Hunt Road is a bit land-locked. The December proposal included access from South Hunt Road, on property that has been owned by Waste Management. Presuming that access from South Hunt to the lot itself has been worked out and that all approvals for the project will at least require accommodations for a high volume of traffic coming and going from S. Hunt to the rink, my concerns are with the connection from 48 S. Hunt Road to Rt. 150.

The stretch of S. Hunt running from #48 to Rt. 150 is narrow and the outlet onto Rt. 150 does not strike me as remotely designed for volume.

You can see the relationship of the property to Rt. 150 in the photo below.

The ice rink lot is circled in RED. For reference, the Sports Park is circled in YELLOW. And the outlet of S. Hunt Road onto Rt. 150 (including the on-/off- ramps opposite) is circled in BLUE. I-495 runs along the right; the route into downtown Amesbury is off the map to the right. on Rt. 150 north. The residential neighborhood on S. Martin Road lies just below the Sports Park, in the wooded area with the street running across the image. (NOTE: the other big open space, right by Rt. 150, is the City-owned Titcomb Landfill. Installation of the planned solar field there has stalled.)

Drop a Super Wal-Mart + adjacent shopping plaza + parking in the RED area. Then compare the narrow road that is South Hunt (running parallel to I-495) with the kind of roadways and intersections built up for the Super Wal-Mart development in Seabrook; the difference is dramatic.

Let me note that OF COURSE the roadways around the Super Wal-Mart were already wide and built up to accommodate the other commercial development along Rt. 1 (Staples, Lowes, Market Basket, etc) as well as Rt. 1 local highway traffic in general, so the direct comparison is rough and imprecise. That said, there's no question that the new development will put road traffic pressure on South Hunt and Rt. 150.

So, I have strong concerns that while the site approvals for the rink complex have developed apace (and seem to be imminent) and the developer has plans to break ground soon, there has not been sufficient planning by the City to assess anticipated traffic volume and pattern changes and plan/design/fund solutions.

As it stands, having a Super Wal-Mart sized property (with near constant flow of users coming and going) served by the current roadways would be a bit like trying to vacuum a watermelon up with a DustBuster.

What I hope is that as this plan wends its way through the Planning Board approval process, attention is paid to larger impacts on roadway infrastructure. I've shared my concerns with the City's Planner and hope that this all proceeds in an integrated and well-planned way. To my knowledge (which may well be incomplete), impact assessment and mitigation planning/design has not been done yet, even with the potential breaking ground of rink construction this summer. I look forward to learning more.

Monday, January 16, 2017

How To Make A Park Disappear

In this blog post, I want to talk about how easy it is for a publicly owned property that seemingly has strong preservation restrictions on it to be re-classified based on an administrative technicality and be made available for sale or other use.

At our October 11, 2016 City Council meeting, we took up measure number 2016-087, An Order to Transfer the Care, Custody and Control of Margaret Rice Park form the Tax Title Custodian to the Mayor for General Municipal Purposes.

The 3 lots that have been known since 1999 as 'Margaret Rice Park'
The order passed 7-0-1 (I abstained) and with that, the 3 municipally owned lots known since 1999 as "Margaret Rice Park" were de-designated as park land and re-designated as municipal property 'for general municipal purposes.'

Here's a map of the properties, which are outlined in red (for reference, Amesbury Sports Park is outlined in pink). That is I495 crossing across the top of the map, with the interchange with Rt. 150 in the upper right and the Merrimack River in the lower right.


The 3 lots had come into the City's possession in the 1990's as a tax title taking. In 1999, the City Council voted by a 2/3 majority to designate
the 3 lots, indicated in the records as 'under the control of the Mayor', as "park land" and that care and custody of it be given over to the Amesbury Parks and Recreation Commission. This action was designed to give the land a high level of protection as park land for the general public's use. [Read the 1999 Order HERE.]

Under the MA General Law cited in the Council's 1999 designation - MGL Chap. 40, Sec. 15a, such designated park land can ONLY be taken out of 'protected' park land status by a 2/3 vote of the MA General Court (the legislature). This is possible to do but is not a simple or fast process.

In 2000, the Council passed an order establishing park signage and in 2001 it passed an order providing for the development of "Recreational Athletic Fields" at the site (as part of the ongoing saga to develop soccer fields in Amesbury).

[NOTE: from the records that we were provided, there is no clear legislative record of how and when the properties came to be known as "Margaret Rice Park" (after Amesbury's revered citizen-historian) but the properties seem to have been known by this name about since park designation was made.]

It's worth noting that the three lots off S. Martin Road is hardly pristine woodlands or fields. It was formerly a gravel pit, used (as I understand it) for fill when I-495 was constructed through town. As such, it also contains dumped fill and construction material and may well require environmental remediation, should ANY future user put it to use. The properties are, however, adjacent to several public and private open space properties, including the Merrimack Landing Conservation Area, which I wrote about HERE.

Attention turns to the properties again

The 3 Park lots have more or less languished since the late 1990's, used mostly by all-terrain vehicles and dirt bike riders (both, illegally). The lots became of interest to the City as the recently proposed hockey rink complex came in to view. The 3 lots could potentially used for access to the proposed rink site on Waste Management property or, more likely, it may be attractive for ancillary commercial development.

With that project and those potential uses in view, the City began exploring how it might go about de-designating the Park and making it available for sale and/or development. As the City explored the legislative route (by seeking support of our local representation at the State House), it also explored the legal record of the properties, including the City Council's 1999 actions creating the Park in the first place.

The devil is in the details

Research by the City's legal firm - Kopelmann and Paige turned up - or rather, failed to turn up - a critical piece of the 1999 designation process. When 'taken' by the City as tax title taking, the 3 properties had become the custody of the City's 'Tax Title Custodian', in our case, the City's Collector/Treasurer. Here's the complicated part: in order for the 3 properties to have been under the 'care and custody' of the Mayor, there would need to have been a record, something as simple as a 1 paragraph letter, from the Collector/Treasurer indicating that the properties were no longer needed to cover a tax lien and were therefore discharged to the City - with the Mayor as executive - for general purpose use. And in the absence of such a document, the City's counsel argued that ALL of the City Council's subsequent actions designating it park land, turning it over to Parks and Recreation Commission, etc., were null and void and could be completely ignored.

"Margaret Rice Park is not a Park"

This brings us back to the October vote. The action that we took that night was to fill in the gap of that missing 'transfer' from tax title custodian to the city, so that the City could now use it for 'general purposes,' including selling it in whole or part, leasing it, etc.

Here's why I abstained. As I said at the vote, I'm not opposed to taking the properties out of park land designation nor opposed to using them for future commercial or other uses; as I said, they are not exactly prime woodland or open space. However, I was very uncomfortable with the fact that the legitimacy of our vote clearly assumed the nullification of prior Council that was very clear in its intent, based on the absence of a single document (note: our City records may not be 100% sound). I was especially uncomfortable ignoring almost 20 years of precedent on these properties inasmuch as they were theoretically protected open space properties. I saw no reason for the City not to pursue the likely successful process of having the State Legislature cleanly and officially vote to remove 'park land' status from the property.

The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story, for me, is that is very easy to find an administrative or legislative flaw in a process or in a body of documentation, if you want a particular outcome. In this case, that outcome was to make the protection status on some City-owned parcels rapidly disappear. 

The recently established Open Space Committee has taken as our first order of business a thorough inventory of Amesbury's Open Space properties and this includes a review of the levels and types of protection on properties AND the soundness of those protections. Suffice it to say that most of our prime and prominent properties, including the vast majority of Woodsom Farm, have NO protections on them and, as we can see, decades of use precedence or even official past actions may not matter, when the right commercial or industrial development comes into view.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Thoughts from a Soccer Dad

I've become a Soccer dad.

For a class project this week, my son had to answer the question: 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' His response: 'an MLS player,' MLS standing for Major League Soccer. [This is on the days when his goal isn't to be a Major League Baseball player.]

For school picture day this week at Cashman, he insisted on wearing his soccer uniform.

With a child so active in their program, I was excited when the Amesbury Soccer Association (ASA) signed a long-term ground lease with the City for space at Woodsom Farm for the purpose of developing new soccer fields for ASA. my wife and I were early and enthusiastic supporters of ASA's fundraising efforts.

So I very much hope that there are new, quality soccer fields in place at Woodsom Farm before my son ages out of ASA's programming.

Given that, why in the world did I not vote in support of the resolution that came up at last night's (9/13) City Council meeting that expressed a commitment from the City Council to use proceeds from the sale of city-owned 'Margaret Rice Park' properties on S. Martin road for the construction of ASA's new soccer fields at Woodsom (I joined Councilor Lavoie in abstaining on the issue).

Why, indeed?

I mean, as my colleagues repeatedly told me last night (amidst the eye rolling and audible sighs), this was 'just a resolution' that had no binding effect (it didn't actually make any appropriation of city $$ for soccer fields). So what's the fuss?

Even though it was only a 'resolution' vote and not an actual allocation of funds, to me it is important to talk through and debate a question before putting my name on something (with an affirmative vote). And the level of discussion and debate that we held as a Council on this issue? Well, on that, the less said, the better ('if you can't say something nice...').

That's why I abstained on the resolution.

Maybe not every resolution is heavy with significance but others are, such as when we resolved to oppose the re-licensing of the Seabrook Nuclear Station a couple of years ago.

To me - in my primary fiduciary duty to the city of Amesbury and its residents - a resolution is meaningful when we are talking about resolving to allocate some unspecified amount of money (but likely in the $5000,00+ range, but who knows - see below) that the City does not have from a source that important roadblocks in its way for a purpose that has not been placed into any larger capital planning process. 

Unfortunately, most of my colleagues disagreed and the Council actively avoided any meaningful discussion of this matter.

Here are a few of my concerns.

Unclear status of the properties on S. Martin Road: Decades ago, the city took possession of 3 parcels off S. Martin Road through a tax taking process. In 1999, the City Council voted to transfer custody of the parcels to the Parks and Recreation Commission and declared the properties to be park land, to be set aside for the enjoyment of the citizens of Amesbury. It has been understood since then that based on this 1999 action by the City Council, the land now had a protected 'park land' status under Article 97 of the MA Constitution, a preservation status that can only be reversed by 2/3 of both the State House and Senate in a vote. 

However, given some recent interest by developers in this site, the City has dug in to the issue further and the City's legal counsel has offered an opinion that the 1999 vote was not properly phrased - regardless of clear intention - and so the land was never put under this protected 'park land' status. If this were true, it would make it much easier for the City move forward with selling or leasing the property to a private developer. 

I'll state up front that I'm not a lawyer but having read the counsel's memo to the City, I'm not yet confident that the properties' statuses are clear. The Mayor's resolution has us promising money from a sale that, at least for this Councilor, has a major legal roadblock still in the way - the question of its protected status based on votes in 1999. So, in my mind, it is very premature to be making promises, when we first have some real issues to sort out - very much putting the cart before the horse.
Value of the properties in question: The resolution identifies a need and identifies a solution. Nowhere, however, does the resolution or any of the documentation give a sense of what the revenue might be from the theoretical sale of the 3 properties. Nor did we get any indication of what the Amesbury Soccer Association's financial needs are for this project. 

Would the sale potentially meet the objective (fund fields)? Who knows! Does it matter? Of course it does, otherwise why would we even bother talking about this if the solution wasn't appropriate for the problem? But, again, who knows what the facts are.

Choice of ASA's project to receive the proceeds? Certainly, the ASA's soccer fields project is a prominent non-profit effort being undertaken in Amesbury at present. Maybe you've seen their green and white 'Fields For Kids' yard signs around. So, there's no disputing their need and the worthiness of the project. 

But here's a funny thing. The ink on the ASA's ground lease is not too dry yet (25 year lease, signed about 2 years ago) and an important element in that lease with the City was a prohibition on the ASA seeking funds from the City for the building of soccer fields and it set a very aggressive performance schedule for the ASA to get the job done privately.  I'm not necessarily opposed to the City taking on the very substantial costs of developing fields for ASA's use but this is a rather abrupt (and expensive) policy reversal on the City's part and this decision to now fund the soccer fields is at the heart of the resolution.

In the meantime, the City has a laundry list of other capital needs at is existing recreational facilities that is busy not funding. How does the insertion of a costly new project fit into the City's overall capital planning, let alone recreational facility planning? Why does the ASA project suddenly pop up as a top priority for the City, when its new lease kept it off the City's plate intentionally and we've got a long list of other unfunded capital needs?

It's just a resolution: Funny thing about that, too. It's not just a resolution, it is a statement of policy and intent on the part of the City Council and represents something of a promissory note that the Council has now created to the ASA (unless our resolution are indeed 'meaningless' and not worth the words in them). Without discussion or documentation. Without analysis or deliberation.


So, that is why I wanted very much to move our debate of this resolution to a later date. And, failing to delay the question, Councilor Lavoie and I at least tried to foster some discussion and debate at the Council meeting (to no avail). So I came out of this particular discussion very frustrated. 

And that is why I was compelled to abstain on this resolution, as supportive as I am of its general outcome

I often feel that Councilor Lavoie and myself (as well as Councilor Einson) live on a different island than our colleagues, one where we do things very deliberately (we've been accused of talking too much) and, maybe, more slowly. But I see that as approach as at the heart of what the public expect me to do as a City Councilor - research, deliberate, debate, and use caution before rushing into anything, even if only 'symbolically' with a 'meaningless' resolution.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Response to 5 CPA Misconceptions

As you may have already heard, I'm involved in an effort to get a question on the local November election ballot regarding the adoption of the Community Preservation Act (CPA) in Amesbury.

The Community Preservation Act is a collaborative program between localities and the Commonwealth to raise funds locally for the purposes of:
  • preserving open space and historic sites
  • developing outdoor recreational facilities 
  • creating affordable housing 
The question is not even on the November ballot yet but the debate here in Amesbury has already become quite lively and a good bit of the information I've seen in circulation has been a bit off in my estimation and I thought I'd respond to some of it. Without further ado, here are my comments on the  5 of the more questionable things that I've seen written on Facebook about the CPA so far. Along the way, I hope to highlight some important facts about the CPA program. I'll be writing in more detail about why I support CPA for Amesbury coming up next.

5. Supporters of CPA are like kids with ‘a Sears catalogue at Christmas’: Well, wanting to be in a community that protects and improves its historical assets (and Amesbury is full of them), conserves and improves its open spaces and natural resources, invests in its recreational facilities through continual improvement, and supports housing affordability for its seniors, veterans, and families - that sounds like the best Sears catalogue ever. Should we not want to aim to be a community that is an active custodian and protector of the very things that make it a great place to live? Is aspiring for these things supposed to be a bad thing?

4. “[T]he town loses control of it[self] and the future of our town's livablilty.”: This is an important misrepresentation that needs to be definitively laid to rest. This is exactly opposite of the reality of the CPA program. The fundamental structure of the program is local control of a community preservation fund, in terms of administration, planning, prioritization, and disbursement. True fact - number of personnel at the State level dedicated to 'running' the CPA statewide = 0. Funds are solely managed locally. How? A local committee is created with representatives from existing boards, committees, and commissions with relevant responsibilities - Parks and Recreation Commission, Housing Authority, Conservation Commission, Planning Board, and Historical Commission. Citizens can also be appointed by the Mayor. The CPA Committee would set local guidelines, articulate local funding priorities, set the terms of applying for funds, review all applications for funds, and make recommendations for funding. All disbursements of CPA funds would be subject to City Council approval through a 2/3 vote. CPA is a tool for towns to take control over their 'livability'.

3. “Everything that could be delivered with the CPA could be done without the CPA”

Technically, that is true, so this isn't a misconception. However, the refrain has been that the types of things that CPA could pay for are usually 'wants not needs' and pushing for them are akin to dreaming about rainbows and unicorns. Here's just a few of the many things that CPA could be used for, and this is just based on my own top-of-the-head awareness of current needs, I'm sure others could identify more:
  • Improvement of River Trail surface and drainage 
  • Replacement of playground equipment at Cashman Elementary 
  • Completion of improvements to Collins St. Park 
  • Rebuild of Amesbury Skate Park 
  • Improved drainage at Cashman ball fields 
  • Roof improvements at Amesbury Public Library 
  • Saving Whittier Hill from residential development
  • Planning and creation of trail network in Amesbury 
  • Planning and creation of bike lanes, esp. in the village center 
  • Construction of soccer fields at Woodsom Farm 
  • Improvements to Amesbury’s War Memorials 
  • Improvement/reconstruction of Lake Gardner beach 
  • Invasive plant mitigation in Lake Tuxbury, Lake Attitash, and Powow River, to protect out water source and improve their use
To me, these are not luxury items or frivolous expenses. They are the kinds of things that add tremendous social value to our community (and real property value to our homes). A favorite example of mine about how the City has typically approached these sorts of things (looking way back) is the roof at our historic Amesbury Public Library. I would have to go a ways back to find a year that this item was NOT on our city's 5-Year Capital Improvement Plan. Interestingly enough, though, it always shows up as an item on the next year's budget, never on the current year. Next year comes, it has moved to the following year. I understand full well the budgetary constraints that we operate under and that the library roof will always be competing with other important capital needs. But, in the meantime, this community asset - the library - continues to degrade. The purpose of the CPA is to establish a Fund that can support the many projects that at best take years to come to fruition otherwise, while other assets also continue to languish, if not deteriorate. It's great that the youth soccer league leased space two years ago for new fields to be built at Woodsom Farm. How soon and how far into its lease will it go before it is able to identify the $800,000+ that it needs to build the fields? How many fund-raising triathlons will parents have to run to scrape together the estimated $60,000 to replace unusable and outdated playground equipment at Cashman School? The CPA can be a valuable tool to boost, leverage, and supercharge local volunteer efforts and make serious headway against this backlog of needs.

2. “[I]f the CPA were in effect when we acquired Woodsom, no soccer fields. Ever.: This is another case of opposite day. I believe that what the author had in mind with this comment is that indeed it is true that if land is purchased with CPA funds for the purpose of conserving 'open space', then the Community Preservation Act requires that a so-called 'conservation restriction' be placed on the property and recorded in the deed. What does this mean? Simply that if the purpose of a purchase is to conserve open space, then the property should be, well, conserved in the future (i.e. not developed for commercial or residential use). What's one of the main reasons we might want to conserve a property such as Woodsom Farm and prevent its development for private use? For recreational use by the public. And of course that use is right there in the definition of 'open space' in the Act itself:
“Open space”, shall include, but not be limited to, land to protect existing and future well fields, aquifers and recharge areas, watershed land, agricultural land, grasslands, fields, forest land, fresh and salt water marshes and other wetlands, ocean, river, stream, lake and pond frontage, beaches, dunes and other coastal lands, lands to protect scenic vistas, land for wildlife or nature preserve and land for recreational use.
This sort of scarified (yet inaccurate) statement has been a hallmark of many comments that I've heard so far against the CPA. If CPA had been used to purchase Woodsom Farm way back when (leveraging additional match dollars from the state), nothing that we know about how it is used now - including the placement of soccer fields there - would be different, with one important exception. Right now, there is no protection on the property, nothing that prevents the City from selling it off for development the future, whereas theoretical use in the past of CPA funds to help purchase Woodsom Farm would have ensured its preservation for generations to come. Currently, we have no such assurance in place. Ironically, if CPA funds had been used, we could still have the lease for soccer fields AND the property would be better protected.

1.  “Under the CPA, we could lose control over what kind of lights we could install. That's not local control. Coming in at #1. Presumably, the author here is talking about the use of CPA funds to rehabilitate historical properties (it seems to relate to a nearby comment on a Facebook thread that referenced lights at City Hall). As with open space purchases, there are some standards associated with use of CPA on historical properties. In particular, it requires that any historic "'rehabilitation' shall comply with the Standards for Rehabilitation stated in the United States Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties codified in 36 C.F.R. Part 68." What does this mean? If a property is deemed 'historic' and CPA is being used for the restoration of a 'historic' property then, well yes, there is some expectation that the restoration would meet standard guidelines for historic restoration. Adoption of CPA by Amesbury, however, does not mean we are creating a city-wide historic district or that we all would need to worry about what kind of windows we can install or what color we can paint our house or that someone will control what kind of lights we can install. [Anyone else remember similar fears from when Amesbury adopted the now-popular Green Communities Act?] And I would think that if we have an desire to preserve (or restore/recreate) the historical integrity of a valued historical property, we'd want to do it in such as way as to preserve, well, its historical integrity.


I'm hopeful that the CPA question will get on the ballot and I welcome an open and lively debate about it, if it does. I've been discouraged by the level of fear-mongering that I've heard so far about it and hopefully these remarks are a start to setting the record straight on what CPA is (and is not). You can learn more about the Community Preservation Act HERE. Watch this space for more information.