Inside Stories

Council Meeting Recap: February 13, 2024

Somehow, someway, our Council and Administration made it through yesterday’s snow drifts to re-open City Hall and complete a meeting. A quick and tidy meeting begets a quick and messy blog. Let’s take a look…

1. Senior Center

Councilor Gitschier kicked things off seeking a point of personal privilege to discuss recent heating woes at the Senior Center. Based on the seniors in my life, I assumed that this meant that the heat had fallen to the 85-86 range. However, the issue does appear legit as the indoor temps have been hovering in the sub-60s. The system is malfunctioning and it will be about 7 weeks until they have a back-ordered part to make the repair. In the meantime, the city is renting space heaters as a band-aid.

The problem is that the city does not own the Senior Center and shouldn’t be dealing with any of this. The city sold the building to developers who in turn transferred it to a Condominium Trust, that entered into a 20 year agreement to rent it back to the city at a yearly cost of about $327,000. Councilor Gitschier cited the lease agreement as between the city and the senior center and, indeed, the heating system is the responsibility of the trust:

The discussion that followed hit on some other gripes with the landlord’s recent maintenance or lack thereof. Specifically, the city has been providing snow and ice removal services at the property when, again, the landlord should be doing it. In addition, there are issues with the upkeep of flooring, vents, lighting, and…OHMYGOD T-SWIFT IS IN THE BALCONY!

That was weird, but blog ratings just skyrocketed.

Anyway, I wouldn’t trust me on historical facts (always read Dick Howe for those), but as I understand it, the building that currently houses the Senior Center was built in the late 1800s and was used as a stable, then a storage facility. Back in the aughts, it was sold to developers George Behrakis and Nick Sarris who put millions into the building, and then entered into the lease with the City cited above. I believe that at the end of the lease (fast approaching), the city gets to buy the building back for a nominal sum. To my eye, this looks like a favorable deal for the city and that context should be kept in mind as we drill down on these issues. To that end, this matter is headed to sub-committee for more discussion.

2. Fireworks: Loved By Dogs and Quasi-Legal

Not much discussion on a motion response that caught my eye relative to an inquiry by Councilors Gitscher, Scott and Jenness

Req. City Mgr. Provide The City Council With A Report On The Number Of Violations Written For Fireworks And What Plans Are Being Taken To Stop The Use Of Illegal Firework Usage.

You wouldn’t know it during the summer months, but fireworks are illegal in Massachusetts and by extension Lowell. However, the response from Police Superintendent Gregory Hudon noted that there have been a grand total of 3 fireworks charges in Lowell District Court (which would include surrounding towns) over the last three years. In addition, the city has only had 30 instances of seized fireworks in the last five years. The report noted that in 2023 fireworks calls fell by 25%. However, given the above numbers, perhaps 25% don’t see the point in calling.

As with dirt bikes and noise violations, this appears to be another instance of a known safety and/or quality of life issue that has been deemed unworthy of serious enforcement.  Councilor Gitschier, on behalf of the other makers of the motion, sought a letter from the City to the State Delegation voicing support for a bill that would offer stiffer penalties.

3. A Round of Kudos to Sustainability Director Katherine Moses

It was nice to see an informational report summarizing Lowell’s advancement in the area of green energy. Specifically, under Ms. Moses, the City has received the following awards:

  • Gateway Cities Innovation Award: In November, Mass Inc. recognized the City of Lowell for our efforts to increase participation in energy efficiency programs by hiring a dedicated, fulltime Energy Advocate with funding from the Community First Partnership from the Sponsors of Mass Save and the EmPower Innovation and Capacity Building grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. The 1:1 assistance offered by Victor Vargas, Lowell’s
    Energy Advocate, has helped hundreds of individuals participate in the Mass Save program for the first time, as well as provided residents relief from utility bill expenses by making referrals to assistance programs.
  • Leading by Example Award: In December, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recognized the City of Lowell for outstanding decarbonization, clean energy, and environmental efforts. Accomplishments include: reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45% from city operations since 2010; deployment of publicly accessible EV charging stations, and completion of extensive energy projects to make existing buildings “decarbonization ready.” Coupled with
    strategic partnerships with community-based organizations, the City is working to ensure the benefits of the clean energy transition reach the diverse populations of Lowell.
  • Climate Leader: In January, the Sponsors of Mass Save recognized the City of Lowell as one of their 2023 Climate Leaders for making meaningful investments in energy efficiency and curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, Lowell has achieved over 1 million kWh in electric savings, 40,000 therms in gas savings, and elimination of over 500 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

All good stuff and evidence of movement in the right direction. A direction that will, hopefully, save the city millions in the coming years.

4. Sometimes S*** Doesn’t Only Flow One Way

I don’t know how or why, but the Wastewater Utility puts out some stellar informational reports. Aaron Fox, the Wastewater Director presented a report on the “Sewer Backup Prevention Cost Sharing Program.” As you may be aware, most of the city’s sewage and wastewater pipes are combined. Mr. Fox noted that “during heavy rain events the combined sewer system can reach capacity, resulting in sewer backups and street flooding.” This means shit in your basement. My words, not his.

The city is taking crazy-expensive baby-steps to separate these lines. However, in the meantime, this program invites property owners connected to the City sewer system, who are at a greater risk of experiencing sewer backups, can apply to receive a reimbursement of up to $5,000 (financed through ARPA) for piping modifications made to prevent sewage backup.

I don’t know exactly how it works, but it sounds like you hire a plumber to put in some type of a valve and you can apply to get your money back. Sounds like a good a deal and much better than the alternative.

5. The Rest

Go run to a gas station to buy some gross chocolates before it’s too late.

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