Inside Stories

Council Meeting Recap: February 14, 2023

Hell no. What kind of hedonist goes out on a Tuesday night anyway?

1. A Small Step Forward on Zoning

In March of 2021, the city released a Housing Availability Report (in response to a motion by Councilors Rourke and Noun) seeking ways to increase housing availability by reviewing our zoning laws. The report is jam-packed with data and ideas that are worth the attention of anyone who cares about housing (and/or the homelessness crisis). One recommendation was to “eliminate or reduce off-street parking minimums.” A parking minimum is exactly what it sounds like: a mandate to add a certain number of parking spaces to building projects. These mandates have a chilling effect on housing construction. As per the 2021 report:

In August of 2022, the DPD suggested that we eliminate these parking minimums – albeit only one zone of the city. The “Downtown Mixed Use” (DMU) zone – shown in pink, below:

The proposal received a favorable recommendation from the Planning Board and the council voted 10-0 (Councilor Mercier absent) to approve this zoning change. It’s a nice first step. Next, it would be good to go back to that 2021 housing report and pick 2 or 20 more suggestions and start putting them into action. For one, we can expand that pink DMU Zone:

After that, feel free to pick from the following list:

  1. Legalize more housing types in more places
  2. Reevaluate Riverfront Zoning
  3. Revise requirements to reflect existing or desired pattern
  4. Increase maximum allowed floor area ratios
  5. Increase maximum allowed building heights and stories
  6. Eliminate or reduce off-street parking minimums
  7. Allow multi-family homes of a certain size by right
  8. Permit more housing in the Regional Retail (RR) district
  9. Allow manufactured homes
  10. Allow more single room occupancy
  11. Allow accessory dwelling units
  12. Issue zoning amnesty for illegal units
  13. Adopt an ordinance to permit use variances
  14. Pass an inclusionary zoning ordinance
  15. Adopt an affordable housing overlay
  16. Amend the definition of a family
  17. Revise section 8.1 to again include all large buildings
  18. Increase the threshold for site plan review
  19. Revise the Planned Residential Development Ordinance
  20. Reevaluate the Downtown Smart Growth Overlay District
  21. Rescind the neighborhood character permit
  22. Clarify neighborhood character review

2. “Free Cash” Certification

There was a presentation, largely by Conor Baldwin, our Chief Financial Officer on our FY 2023 “free cash” certification. I was putting my son to bed and reading Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! – so I missed much of it. Nevertheless, large sums of money are always worthy of attention. From the report:

The City has received notification from the Department of Revenue (“DOR”) that the “free cash” total as of 7/1/2022 has been certified as $7.86 million for the general fund. This represents an amount between 3% and 5% of the FY2022 annual budget, less the revenue received from State Aid, which is in compliance with best practices recommended by the DOR. In addition to the General Fund, the DOR has certified the retained earnings of the city’s three enterprise funds for sewer, water, and parking at $2.82 million, $2.78 million, and $2.78 million, respectively. It is important to note that “free cash” is not a measure of the money that Lowell has in the bank. Rather, free cash is the portion of the General Fund balance that the state certifies as available for appropriation after analyzing the year-end balance sheet and deducting all outstanding liabilities and grant deficits. Simply put, free cash is a community’s unrestricted, available funds that may be used as a funding source for appropriations. Free cash is generated when the actual operating results compare favorably with the budget. Specifically, free cash is generated when actual revenue collections are more than budget estimates, and when expenditures and encumbrances are less than appropriations, or both. The undesignated fund balance for the general fund as of 6/30/2022, which is the starting point for the free cash calculation was $14.3 million, a decrease of about $8.2 million over FY2021.

[Spoiler – the pigeon falls asleep]

3. School Committee/Outside Counsel/Separation of Powers

Jackie Doherty, the Vice Chair of the School Committee addressed the council on the following motion:

C. Nuon/C. Robinson – Req. Mayor Urge The Lowell School Committee To Withhold Retaining Outside Counsel For 6 Weeks To Enable The City Law Department To Investigate Any Possible Claims.

I don’t have the bandwidth to closely follow the School Committee. Accordingly, there is much I don’t know here. My understanding is as follows:

There were apparently some complaints against the Lowell Public Schools related to their hiring practices. On her way out the door, Christine O’Connor, our prior City Solicitor, recommended that outside counsel be retained to investigate these complaints. This proposal was supported by the School Committee. However, Helene Tomlinson, our new City Solicitor, advised the School Committee that she wanted to “pump the brakes” on the hiring of outside counsel. Atty. Tomlinson indicated that she had little to no information on the details of the complaints – alleging that Atty. O’Connor failed to provide a proper paper trail.

Which leads us to last night’s motion. Ms. Doherty argued that she did not appreciate the Council meddling in the affairs of the School Committee. The decision as to whether hire outside counsel is, by law, the purview of the School Committee. Councilor Leahy echoed these sentiments. I don’t think this should be controversial. What’s weird here is the vague nature of the complaints/paper trail/process. If Councilors need to look out for the interests of the taxpayer, can we maybe get a little info on why we need to take this step?

In the end, the motion was withdrawn and it looks like the ball will be headed back to the School Committee’s court. As an aside, I was surprised to learn that the law dept is budgeted for eight positions. However, there are only four positions filled. Which leads me to wonder – why on earth would the new solicitor kick the hornets’ nest here? She’s brand new to the job and only has 50% staff. Her predecessor recommended outside counsel and the School Committee wanted outside counsel. It looks to me like she could have deferred comment and nobody would have questioned it, no?. Why give yourself a headache?

4. The Rest

  1. Athletic Legend Tracy Mitchell honored
  2. Large (very large) report on the next round of Community Preservation Act (CPA) Funding Requests. Lots of interesting stuff here. CPA continues to pay dividends.
  3. Don’t think I was going to sleep on Councilor Jenness’ new flagship water bottle.

Your turn, Councilor Gitschier.

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