I missed last week’s meeting and I should probably skip this week too as I’ve got nothing this morning. However, I’d hate to disappoint the dozen or so people in the market for a council meeting recap, so here we go:
1. Voting Machines
A few weeks back, a poll worker addressed the council on an issue encountered in November at the Reilly School. Apparently, there was a problem with a vision & hearing impaired ballot reader. It was reported that a couple of voters were unable to cast their ballots and required transport to and from City Hall to vote. The entire process took approximately five hours.
Greg Pappas, our Director of Elections, was present to discuss a motion response related to this issue. As per the response, the machines in question are our AutoMark ballot readers for sight and hearing impaired persons. The machines were not “broken,” per-se, but rather the problem was with the feeding of the ballots through the machine. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ ballot contractor this year had “size problems.” Specifically, there were issues with thickness and length.
Moving forward, the city will be keeping a close eye on this potential issue and is likely to be well-prepared for November’s municipal election.
2. Water & Wastewater Enterprise Accounts
There was a motion response providing an update on the financial health of the fiscal year 2023 water and wastewater enterprise accounts. In sum, both funds are currently in “ok shape.” However, there may be cause for concern on the horizon as the city will be forced to reckon with some substantial debt service cost for capital improvements we will be making to these systems.
If you’re interested in where we are at the moment, the report notes the following:
3. Unpaid Invoices – Parks & Facilities Rentals
Arguably, the most interesting (relative term) item on the agenda was a discussion on unpaid balances for for park and facilities rentals. The city charges organizations and individuals a small fee for the use of parks and facilities to help offset the cost of maintaining these public assets. Despite the minimal cost charged, it seems we have a problem with actually collecting the money.
A motion response revealed that there are currently 85 accounts owing a total of $26,210. Councilor Gitschier noted that it’s difficult to ask the taxpayer for more money at budget time when the city is failing to collect fees mandated by the council. When questioned on this issue, our Chief Financial Officer, Connor Baldwin, stated that he wasn’t previously aware of these accounts. In addition, it was noted by Councilor Gitschier one or more large debts were recently paid off (likely to avoid the embarrassment of showing up on the list of delinquent accounts). Further, some of these debts are quite old and some of the organizations are now defunct – suggesting that the city would never be able to collect the debts. Councilor Rourke sought an opinion from Helene Tomlinson, the City Solicitor, as to what legal remedies are available to the city on this matter. Atty. Tomlinson suggested that the city could “send them a letter” saying that they owe money and need to pay it.
Setting aside the scorched-earth, strong arm tactics of sending letters, the council urged the administration to revisit the policies and procedures in place for the issuing of permits. Several councilors noted that it may make more sense to simply require payment at the time of permit application or approval – similar to the building permit process. As noted by Councilor Jenness – Lowell is not the only city that rents its parks. Clearly, there are common sense best practices that we are not implementing.
4. ARPA Neighborhood Improvement Plan
The matter was quickly referred to sub-committee, however it’s worth noting that the DPD unveiled details on the ARPA-funded Neighborhood improvement plan. As per the informational report:
[The Plan] represents the $9,117,277 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that City Council allocated toward “eligible parks projects, water and sewer infrastructure projects, and neighborhood business district improvements across Lowell’s neighborhoods, with a focus on Qualified Census Tracts (QCT).” This pot represents 12% of the total $74 million in municipal and county funds that Lowell received. Since water and sewer infrastructure projects and neighborhood business district improvements are also funded through other pots of ARPA money, the Neighborhood Improvement Plan focuses specifically on park improvement projects
Some screencaps of the proposal are included for your review, but it’s worth checking out the full report.
5. The Rest
- Councilor Gitschier, as Vice Mayor ran the meeting as Mayor Chau was absent.
- Interesting Motion to watch, especially in light of the discussion on Parks & Facilities rentals noted above: C. Gitschier – Req. City Mgr. Have The Proper Department Provide A Legal Opinion On Who Can Waive Fees, Etc. Set By The City Council Under The Schedule Of Fees.
- On the School Committee side, another interesting motion to watch: [By Jackie Doherty]: Request the City Solicitor provide written opinion whether the School Committee followed Robert’s Rules in voting on the Feb. 15 Motion 7.1 that allowed the Solicitor one month to review claims prior to hiring outside counsel when previously the Committee had voted (Dec. 14, 2022) to hire outside counsel and had voted (Feb. 6) to select said counsel at its Feb. 15 meeting.