Thursday, June 30, 2011

A cut City Council should have made

With great fanfare, Salem city councilors waxed poetic about the great accomplishment it was that they hired themselves a budget analyst after ten years of trying. The results are in. Salem city council should now wax poetic about firing their budget analyst. With the school system willingly agreeing to a $30,000 cut in their budget proposal, the city council cut a whopping $41,826 from the city budget, up from $33,000 the prior year. So short of the 30k that the schools said they could give back, city council cut $11,826. Very little of this came from recommendations from the budget analyst, but instead came from Councilor Ronan's fight against raises greater than 2.5%. Several proposed raises above that amount were put off until January, yielding almost all of the savings.

For that meager savings, we paid the new city council budget analyst $20,000. We also gave them a 5% raise next year, and funded the part time position at $21,000. So much for not giving more than 2.5% raises.

What really shows that this isn't a worthwhile position, is what the analyst didn't seem to have a problem with the finance committee cutting. $27,009 from the library, which would have taken them below the amount required for grants and participation in NOBLE. It also would have rescinded several promotions that had already taken place. The budget analyst must have been fine with that. He also must have been fine with elimination of the position of Energy and Sustainability Manager (OK, it sounds like a joke) which brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, and he was OK with a $6,100 cut that is used to compensate someone for doing two jobs, necessitating the hiring of another full time employee at more than 50k plus benefits. Either the budget analyst never learned the implications of these cuts, or he's bad at math. I'm good at math, and can tell you that the work product doesn't warrant another year and another $21,000. City council should cut the position.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Reader finds: Corruption at SESD?

I receive emails from time to time, and I share them with you. I received the below last week. Do I know that it's true? Absolutely not. I make no such claim. I hope it's not true, because if it is, it stinks. I thought about whether or not to print this. The truth is, I researched SESD and it is extremely difficult to find any information about them. They have no website, and no budget is published online.

From: REDACTEDDate: Subject: South Essex Sewage District Compensation 'Fraud'To: "" <>

Hi KeepitKlassy:
I love your blog.  I tweet under the handle "Redacted".

I'd like to relay this story to you- I heard it from a well-placed family member.  I hope I can describe this accurately enough to make sense, but numbers and policies and unions aren't really my thing.  Here goes anyway:

SESD executives are basically using union negotiation as a way to reward themselves and special grandfathered employees with cadillac health plans and insane compensation and benefits post-retirement.  Here's how I understand it to work:

Way back when, the unions negotiated a very sweet healthcare deal that some employees still have, as well as management.
- the 'special' healthcare plans are 90/10 (employee pays 10%)
- everyone else is 75/25
- some 'special' employees are grandfathered into a really amazing deal that literally costs them $28/week for the entire family  (it won't surprise you to know that the executive director, for example, is one such special employee)

But here's where it gets good:
- everybody gets the same deduction taken out of their check for healthcare
- the special employees, however, get a kickback in the form of "additional compensation" added to their check so that they only have to pay that 10%, not the full 25% like everyone else.
- That additional compensation has some fairly vast implications for the municipalities that are paying into the plant for sewage treatment; for example, they have to pay worker's comp on those dollars
- Further, that additional comp costs us more money by figuring itself into overtime:  Since that sum is rolled into an hourly formula, some employees' time and a half is really double time;
- Also, when someone retires, they get a pension.  That pension is over-inflated because the 'additional compensation' is figured into their overall salary
- the executive director and the executive director before him all benefit from this very scheme.  They have a clear conflict of interest, though, because they're the ones negotiating with the union and approving the plan.  And once they approve the plan they go ahead and reward themselves with the very plans they just "negotiated"
- at the most recent negotiation the executive director is quoted as saying "if healthcare comes up the meeting is over".
- all other employees have to choose from two cadillac (and very expensive) HMO and Master Medical Insurance Plans.
it's so "let them eat cake!"  And it's costing the municipalities that pay into water treatment millions over the years.  Someone should have Mayor Driscoll and other mayors look into this.


According to the Lynn Item, South Essex Sewerage District Director Arthur Knight earns $112,250 and his top engineer makes $97,444. Whether or not that includes "additional compensation" or not, if such a thing exists, is unclear.

Why should Salem residents care about this? Well, according to the proposed fiscal year 2012 Salem Budget, the city of Salem will send SESD $6,140,898 for our share of the FY 2012 operating budget of SESD. That cost is passed on to you in your sewer bill, and for city buildings, in your property taxes. Salem City Engineer David Knowlton represents the city on the SESD Board of Directors.

Peabody expects to pay $8,982,776 in FY 2012. Beverly has budgeted $5,726,042. So that's 20 million dollars a year, without factoring in the other communities that use them, which include Marblehead, Danvers, and Middleton.

Quincy city councilor Brian McNamee (no, not that one) is the Treasurer at SESD. Why do I think that as a Quincy resident, and city councilor down there, he's not putting in as much time as he should up here? Have you ever tried to commute to Quincy from Salem? It would be rich if the allegations above are true, as McNamee just voted against the city budget for Quincy because a proposed reorganization in the DPW wouldn't yield any savings. (Also note, this article gives a real life example of why it was important for the "Pinto Jobs for Councilors Bill" to fail.)

That's about all one can learn about SESD without really doing a lot of heavy digging. It was digging to find this much. It's enough to know that this is really big business. It's a little shocking that they don't even appear to have a web site.

These allegations at least smell bad, and don't seem ethical, if true. Depending on how it's been handled they may well be illegal. The mayors of the communities that use SESD should ask some tough questions about expenses, especially since each community got a much bigger bill for 2012. They should also ask for a little more openness and info sharing for the citizens who foot the bill.


Later this week, the other email I received last week, which paints everyone's favorite warlock (and I don't mean Charlie Sheen) in not the best light.

Monday, June 27, 2011

City Council budget fun

This past Thursday was a busy, busy night for the city council. In fact, the 7 o'clock meeting went well over four hours long. Even the public testimony portion of the meeting went over its allotted time. Councilor Pinto wouldn't know, as he walked in around 7:30. Smart man. Not nice to skip the public testimony, but hey. Why was this meeting so long? It's all about the benjamins! Passing the budget was a good 3 hours of the meeting.

Also on the agenda was the amended comprehensive parking plan we discussed here, the concept of meeting with deceiver or dummy (your choice) Lisa Abbate, and Councilor Ronan's proposal to have city council vote on tax rate increases on an annual basis, which we've discussed numerous times, here for one.

Councilor Lovely seems to have at least partially seen the light on the parking enforcement issue. She spoke about how much work the parking study group had put into their recommendations, and the council met a couple of times and proposed wholesale changes. She then modified the committee recommendation to enforce on-street parking meters until 8PM, while keeping the council's recommendation to stop enforcement at 6PM in the parking lots, and not enforce anywhere on Sundays. It's a compromise that shows Lovely's regular good sense, and will improve the downtown parking availability situation on the streets at least. I still think they should have accepted the parking study proposal, but this is better than the council's original recommendation.

Councilor Ronan's tax voted proposal was on the agenda with a committee recommendation for first passage, but when councilor Lovely provided the committee report she made a motion to send it back to committee to continue the legal review of what would be allowable and effective in reaching councilor Ronan's goal. The mayor, who was present to address any budget questions that arose, spoke vehemently against this ordinance, which I totally support. That said, her argument was a good one, and was really classic Kim Driscoll. Watch it below.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Parking update

The foolhardy plan to ignore the parking study, and have meter enforcement end at 6PM is on tonight's city council agenda. Let me remind you that the stated reason for the change from the 8PM recommendation is to allow downtown residents to park at the meters when they come home, without having to feed them. Of course, the major reason for the original recommendation was to increase parking availability for night time visitors, supporting downtown stores and restaurants, and encourage residents to park in the garages. If you want downtown stores to stay open after five (I do), and you want our restaurants to thrive (I do) people need to be able to park.

The traffic study was a long process, including participation from downtown businesses and residents. City council should listen to their recommendation, and not bend to the will of a few condo owners who have permits in city garages, that they should use a little more. Unfortunately, the committee of the whole recommends passage, which means, since it's the committee of the whole, that they have enough votes for passage.

I invite Councilor Lovely to meet me downtown some Friday night, and show me where all of these "always available" parking spots are. I'm betting there in places that only residents would know to look for them, if they exist at all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

City Council is right on this one, wrong on that one

We've talked before about the proposal by Councilor Ronan to have a separate vote on any property tax increase. Currently, the tax increase happens automatically when the budget passes. As a result, the mayor, in the planning process, includes a maximum allowable by prop two and a half increase in the budget proposal every years. When council passes the budget, the tax levy is included and passed by default. I would quite literally kiss councilor Ronan's right cheek for proposing this separate vote. It was passed unanimously in committee, much to the mayor's dismay (Sorry, I'm not with the mayor on this one. Anything that brings more accountability to taxation is a good thing), and is on the agenda for the city council meeting tomorrow night. Council telling the mayor how much he or she can spend seems to make much more sense that deciding after the fact what to cut, possibly leading to them cutting the wrong things.

The plan is to have the council vote by the first meeting in February on the tax levy for the next fiscal year, and tell the mayor what tax revenue he or she has to work with. This makes the council much more accountable for raising taxes, and puts them on the record. It also gives the mayor a firm figure to work with when budget planning, without the assumption that the mayor can tax to the highest.

I think it's fair, when considering this to look at tax rates in Salem and the surrounding communities.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Vanity, restored

We've talked previously about the vanity sign thanking everyone except Jesus down at the new and improved Salem Wharf. For the last several weeks of construction the sign has been knocked down, laying face down on the ground.

Have no fear, anyone thinking that the egos have not yet been sufficiently stroked! The sign reappeared in the last day or two, with a new, better, more prominent location!


Unrelated note: Anyone know what the deal with Strega is? They closed around the end of February for "renovations" with a supposed reopening in the spring. It's officially summer in a few days, and they're still closed. When does their liquor license become a pocket license? Based on this, it's possible that the owner just plain can't find any staff.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Parking and more parking

My wife takes the commuter rail to Boston every day. She came home with this notice yesterday:

Well that's quite a jump!
Apparently the current 1$ fine for not paying when you leave your car in the morning isn't good enough, so the company that runs the parking lot at Salem Station has decided to increase it by 2,100% That's quite a jump! They are probably right. I can't count the number of times I've been in to her car on the weekend and seen as many as three or four of the little "you forgot to pay" envelopes. Rest assured, at $21 a pop that will no longer be happening, mark my words.

What really scares me about this change, beyond her tendency to forget the number of the space she parked in, is what the city will use this to justify. Back in 2008, when the MBTA raised the price of parking from $2 to $4, the city parking board very quickly voted to follow suit, on the grounds that having different rates in the "same" lot would cause confusion. For some reason, the changes were never implemented. (The Downtown Parking Plan may rectify that.)

Do these look like one lot to you?

View Larger Map

Of course there are two distinct lots here. Even from this view you can see that they also are in different conditions. The MBTA lot is in much better shape, all of the spots have clearly painted lines, and the MBTA lot doesn't flood. It's also closer to the train platform. Also making the "confusion" argument look silly is the fact that you pay for parking in this "same" lot in two different places, depending on which of the "same" lot you park in. Call a cash grab a cash grab.

Using the city's logic at  the time, they should have lowered the fee for not paying from the $10 parking ticket that they issue to the $1 fee that the MBTA charges. Funny how that "confusion" logic doesn't carry over right?

I'm just waiting for them to announce that they're raising the ticket to $21, or better yet, following the 2,100% and raising it to $210. Won't that be fun? Wouldn't want to confuse anyone.


In other parking news, the city council (I'm assuming as the committee of the whole, but can't tell due to inadequate reporting) made some rather important amendments that kinda destroy the good parts of the comprehensive parking plan for the downtown. The reason that you have a committee made of many stakeholders study this and come up with these plans is so that you aren't stuck dealing with councilors caving to loud special interests.

So what has changed?

I wrote, in my previous post on the details of the parking plan: "First one's free. Annually, your first parking ticket will be forgiven. Somehow I bet they strike this one."

Consider it struck.

I also wrote: 

Enforcement hours until 8 PM. OK, so really this is a money grab, but it's a money grab that I like. Let's use the lots at Lafayette and New Derby as an example. It's 5:30 at night, and you're on your way to a friend's house. You want to pop into Pamplemousse to grab a bottle of wine, or you're feeling klassier and want to run into the Beehive for a whoopie cushion. These lots are your closest, best bet for a parking spot for ten minutes. There's only one problem. It's now 5:30. Nearly every spot in these two lots has been gobbled up by a Derby Lofter, and won't be made available again until they leave for work at 7:45 in the morning. Yes, even though they have passes to the garage down the street, they choose to park here because it's free after 5 and it's about 300 feet closer. What should happen here is that one of these lots, maybe the one that exits onto Lafayette only, should be short term, maybe half 30 minute and half hour spaces. Heck, charge a buck an hour for them. People who need to get in and out to patronize a business will pay it to have the space. Alas, we'll get to the actual plan in "the bad" Enforcement till 8 PM will help keep spots open for people patronizing businesses, and push residents to the permit garages, where they make the most sense.

Normally sane councilor Lovely has lost her mind on this one. Downtown residents parking in the metered spots/lots IS the downtown parking "problem." If you're not coming back for your car until the next day it belongs outside of the retail lots, off the streets, and in a garage. Councilor Lovely proposed changing the enforcement until 6 PM. So here is what will happen. Derby Lofter comes home at 5. Pays for the meter till 6, and parks there until 7:45 in the morning. Same problem as before. Downtown shoppers and diners get screwed. The stores have no incentive to stay open later. Joan, you asked "Who are we trying to turn over? Why are we going to 8 p.m.?" It's to avoid downtown residents clogging all of the meters. If they had to come back out at 7 to feed them, they'd just park in the garages in the first place. I thought you were smarter than this. I also must assume that you have never tried to park downtown on a Thursday through Saturday night, or on a Sunday, since they struck that enforcement for the entire day.

As for your ability to always find a parking spot, Councilor Lovely, didn't you park in the private, customer-only lot at Captain Dusty's to come to the HDSNA meeting on Monday? I think that's what I heard you say when you were leaving.

Downtown business owners should really let the city council hear it about these changes. Interestingly, they didn't amend any of the things I listed as bad, or ugly, in my previous post on the parking plan. They stuck to only ruining "the good." You know, unless it wasn't reported.

NEWSFLASH re: snow emergencies to the Derby Lofts crew: When all cars have to be off all streets the garage is going to be full. Why didn't you think of that before you bought your overpriced condo with no on-site parking? Derby Lofters continue to be whiny morons.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

My first ever neighborhood association meeting

Last night I attended a neighborhood association meeting for the first time. I've meant to go several times, but one of the agenda items, an update on the plant reuse study, really caught my eye, and I made sure to attend.

Here is what I learned:

1. The British are coming! The British are coming! They're also camping. This looks like an interesting and fun event put on by theNational Park Service this weekend. They promised that all musket shots will be aimed toward Marblehead.

2. The currently condemned former home of Bik's Variety may have new life. The property was purchased, and the purchaser hopes to renovate that building into a single family home, and build another single family home next to it, on a spot that once had a 4-6 unit building. Each home would have off street parking for two cars, and would be around 1500 square feet, listing for 300-325k. It seemed like it would fit well with the neighborhood. It would definitely be an improvement to the area to have that site cleaned up. If you don't believe me just read the comments on the article linked above, about a rousting at the site.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Salem Ferry runs tomorrow?

Work is furiously progressing on the Blaney Street pier, in order to have it ready for duty tomorrow AM.

Here is what it looked like last night:

"Sidewalk" at Blaney and Derby

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Anyone want to be on the school committee?

There are three seats up for grabs on the Salem School Committee. With Kevin Carr running for city council at least one incumbent won't return. So far the other two (I can't find anywhere who is due) haven't pulled papers. Dr. Walsh is whining so much about not getting a raise that he (I'm pretty sure he's one of them) may not run.

Maybe I should run.

It might be worth it for the really awkward moments when I couldn't help but mock the insanity of it all, and my fellow committee members.

Ladies and gents, your city council candidate ...

... Matthew Fraser.

In the grand tradition of Chris Lee, and most recently Anthony Weiner, city council at-large candidate Matthew Fraser has decided to grace us with a shirtless picture. Awesome. I hope it works out better for him than it did the other guys. I wish Mr. Fraser would go back to running for Ward 2 councilor, and not leave Sosnowski unopposed, rather than being one of ten at-large candidates. I'd bet that first loser from last time, Teasie Riley-Goggin wishes that a few of the at large candidates would go run for ward councilor and not dilute the anti-ioncumbent vote as well. Bil Legault wrote as much here. I'd like to buy that man a beer.

Unrelated note: The Salem Ferry is supposed to start running in less than 48 hours. Currently the entrance to Blaney Street is exposed, and they are working on cutting the electrical conduits into the grid. No paving has commenced, and it's clear at this point that Saturday at 9AM isn't happening. Mayor Driscoll, how bout we don't wait till tomorrow to say so?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Make your voice on Peter Noyes heard

Frank L. McElroy posted the following on the Marblehead Patch article DEP Investigating Noyes for Environmental Violations
"ConsCom Meeting, Thursday, June 9, 7:00 p.m., Abbot Hall Auditorium. If you care about what's happening on Gerry Island; if you care about what happens in Marblehead waters; if you care about sustaining the northeast lobster fishery; if you care about not ceding our marine environment to pollution; if you care about Town government acting to enforce the laws almost all of us live by, then you must attend the hearing on the three applications for work on and around Gerry Island."

Not sure if this is open to out of towners, but if you're in Marblehead, please go stand up for the non-polluters and truthful people out there.

Salem District Court is closed today

If you have any business at Salem District Court today you are out of (or in, depending) luck. The Supreme Judicial Court announced this morning that the court will be closed today due to the fumes from a sewer backup in the basement. Mmmm ... smells like, well, you get the picture.

The court is expected to reopen tomorrow.

What are the chances that this isn't a result of the construction?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Another Blaney St. Pier update

I know, you're all sick of hearing about the Blaney Street pier. Not as sick as I am of actually hearing the Blaney Street pier. Trust me.

I told you on May 16 that there was no way on earth that the pier would be open as scheduled on May 27. Today, on June 6, I don't think they make it for the rescheduled opening on June 11, but I'm a lot less sure of that. They've made a huge amount of progress, with I'll show with pics I snapped tonight. Where possible, they are matched with pics from my original post. Off we go ...

May 16th, entrance

June 6
Note that the drain pipes in the background are all gone, as is the gate, as it can't be closed currently, due to the electrical conduits being buried in still wet concrete. Also note all of the in place manholes.

Shirley Walker compliments Murphy's?!

A reader pointed this article out to me.

It seems that Derby Lofter Shirley Walker is quite pleased with the new hillside plantings on the Murphy's patio. I've noticed them walking by and it is definitely a nice improvement.

I have to admit that I'm completely flabbergasted to see Shirley Walker praising anything that Peter Kelly and Murphy's does. This is the same Shirley Walker who not two years ago called the police and the mayor because Murphy's had a "Derby Lofts Appreciation Night" where they offered residents half-priced appetizers.

I wonder what went on to bring about this new peace. I have a friend who spent a weekend night at the Lofts recently and commented on how loud it was when the bar let out, so it's not that it is perfectly quiet now. Maybe the other residents who have and are selling at large losses have asked her to play well with others? Maybe she's just mellowed and accepts living in an urban downtown? Maybe there's hope for us all.

Good for you, Shirley!

Friday, June 3, 2011

When will Peter Noyes learn?!

Seeming eco-terrorist Peter Noyes seems to be at it again. Click on the Peter Noyes label on the bottom of this post to see his other shenanigans involving things like dumping raw sewage in Salem Harbor.

This time, Noyes has been caught in the act of driving a commercial truck with crane through the Atlantic Ocean next to endangered lobster breeding grounds. There is a natural causeway to Gerry's island that is walkable/driveable at low tide, but he drove the large truck through the water, as you can see in the video on this Marblehead Patch story. I guess low tide wasn't convenient for this pillar of conservation, who just wants to do right by the island.

Once on the island, he decided to also import some goats, who he has set to destroying the shrubbery on the island, and remove the poison ivy. If they poop in the water? Par for the Noyes course. If they wander off? Hey, that's OK too. Someone else will clean up the mess.

According to the Patch piece, when Conservation Commission officials investigated, they also found oil leakage from the truck (though none would have leaked in the water, right?), dumping, and earth movement, all of which would be illegal in this wetlands protected area, never mind the fact that he hasn't been granted any permits for any of this. Noyes was issued a cease and desist order, which as is his pattern, he allegedly ignored as well.

From the Patch article regarding a site visit by the Con-comm and the Department of Environmental Protection:

They observed “oil leakage from the truck on the coastal bank, rocks repositioned on the coastal bank to accommodate the entry of the truck up a steep incline, removal of vegetation to allow passage of the truck, erection of tents, parking of the truck, grazing of goats, dumping of rotting floats,” the memo said.

The Marblehead Reporter has weighed in on this as well. Included in their piece was a not-surprising tidbit that was missing from the Patch story. Apparently the intended use for the island has changed, or more likely, more fully come to light. Noyes now says that he has rented the island, and that his intention is to turn it into a seasonal campground/park. The catch? The only way to access said park/campground/picnic area would be by paying him for a boatride, at $12-$15 to get there. Let me remind you that a round trip ferry ticket from Salem to Boston is $19 (if it ever starts ...). Also, let me remind you that Noyes initial application had nothing to do with ferrying people on and off of the island. How does he think they'll get off the boat and onto the island, and back? He hasn't asked for permission to build a dock. He hasn't even copped to this intended use to the island. Remember? He just wanted to shore up the seawall. Maybe he'd store some boats, but he's just a good Samaritan.

For this new violation of the Wetlands Protection Act, violating the conservation commission stop work order, and working without a permit, it's time for Noyes to finally pay. There's talk that he may be violating probation from prior transgressions, and the DEP may come down hard, so maybe he finally will. His chances of getting cons comm approval just got smaller.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Last week's city council meeting (5/26/2011) Did JP admit to an ethics breach during the meeting?

I mentioned in my earlier post today that there were some good moments in the last city council meeting. They were few and far between, but here they are.

Councilor Sosnowski apparently doesn't know what a Google map marker looks like. The subject of the Witches Cup bike race came up, and Councilor Sosnowski wanted to send the matter to committee because where "they say they're putting it on the map" doesn't match with what they wrote. See for yourself in the video  below.

A few random items

1. The crosswalks at Essex and Hawthorne Boulevard that I featured here have now been painted. Of course, the ones on Hawthorne between Essex and Derby, that don't have a stop/walk light haven't, but it's progress!

2. There really seems to be some heat between city councilors Pelletier and O'Keefe, especially on the part of Mr. P. I shared video of JP muttering about O'Keefe during the May 12 council meeting. He continued, though not always under his breathe, during the May 26 city council meeting. You can view both meetings online through the SATV website here. The discussion of the beer tent on the common was part of it, but it continued later as well.

3. John Ronan continues to beat his "why do we assume a max property tax increase in the budget without voting on it" drum. Good for him. I think he mentioned during the last council meeting that there would be a public hearing on his proposal to codify voting specifically on any property tax increase, outside of just approving the budget. I can't find a date for the hearing, but will update if I find one. Everyone should go and support this. The proposal is currently still in committee.

4. Salem Patch alerted everyone to a really disgusting scam where people are trying to shake residents down on behalf of the NSMC Cancer Walk, sometimes roughly, but pocketing the cash. That's really the lowest of the low. Clubhouse leader for the klasshole of the year.

5. Blaney Street progresses slowly. The mayor's statement that it may even be paved by June 4 will surely not be happening. Maybe she meant July 4. I'm now ready to predict that the Ferry will not run from the wharf on June 11. I'm less sure of this 9 days out than I was about the project finishing on time more than 4 weeks out. They're definitely getting closer, but they are still working extensively underground.