Thursday, June 11, 2015

For a change, some interesting city council agenda items

The city council meets tonight at 7. There are some interesting agenda items, in addition to the regular housekeeping stuff.

First, passage of the city budget for the next year is on the docket. I believe it passed through the subcommittee with no changes to the original proposal. That seems like an immense testament to the diligent work of the finance department and the mayor, unless it's a dereliction of council's duty to vet the truly worthwhile spending of taxpayer money. I don't know which. I will say that the city budget is extremely detailed and consumable. The school budget, not so much.

Vesuvius, down on Paradise Road, is seeking a Home Rule beer and wine license. That won't sit well with Councilor Sargent. He tends to hate Home Rule licenses outside of the downtown, but especially towards his South Salem home.

Yet another one way trial behind Saltonstall is on the agenda. The solution to parents driving like assholes is to treat them as such. It's not to inconvenience an entire neighborhood for the parents of the special Saltonstall snowflakes. The last trial appeared to be an utter failure, if for no other reason than that there was no success metric defined for the trial. I'm guessing that's the case with this one, too. No parking signs were added last year. How many tickets have been written? Signs don't do anything if they aren't enforced.

Councilor Siegel brings an order that the A&F committee meet to review, compare, and discuss why the Salem budget is $30 million dollars more than Beverly's. I have some thoughts on this to share.

First, check your math and methodology, councilor. Salem's "budget" includes our enterprise funds (water, sewer, trash). The Beverly budget figure Siegel is using excludes them on that side of the bridge. That's about half the figure Siegel cites. Attend a budget hearing (0 for 4 years) and you might know that simple lack of an apples to apples comparison. Our school costs are about 5 million dollars higher, driven in part by higher ELL and Special Education costs. With similarly sized student populations asking why we spend so much more on special education is a valid question that ought to be asked. We spend over 5 million more on police and fire, as well. Would the good councilor suggest we cut in those areas to match Beverly? If I can learn all of this, why can't Todd? I'd expect a councilor to be able to answer this question, rather than pose it.

So, ordering A&F to meet to discuss? That's grandstanding at its worst, considering they just did exactly that for the last few weeks. You were the only councilor who missed ALL of it. The wording of the order, which contains an untrue comparison, is either disingenuous or woefully uninformed. I'm not sure which is worse. Expect Siegel, who again, skipped the entire budget process (the only one to do so), to be the one councilor to vote against passage of the budget. Shame on Ward 3 if nobody runs against him. OK, really I don't think there should ever be an opposition free race, so shame on all wards except 6 so far.

The new trash contract with Waste Management will be up for approval tonight. Councilors seem to be trying to leap over each other to bow before our new trash collection saviors. I get it. Northside utterly shit the bed on us. Their service level started really slipping before our epic winter began, and never recovered. Something must be done.

But man, we're really moving fast on this. We're about to enter into a TEN YEAR CONTRACT, and we never even put it out to bid. You've probably seen some of the details, but allow me to review. For a $300,000 or so annual increase in cost to the city, Waste Management will pick up a smaller amount of trash from each household every week (65 gallons vs. 90), and a limited (for the first time in years) amount of recycling from each household, instead of currently unlimited, but instead of weekly, only every other week. That doesn't sound like a great deal to me. We get single stream recycling, which I love, and they'll probably actually pick the stuff up, which is great, too. But going from weekly to bi-weekly recycling is a step backward. Limiting the amount of recycling is, as well. Ten years, signed under the gun, is a long time. Limited, bi-weekly recycling will probably make us look like a dinosaur by then.

The other thing that concerns me is that having attended some of the hearing with WM, I heard an awful lot of "I don't know," "we'll see," "we'll do whatever needs to be done," "we could maybe make an exception" and stuff like that. That's all well and good, but it's not in writing. Contracts aren't there for when things go well, they're your only protection when they don't. This one seemed to have a lot of unknowns. I think the new mandatory toters that people will be required to use will cause problems in our tight little dense burg, as well. They're large, and take up plenty of space. If full, they may be hard to navigate. What those who don't have room to store them, or the physical ability to maneuver them, are to do remains unknown.

I'm not saying WM isn't the right vendor. They may be. But a ten year multi-million dollar contract may call for slowing your roll just a little bit. Get those unanswered questions answered before you make that commitment.

Also on the agenda is the concept of allowing 25 reserved parking spaces in each of the two city garages, at an annual rate of $1,500. This is an interesting concept. I'm undecided, and it would probably depend on the setup and how assignment of these spaces would work whether or not I'd support them. I also wonder if $1500 is the right price. If you get ten requests it's too much. If you get 150 it's too cheap. Details are very light, and depend on which city official you ask, so I'd guess this stays in committee. I'd point out this is a much smaller commit than the WM one discussed above, as well.

Anyway, that's the stuff that stuck out in the agenda to me. Feel free to follow along tonight.