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Houston Astros moving to Peabody? Of course not. Happy April Fools Day

1 Apr

UPDATE: We’re sorry to report that this deal has fallen through. Hope you had an enjoyable April Fool’s Day.

stadium

Rendering of a new proposed ballpark that could be home of the Houston Astros

 

By Jack Ryder, Special Eye Correspondent

The Eye has learned that Mayor Ted Bettencourt will call a special meeting of the Peabody City Council ASAP to discuss a proposal by the Houston Astros to move their struggling Major League Baseball franchise to a new 43,000-seat baseball only stadium that would be built on the current site of the Peabody landfill off Farm Avenue.

Houston Astros owner Jim Crane would neither confirm nor deny that he was moving the National League team, but a source told the Houston Chronicle it was a “done deal,” and that “it’s all about the fine details and financing now, but it looks certain that the team will play north of Boston starting next season.”

Initial reports are that the team will be re-named “New England,” still play in the NL, and that the team will hold a contest with fans to choose a  new nickname. The Astros recently moved to the American League, but according to MLB sources, Commissioner Bud Selig will ask the owners to approve a move switching the Astros back to the NL so they don’t compete directly with the Boston Red Sox.

The source told The Chronicle that the Astros were looking for an assurance of public funding by both Peabody and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Mayor Bettencourt is being asked to commit $100 million in taxpayer dollars toward the construction of the $750 million stadium (seen here in the artist rendering). The NL team is also reaching out to Peabody State Rep Leah Cole in an effort to get a $200 million commitment from the state, which would help fund a light rail transit connection from the Salem Commuter Rail station, with stops in Peabody Square.

“This would be an incredible boost to our redevelopment efforts for the downtown, provide hundreds of jobs, and a huge, lasting boost to our commercial tax base,” said a source at city hall, who wished to remain anonymous.

The Astros would also offer up naming rights for the new stadium, and according to sources, Peabody tech firm Analogic, billboard giant Total Outdoor Corp, and General Electric have already all expressed interest.

“We like the location for sure, since it’s near some pretty major Interstates,” the source told The Chronicle. “Mayor Bettencourt and the other Peabody officials have been very accommodating during the negotiations. Looks pretty good right now that this will get done.”

The struggling Astros, who finished with baseball’s worst record last season were also fourth worst in baseball when it came to attendance. TV ratings for their games were so poor, that the team’s sports network, Comcast SportsNet Houston, was forced to file for bankruptcy last September.

The Astros had just $186 million in revenue last season compared to almost $400 million for the Boston Red Sox.

If this becomes a reality, the Boston area would join New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles as the only cities to have AL and NL MLB teams.

More details to come tomorrow on April 2nd.

Billboard being removed, but only after city cuts a deal

30 Mar

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

After several months of hand-wringing, end runs, and double reverses, the Peabody City Council, Mayor Ted Bettencourt, and the city’s legal eagles have found a way to have that now infamous 92-foot tall monstrosity of a billboard removed from the corner of Lowell Street and Route 1.

Pole dance: The city has cut a deal to have this monstrosity removed

City has cut a deal to have this monstrosity removed

The Eye has learned that the giant sign, which was wrongly placed near Lowell Street next to the Subway sub shop (instead of well behind the shop as dictated by special permit), will soon come down. But before you chalk this up as a victory for our city’s leaders, understand that the enormous pole is only coming down because the city is playing let’s make a deal with Total Outdoor Corp.

That’s right, we’re hearing through the grapevine that – instead of holding its ground and fighting it out in court – the city council has promised to approve another Total Outdoor Corp billboard at another location in exchange for the Lowell Street monstrosity being removed.

We’re not sure where that new location is, but so much for standing our ground. I mean, it’s pretty clear that Total Outdoor Corp disregarded the terms of its special permit by planting that thing in the wrong place. Right?

So, now the question is … why are we appeasing Total Outdoor Corp just to get them to remove their mistake?

Instead of having our city run these days by the people we elected, are we instead being run by lawyers?

Developers continue to pretty much get their way on everything. The beat goes on out on Route 1, and makes us wonder what other hush, hush deals are being struck while the quality of life of residents is infringed upon.

This wild west mentality continues, and developers simply have no worries that our city council will do anything to stop them.

And why should they? After all, if these developers screw up, they can always simply bargain with the city’s legal team.

Your taxes are going up again: Merry Christmas, Peabody homeowners

13 Dec

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

taxesThe line is becoming cliché. Each year for the past 12 years, Peabody homeowners have seen it there in print the morning after each annual tax classification hearing before the Peabody City Council:

“Our residents still pay among the lowest annual tax bills in Essex County.”

Quick … someone cue Mary Poppins, since my message today to Mayor Ted Bettencourt and the city councilors is this: The sugar’s starting to become a little bitter when it comes to helping the tax medicine go down.

Last night, the city council agreed to yet another increase on homeowners. This one was pretty similar to the last one, and they tell us the average residential tax bill will increase by “just” $94. But let’s be honest: Most of us will end up paying more.

What that means is, since 2001 annual tax bills have risen by more than 30%.

What’s most-disturbing about the latest residential tax increase is that it’s hard to justify why we need any increase at all right now. We hear how we need to pay for a lot of expensive things, including a much-needed new middle school, and the disastrous decision to help fund a Taj Mahal-like new regional vocational school in Danvers. But don’t be fooled by that: As a city, we have $13 million in free cash right now, some of which will be earmarked to help offset the cost of those projects. This latest increase will not be used to fund major projects.

This latest tax increase is coming your way because, to borrow the words of Ronald Reagan, “we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.”

And it’s only going to get worse once we start chipping in at least $3 million annually so fewer than 160 of the more than 6,000 Peabody students can attend the new, ostentatious regional vocational school.

Starting next year, we’ll be not only funding a city budget and a Peabody school budget, but also a regional vocational budget, which will continue to increase each year. Clearly, it would have been a lot less expensive (and more Peabody kids would have benefited) had we revamped and funded our own voke program. We also would have retained control, rather than participating in what is quickly becoming an out-of-control hack-of-rama. That large sucking sound you hear is coming from Danvers, and it’s called MEGAVOKE! Can’t blame Bettencourt for this one, though, since he did vote against joining the voke district when he was a city councilor.

But I digress …

City spending increased $5.4M in 2013, but none of that increase was spent on major projects, such as the middle school or flood mitigation. A lot of it went to salaries, and new city jobs. In these times of financial insecurity, shouldn’t we be thinking austerity instead?

Clearly, there are things we need to pay for, and clearly this mayor inherited a lot of things within the city’s infrastructure that need to be fixed. But at this point, we also don’t see a plan for finding more revenue without putting an onerous burden on the backs of Peabody’s middle class taxpayers.

Where’s the plan to expand our commercial tax base?

Anyhow, here are all of the gory details in today’s Peabody Patch. The bottom-line is this: Your taxes are increasing again. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Time to finally get serious about the vision for downtown revitalization

10 Dec

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

SquareSo far, we’ve seen baby steps and a piece meal approach to the revitalization of downtown Peabody. But we remain without a master plan for development, and without true visionaries to lead when it comes to getting us to a place where Peabody Square is no longer a ghost town at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night.

The problem we face in moving this forward was again on full display this past week when a developer came before the city council with a plan to jam 10 apartments into an old office building at 98 Main Street. During the debate, there was talk about a lack of parking, which is a major concern overall as we try to bring people back to the square. But there was also talk about what the vision should be for all future downtown development.

Many councilors argued against creating more apartments (these ones with future Section 8 housing potential), and for the need to think in terms of mixed-use development (e.g., residential on the top floors, commercial space on the bottom). Thankfully, the bid for a special permit at 98 Main went down to defeat with a 5-5 vote.

The issue at 98 Main is simply one symptom of a much larger problem.

We have no overall strategic plan/vision for development, but even if we did … we have no one to lead it. Community Development’s push and praise for the developer’s plan at 98 Main certainly shows that no one there has the skills, experience, or juice to lead the mammoth undertaking of bringing economic life back to the downtown.

Although I believe and support Mayor Ted Bettencourt when he tells us that revitalization of downtown continues to be a focal point of his legacy, I also think the Mayor needs to do what many of us have been urging since he was first sworn in almost two years ago:

He needs to enlist more skilled movers and shakers to help us with this. We need an experienced redevelopment “czar” with unprecedented power to get things done, including overseeing a comprehensive, step-by-step vision. But first, we need that plan, which right now is beyond the current competencies of those who lead our Community Development efforts.

It’s time to look at what other communities have done here, and see which models we can adopt.

But we’re not getting there by allowing developers to jam 10 tiny apartments into a space that might be better for retail space, and the types of businesses that make Peabody Square a destination rather than a pass through.

Those who think that bringing more people to live downtown is a key to our future success here are wrong and misguided. We already have thousands of people living within a half-mile radius of Peabody Square, and what has that gotten us? More barber shops, nail salons, and liquor stores.

Meanwhile, Salem is becoming the restaurant capital of the North Shore, and a destination for people looking for a night out or a day of boutique shopping. By now, we should all be a little tired of the claim that Salem can do this and we can’t because Salem has the built in advantages such as the waterfront. Most of the new shops and restaurants in Salem are down along Washington Street, which isn’t on the water.

Salem has been able to revitalize its downtown because, thanks to its civic leaders, it came up with a comprehensive vision designed to encourage the right kind of businesses downtown, and Mayor Kim Driscoll is using her power to ensure that it gets done right.

Mayor Bettencourt has the opportunity to now do the same.

Mr. Mayor, I support you, but it’s time to bring in some more talent when it comes to your Community Development department.  Let’s find out who those redevelopment visionaries are, and let’s hire them to help us with something that would become your major legacy piece as mayor.

Peabody’s general obligation municipal purpose loan nets very low 2.042% interest rate

10 Apr

The following press release was sent to The Eye by Mayor Ted Bettencourt’s office.

From the Mayor’s Office

Mayor Edward A. Bettencourt, Jr., is pleased to announce that the City of Peabody received competitive bids from bond underwriters on Wednesday, April 3, 2013, for $10,533,000 General Obligation Bonds.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch was the winning bidder on the Bonds with an average interest rate of 2.042%.  Bond proceeds will be used to finance Library Building Improvements, Water Treatment Plant Upgrades, Flood Mitigation, as well as to refinance bonds of the City dated February 1, 2005.  The refinancing will generate total savings of $327,327.

Prior to the sale, Moody’s Investors Service, a municipal credit rating agency, affirmed the City’s “Aa1” long-term debt rating. The agency cited the City’s sizable and diverse tax base, unused levy capacity, and stable financial position as positive credit factors.

“We’re obviously very pleased with the results of this bond sale,” said Mayor Bettencourt.  “Peabody’s strong ‘Aa1’ credit rating and the continuing low interest rate market enable us to make critical infrastructure upgrades while saving taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in interest charges.”

The bids for the bonds were accepted at the office of the City’s financial advisor, First Southwest Company, at 54 Canal Street in Boston, Massachusetts.

Council expected to side with Mayor on removing Civil Service as criteria for picking police, fire chiefs

27 Mar

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt

Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt

The Peabody City Council’s Legal Affairs Committee did the right thing last night in voting to advance to a vote of the full City Council Mayor Ted Bettencourt’s request to remove the police and fire chief’s jobs from the jurisdiction of Civil Service.

Councilor At-Large Jim Liacos said it best last night when he argued that the Mayor should have the ability to “pick his own team” without being hamstrung by Civil Service scores. Removing the barrier allows Peabody to find the best candidate for filling those executive positions, starting with the selection of a new police chief when Chief Robert Champagne retires on June 1.

There is also the issue of a Mayor being able to fire a department head based on performance.  Right now, unless there is some malfeasance, that’s not allowed under the Civil Service system.

Although Civil Service test scores need to remain an effective way of avoiding political patronage when it comes to hiring rank-and-file firefighters and police officers, a Mayor should have the right to pick his/her own department heads and executive team, regardless of test scores. I wrote about this earlier in the Eye, if you’d like to read more.

“We all want the best candidate, the most qualified person, for this critically important position and I believe removing the chief position, for both police and fire, from Civil Service gives us the best chance of finding the right person,” Bettencourt said.

Just three members of the Legal Affairs Committee were present last night, with Councilors Liacos and Bob Driscoll supporting the Mayor’s request. Councilor At-Large Anne Manning-Martin wasn’t supportive of the Mayor’s request.

The matter will now go before the full council on Thursday, where it’s expected to pass. The vote would serve as a home rule petition that the state legislature would then have to approve and have signed by the Governor.

You can read the full story here in the Peabody Patch.

Please let me know where you stand by leaving a comment.

Catching up on nice honor for local hero … and more

22 Mar

(Just catching up on some things after a very busy month for work travel and the campaign.)

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Local hero Alex Romano

Local hero Alex Romano

Starting this off today by talking about an honor for a “local hero,” and a young woman who should be a model for other Peabody teens to follow.

Peabody High senior Alexndra Romano was honored this week as a local hero by the American Red Cross of Northeast Massachusetts for going above and beyond in putting together a campaign to help people who became homeless because of Hurricane Sandy. Alex called her campaign “Kill the Chill,” and it included collecting clothing and blankets, and collecting donations for storm victims, which were quickly put to use by the Red Cross.

Alex and her sister Lea are both very active in their community when it comes to public service, and it’s an awesome thing to watch in these days when many young people would rather spend their free time playing video games.

The sisters also each year organize the “Caring Carolers,” who roam our Goodale Street-area neighborhood during Christmastime singing carols door-to-door while collecting money for Haven From Hunger. Not only do they get their friends together to sing for a very good cause, but their visit to your door really makes you feel good and get into the Christmas spirit.

Angela and Mike Romano must be very proud parents!

 Want to know why we are stuck with Comcast?

Mayor Ted Bettencourt  says he is asked on an almost daily basis why Peabody is not home to any alternative providers of cable TV, high-speed internet and telephone service. Conspiracy theories abound but it turns out the answer is simple and straight forward, according to a press release The Eye received from City Hall this week:

“At this time, no other provider of the phone/cable/ internet trio of services has expressed an interest in coming to Peabody,” Mayor Bettencourt tells The Eye. “We would like residents to have a choice of providers and would certainly welcome other options. At this time however, none of the alternatives to Comcast has stepped up with a proposal.”

Mayor Bettencourt said he understands Peabody residents’ frustration with the lack of choice here. “I absolutely understand their frustrations,” Bettencourt said. “Having a choice helps assure we get the best value for our money. When there is no competition in the marketplace, people feel like they are at the mercy of a monopoly. In the final analysis however, we cannot force these competitors to set up shop in Peabody against their will.”

With some of the best known alternatives out of reach for now, Bettencourt says the city may turn its attention to niche providers who offer similar services on an individual or dual basis rather than the heavily marketed three-in-one portfolio.

“We recognize the benefit of having more than one provider of cable, phone and internet service,” said Mayor Bettencourt. “If another provider sees a market in Peabody, we are all ears.”

 Our sign of the times: Great job by Smuz and the Mayor

Hats off to Mayor Bettencourt for holding firm and instituting the cease and desist order, and to City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski for his skillful argument in court this past week on placement of the giant billboard on Lowell Street near Route 1.

Judge Howard Whitehead agreed with city officials — the 92-foot pole is definitely not where they thought it was going to be installed when he ruled against the city last year.

As reported in the Peabody Patch, Smerczynski says the issue now for Whitehead to decide is whether that truly was because of a clerical error when the plans were submitted in court or a broken promise first made to appease local officials who didn’t want the billboard there at all off Lowell Street. The city and the owner of the billboard, Total Outdoor Corp, argued their sides in Salem Superior Court this past Monday. Definitely more work to do in court before this is resolved. Stay tuned.

 Should be either Dunne or Gravel, but Cole could surprise

Going to be a very interesting Election Day on April 2 when people go to the polls to vote in the State Rep special election. Because name recognition is so important, I honestly think it’s between Democrat Beverley Griffin Dunne and unenrolled candidate David Gravel. But there is a lot of money being pumped into Republican Leah Cole’s campaign by the Republican Party and the Ron-Paul-inspirted Libery Movement. There’s also a lot of unhappiness these days with traditional candidates, so Cole might actually pull a solid number. It’s not my State Rep district, so I sort of feel cheated here. I can’t even vote! …

Great job by Councilor At-Large Tom Gould while handling the MC duties at last Saturday’s First Annual St. Patrick’s Day Roast and breakfast at City Hall. Also, a lot of surprisingly funny performances by some local politicos. I mean, who knew Ward 6 Councilor Barry Sinewitz and Mayor Bettencourt were actually funny guys? It was a really fun morning for a really great cause as all the ticket and raffle money went to Haven From Hunger.

If you are in the 12th Essex State Rep District: GET OUT AND VOTE on April 2nd!

Mayor is right: Hiring of new Chiefs shouldn’t be determined only by test scores

12 Mar

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Mayor Ted Bettencourt

Mayor Ted Bettencourt

When a community searches for a new police or fire chief, the process shouldn’t be hamstrung by a test that has a primary intent of keeping politics out of hiring.  Civil Service tests are a good thing when it comes to keeping the hiring of police officers and firefighters “honest.”

But it’s just too limiting of a tool for evaluating and hiring public safety chief executives.

This is why I support Mayor Ted Bettencourt in his request that a Civil Service test score no longer be the determining factor when it comes to Peabody hiring for these two critically important positions. The Mayor is asking the City Council to vote to remove both the police and fire chief positions from the jurisdiction of Civil Service.

Not worrying about how a candidate scores on a Civil Service test will help broaden the pool of potential candidates for the new Police Chief when current Chief Robert Champagne retires on June 1.

“My research has shown that the best process for the city is to take the (chiefs’) positions out of Civil Service,” the Mayor told the Peabody Patch.

And he’s right. Who the right person is for the job needs to be based on several criteria,  and to eliminate people simply because they didn’t get a Top 3 score on a Civil Service exam would be to eliminate some of the best candidates for a position that is essential when it comes to public safety.

Bettencourt says that he wouldn’t totally eliminate the test as criteria, but other criteria would carry as much, if not more weight, than the Civil Service score.

The Mayor’s request is likely headed for the Council’s Legal Affairs Committee. But the Council should act quickly here,  and I feel the councilors should approve this request so Peabody is assured of the best possible replacement when Chief Champagne leaves.

Mayor names Rydzewski to business liaison position

4 Mar

Note: The Eye received the following press release from City Hall this morning, announcing that Mayor Ted Bettencourt had made his choice for the new business liaison position.

FROM THE MAYOR’S OFFICE:

Acting on his pledge to make Peabody more business friendly,  Mayor Ted Bettencourt has named veteran City Hall staff member Julie Rydzewski the city’s first Business Liaison.

A graduate of Merrimack College who has worked in the administrations of three Peabody mayors during her 13 years in public service, Rydzewski has served as the City’s Grants Manager since 2007.  With over six years’ experience working in Community Development, Rydzewski boasts an impressive grasp of the city’s permitting process as well as the needs and direction of Peabody’s business community.

“While we interviewed a number of very qualified individuals for the position of Business Liaison, Julie really stood out,” said Mayor Bettencourt.  “Her credentials are obviously very impressive and her knowledge of the Peabody landscape – both the inner workings of municipal government and of the community at large, is what sets her apart.”

Indeed, Rydzewski began her career in government as a paid intern in the office of former Mayor Peter Torigian.  That internship continued throughout her college years and culminated with a full time position as Senior Treasury Clerk under former Mayor Mike Bonfanti.  In addition to her role as Grants Manager under Community Development Director Karen Sawyer, Rydzewski lends her considerable skills to the Board of Health, Licensing Board, and Community Development Authority (CDA).

“I am truly honored to be chosen by Mayor Bettencourt for this exciting new position of Business Liaison,” Rydzewski said.  “The City of Peabody has so much to offer the business community in terms of a skilled workforce, favorable tax structure, great highway access, and now a dedicated advocate inside City Hall.”

Rydzewski plans to hit the ground running as Business Liaison in part based on her extensive network of contacts culled from over a dozen years working in City Hall.  In addition to being the eyes and ears of the Community Development Department since 2007,  Rydzewski is a prolific volunteer.  She lends her talent and enthusiasm to a number of civic boards including the Cultural Council, the Wellness Committee, the Restaurant Week Committee and the Snowshoe Classic 5K Race Committee.

“We cast a wide net to find the right person for this important role,” Mayor Bettencourt said.  “It turns out the right person was already here.  Julie Rydzewski will be a terrific champion for Peabody’s business community.”

Pay increases approved for Mayor, City Councilors and School Commitee

15 Feb

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

I’ll weigh in during the discussion, but for now I just wanted to get our readership’s  reaction to the Peabody City Council last night voting pay raises for the Mayor,  School Committee members,  and City Councilors.

Here are the basic details.  (You can read more in this article from the Peabody Patch.)

The City Council voted 8-2 to hike the Mayor’s pay from $94,933 per year to $105,000 per year (10% increase). It’s the first mayoral raise in 12 years.

Councilors also voted 7-3 to increase their salaries to 9 percent of the mayor’s salary, starting in 2014, and give School Committee members an $1,100 raise. School Committee members will now earn $5,100, while councilors will earn about $9,450 (up from $7,466).

Please give me your thoughts in the comments section. I’ll try to weigh in with my opinion during the discussion.

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