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More housing downtown doesn’t equal a sensible plan for revitalization

1 Aug

Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

If you saw the local Beverly-based “newspaper” with Salem at the front of its name this morning, you might have thought that Peabody Square is now a trendy place to live,just like South Beach in Miami, or in one of those million dollar lofts above some shop on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

SquareThere is was, a huge spread, complete with room-by-room photos of new postage-stamp-sized apartments at 11 Main Street. But there are granite countertops, so who am I to talk?

There are also panoramic views of Peabody Square out the windows , where you can watch the sunset over lovely beauty shops, liquor stores, and vacant store fronts. I’m sure this will cause young professionals to flock in a frenzy to rent these new digs.

First off, congrats to developer Norman Lee for talking the local bugle into a huge kiss-ass spread on what are essentially 11 small apartments that might be occupied by middle to lower-middle class residents who are looking for affordable housing. Then again, as someone who previously worked for small, struggling newspapers, my guess here is that this article  was one of those “bought-and-paid-for” services. The newspaper in question, after all, is on death’s door, so why not disguise paid content as real news once in a while?

But I digress.

The reason for my rant this morning is that, what you see at 11 Main Street is right now Peabody’s idea of how we should re-vitalize the downtown. Let’s jump at every chance to allow willing developers to turn old, dilapidated spaces into small one-bedroom apartments. Yeah, right, that’ll bring people with money to spend into the downtown.

We’ve seen this before with those ugly apartments on Walnut Street, and seen other greedy, slip-shot developers come and go before the city council requesting special permits to build “lavish” apartments. As a way to re-develop downtown, this strategy has failed miserably while adding to the city’s stock of Section 8 housing.

I’m not saying that  Lee is “slipshod” or “greedy.” After all, he’s a businessman, and he saw an opportunity. These teeny-tiny apartments look kind of nice from the kiss-ass photos I saw, but why would “young professionals” want to live in Peabody Square right now?

I come back to this again and again in this space, but the beat goes on when it comes to Peabody not having an overall strategy to turn things around downtown. Someone in community development needs to FINALLY understand that turning prime locations in the downtown into lower income housing is NOT the way you create economic development that will have a positive impact on our tax base and our community.

We continue to have what amounts to ill-advised patch-work tactics rather than an actual, sustainable, actionable community development plan. We have a passionate mayor who I feel truly wants to get things rolling downtown in an effort to create more revenue for the city, and take some of the burden off residential payers. But then we also have a community development department that totally lacks vision.

So, we all watch as our taxes rise, and we continue to approve unsightly billboards as a way to create much-needed revenue for infrastructural  improvements, a much-needed new middle school, and to pay for a regional vocational school that is part grandiose educational facility, part scam to feed the state’s hack-o-rama.

So, congrats to Mr. Lee on his wondrous new apartments, which I hear have a trendy new address: 17 Peabody Square. After all, it’s not his fault that this is what passes in Peabody for sensible city planning.

Giving unauthorized signs no latitude on bike path

8 Jul

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

POLEIt’s always rewarding doing this blog when we’re able to be a watchdog, and elicit change. It’s happened numerous times since we started here more than two years ago.

And today, we bring you the latest example. We helped stop some possible shenanigans on the bike path, where certain powers that be allowed a free ad on public property for the Latitude Sports Club. This sign, which got Latitude’s name in front of thousands exercise fans, who are all potential customers for the club, was attached to a PMLP light pole.

SIGNAfter seeing it exposed here, the power company has done the right thing, and removed the unapproved sign. Looks like who ever put  up that sign will have to blow kisses at the developer in question in some other way. Wouldn’t it be nice it they could actually get the club to pay the city for sponsoring a section of the bike path, with the money going to help up keep of the path? After all, the last thing we want is to risk anonymous envelopes landing in someone’s mailbox.

Call this one a victory for the people of Peabody.

Caption the photos on the right “gone today, here yesterday.”

 

Update: PMLP taking down sign with curious ad for a local sports club

7 Jul

SIGNBy Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Less than a week after we pointed it out here on The Eye, we’ve learned that the “curious” sign on a bike path poll, advertising a local sports club, is being taken down by the Peabody Municipal Light Plant (PMLP).

Turns out that the sign (seen here on the right), was put on the light pole owned by PMLP without permission.  The Light Commission got wind of the sign, and  has asked that it be removed, and no one is sure how the blatant free ad — located just a few hundred yards from the bike path entrance to Lt. Ross Park — got there.

But all of this leads  us to believe that some good ole boy shenanigans continue in Ward 5. The “perks” continue for developers, who have  run amok in this part of the city for more than the last 25 years. This particular sign got the name of this sports club in front of thousands of walkers, bikers, and runners each day for free, and likely resulted in more memberships for the Route 1 club.

If you’re wondering how the sign got there, feel free to fill up Ward 5 Councilor Joel Saslaw’sinbox with your question at jdsaslaw@gmail.com

Does anyone know what’s up with this sign?

3 Jul

SIGNBy Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Just curious today as I ask people in our growing audience if they know what’s up with this sign on the bike path near Lt. Ross Park?

First off, you can’t get to Latitude Sports Club from the bike path. But I’m even more curious to know how this private business’ name got on a city-owned directional sign in plain view of thousands of bikers, joggers, and walkers.  The exercisers who see this sign on a regular basis are definitely what you would call “qualified leads” for Latitude memberships.

Did Latitude pay for this? And if so, shouldn’t it clearly say they are just a sponsor of the bike path, rather than giving them what looks like an endorsement by the city? I actually think we should be encouraging businesses to sponsor things like the bike path, but this one looks a little fishy.

Also not sure if I’d be very happy with this if I were the owner of a competing Peabody-based workout facility.

 

Lovely and Cole don’t make us pay for their commute … Meanwhile, Speliotis is ‘King of the Per Diem’

1 Jul

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

We spend significant time in this space exposing elected officials when they don’t act in the best interests of “we the people.” So, it’s only fair that we also make mention when they do the right thing.

Leah Cole ... working toward the fringe?

Leah Cole: “We’re supposed to work for the taxpayers, and most people don’t get paid to drive to work.”

Those mentions come today as we tip our caps to State Senator Joan Lovely (D-Salem), and State Rep. Leah Cole (R-Peabody).  After all, it came to light last week that neither Mrs. Lovely nor Ms. Cole are bilking the taxpayers for one of the most-outrageous benefits received by most of the solons on Beacon Hill.

Neither Lovely, nor Cole take per diem (up to $18/day) for just commuting into the State House. According to state treasurer records, taxpayers gave lawmakers more than $300,000 in per diems last year. Think about that as you’re paying out of your own pocket to fill up your tank three times a week just to get to work.

So, thank you Senator Lovely and Rep. Cole …

But now, let’s consider the case of the “King of Per Diems.” The people of West Peabody are represented by a man who shamelessly took your money at a rate of $18 per day just to commute to work. Ted Speliotis, who never saw a tax increase he didn’t like, collected $3,510 of your money last year to make 195 trips into Boston. By the way, the solons get this reimbursement without needing to provide receipts. It’s all on the honor system. Of all of the North Shore lawmakers, Speliotis took the second largest overall per diem, but he was less than $80 out of first place!

With per diem, we essentially pay Mr. Speliotis, who faces a stiff challenge this fall from West Peabody resident Tom Lyons, more than $70K per year for what’s essentially a part-time job.

And just as an important aside here … this guy voted for the gas tax. Why wouldn’t he? We’re the ones filling his tank for free.

“We’re supposed to be working for the taxpayers, and most people don’t get paid to drive to work,” Ms. Cole told the Salem News last week. “But I only live about 20 minutes away, so it’s not a big deal.”

By the way, if you see Ted Speliotis in traffic on the way into work someday, make sure you don’t have any cash in your hands if you decide to wave. He might grab it.

 

Peabody tax and water bills on rise as city tries to pay for new voke school boondoggle

19 Jun

Mayor calls for $5.4M budget increase; $3M assessed to pay for new voke school

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

If you supported those wasteful, big-spending elected officials – especially State Rep Ted Speliotis — who pushed for Peabody to join in the taxpayer screw job called the new North Shore Technical school, then please, bend over right now and scream out “thank you, sir! May I have another?!”

Call this horror show The MEGA VOKE that ate the Peabody Taxpayers!

Artists rendering of MEGA VOKE!

Artist rendering of MEGA VOKE!

Because of this opulent and overly ostentatious new voke school in Danvers – which will only serve around 150 of Peabody’s roughly 6,000 students – not only are your property taxes going up in 2015, but get ready for an increase in water and sewer rates too.

 

Mayor Ted Bettencourt submitted his FY2015 city budget to the City Council, and it’s calling for a $5.4 million increase, of which roughly $3 million will go to offset our share of next year’s piece of the North Shore Voke pork pie.

The mayor, in a letter to the city council obtained by The Eye, says that roughly means an average tax increase of $189 per homeowner, and a likely, yet to be determined increase in Peabody’s traditionally reasonable water and sewer rates. For those keeping score, that’s 13 straight years of property tax increases in Peabody.

And … this is just Year 1 of this Disaster in Danvers. This state of the art, $133 million school in Speliotis’ hometown, is the “gift” that will keep on giving for Peabody taxpayers now and forever.

Speliotis, who faces an election year challenge from Peabody Republican Tom Lyons, not only got this Taj Mahal of a school for his hometown of Danvers, but I’m sure he made big labor happy with the building’s bloated construction costs, which are already over budget.

Then there’s the hacks-at-the-trough process they’re using in hiring administrators. The new school’s superintendent, a guy named Daniel O’Connell, will make $197,000/year. That’s about $50K more a year than what we thought was a big contract for Peabody Schools Super Joe Mastrocola. Looks now  like Joe was a huge bargain when you consider that he manages a system with roughly 5,550 more students than will attend O’Connell’s school.

And, it gets ever worse. Not only will Peabody need to pony up millions more to send a handful of students to this new school, but because we’re transferring students from our system to this regional voke system, Peabody is set to lose $504K additional when it comes to state aid.

Next time you complain about the conditions in Peabody’s public schools, think about this: It’s only going to get worse while we as a city figure out a way to pay for a school that will service less than 3% of Peabody’s total student population. And we haven’t even talked about the costs associated with our own much-needed new Higgins Middle School, where huge construction bills are in the mail.

At this point, I should add a disclaimer for those screaming that I’m anti-vocational education. This space supports vocational education as much as the next blog, but we’re just not seeing the practicality or fairness of bilking the taxpayers in this particular situation.

Here are the facts, ladies and gentlemen: An estimated 200 Peabody kids, who we could have given a valuable vocational education had we only – for a lot less cost – re-vamped our on Peabody Vocational High School – are now going to watch helplessly as 150 of their classmates hit the lottery and are allowed to attend this educational palace on the hill in Danvers.

So, please bend over today, and thank Ted Speliotis, and those Peabody City Councilors who voted for this disastrous “gift” that will keep on giving for us the taxpayers.

Saslaw admits he applied for meter reader position, called two Light Commissioners about the job

11 Jun

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Just a quick update on an issue we first broke here in The Eye. Ward 5 Councilor Joel Saslaw confirmed in an article in today’s Salem News that he has officially applied for a second city job as a meter reader at the Peabody Municipal Light Plant, and has called two Light Commissioners about the position.

The well-plmpwritten, well-balanced article, written by John Castelluccio, brings up the questions of whether it is legal and ethical for a sitting city councilor to hold an additional city job. In the article, Saslaw admits that he called two of the Light Commissioners, but insists he was not “lobbying for the job” with those fellow elected officials. Who knows? Maybe he was just checking with these commissioners to see if the PMLP was a cool place to work. :)

Light Plant General Manager  Glenn Trueira confirmed in the article that there are additional candidates on the list for this unskilled position.

Since we first broke this story, the issue of political patronage in city hiring has come to the forefront in Peabody.  Saslaw applying for this meter reader job, which pays $50,000/year with full benefits and a pension plan, put the spotlight on this issue, and sources tell The Eye that city officials are now being careful when it comes to hiring other current and former elected officials.

Stay tuned. We’ll update you as more info becomes available.

Update: City set to use ‘technicality’ to allow Saslaw to be eligible for job

21 May

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Just wanted to update an earlier post here, and tell you that the city is prepared to rule that Ward 5 Councilor Joel Saslaw can hold the position of meter reader for the light plant, provided he only takes only one salary from the city.

plmpMassachusetts General Law clearly states that a sitting elected official cannot collect an additional salary from the municipality in which he/she serves. So sources tell me that the city will get around this  through a technicality.   Mr. Saslaw can keep his city council seat while not collecting the less than $10K a year salary that goes with being a councilor. This would allow Peabody to hire him to the $50,000 a year ,with full benefits and pension, position of electric meter reader.

The State Ethics Commission would have final say here, and there’s still a question on whether Saslaw should be given the job over several other candidates who have applied.

The Eye reported earlier that Saslaw has called more than one elected Light Commissioner to lobby for the position, raising possible conflict of interest questions. Currently before the city council is a motion on whether the Light Commissioners will be granted a raise that would make them pension-eligible.

More to come as it develops, but let me know if you think this is an end-run, and whether you feel it’s still improper for an elected official to be hired to an additional city job when there are other qualified citizens who have applied ahead of him.

 

 

Bikeway snowed under as city chooses not to plow a popular recreation area

7 Mar

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Now that Mother Nature has helped finally clear all of our side streets from the icy leftovers of a horrible job of snow removal this winter in Peabody, some memories remain of the carelessness  by contracted plow jockeys and the decisions made by the DPW.

bikeway (2) (403x537)If you want to walk your dog or escape cabin fever with a little exercise, don’t even think of doing so by taking a jaunt on Peabody’s bikeway.

After all, sources tell The Eye that major sections of the bikeway, especially in West Peabody, remain icy and snow covered.

Apparently, and even though the bikeway is paved from end to end, the city decided to not plow what has become a very nice recreation area for residents.

So much for being able to exercise or commune with nature in the winter months.

The photo above shows what I mean. It was taken along a stretch of bikeway between West Peabody and the Middleton line.

As you can see, people are still trying to use it, which means that the city not plowing the bikeway is also turning into a safety hazard.

 

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.

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