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Peabody needs ‘signs’ of economic development in the form of a master plan

15 Jul

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

This might surprise followers of this space, but I actually think that the digital billboard approved by the Peabody City Council last week on city-owned land off Route 128 near Fishery Products International is good for the taxpayers.

Square

We continue to wonder when we’ll have an overall strategic plan for re-developing Peabody’s downtown

The company erecting the 60-foot sign will pay Peabody an initial $500,000, an initial permitting fee of $25,000, and $250,000 a year. It’s significant revenue for the city, and from what I can see, it’s not a huge threat to quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods.

But with me, that’s where the love ends for Mayor Ted Bettencourt’s strategy of looking for much-needed revenue by playing a continuous game of billboard roulette.

We get it, Ted. We all realize that the city needs the money, and that we can’t continue to raise taxes on resident payers, something that has happened for the past 13 straight years.

But dude, where’s the plan for sustainable revenue?

This strategy of blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ our mind, is not a plan at all.  In most cases, it’s a blight on our landscape, and simply quick-hit, unsustainable revenue. Not only that, but I think I might have heard somewhere that there is so-called “moratorium” against more billboards?

The stark reality of our economic situation in Peabody is that, these days, there seems to be no plan, no strategy for creating real, long-lasting, sustainable revenue. Oh sure, we have some “piecemeal” little victories here and there, a promise of a hotel in downtown, a few new restaurants, and an urban redevelopment consultancy is helping us analyze why Peabody Square is a ghost town on a Saturday night.

But there’s no strategic master plan, so  it’s either blight the roadsides with billboards, or keep shifting more of the burden on us … young families struggling to pay their mortgages, and seniors fearful that higher property taxes are going to eventually force them to sell their life-long homes.

Worse than not having a plan for increasing city revenues, is that there’s no one currently in the employ of the city with the skills and knowledge to even help us come up with that strategy.

I think the Mayor is an intelligent guy, but right now he needs to do what all smart, successful chief executives do, and surround himself with advisers who understand, inside and out, the keys to successful economic and community development. Clearly, based on the poor results, and based on us not having an overall strategic plan, those competencies don’t exist within the current Community Development Department.

Instead of adding new unnecessary positions, and assistants to the assistant here and there while paying off some old political debts, the Mayor needs to put together a plan to hire a person or persons who have helped other communities remarkably expand their commercial tax bases while improving quality of life.

He needs to look around, maybe even steal some of the best and the brightest talent from communities such as Salem and Newburyport, Melrose, and even Beverly.

How did these communities turn their blighted downtowns into full-speed-ahead economic engines, while making themselves destination communities for those who enjoy dining out and shopping? That’s something we need to find, and we need to model. Now, not later.

In these places, more responsible, quality business has resulted in more commercial tax revenue into these cities’ coffers. And, unlike billboard revenue, it’s sustainable, and of benefit to quality of life.

So, while we’re counting the big bucks from this latest billboard, let’s stop this game of billboard roulette, and realize, once and for all, that our community’s vibrancy and survival requires that we enlist the best and the brightest, and FINALLY, come up with a strategic plan that will make Peabody a destination rather than a pass through.

The by-product of that will be less of a tax burden on residents, and an overall boost to everyone’s quality of life.

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.

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.

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 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.”

Destructive Ward 5 project remains shutdown thanks to Peabody Planning Board

10 Feb

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Good government, which to me means protecting the quality of life of residents above all else, was on display again this past Thursday night.

The Peabody Planning Board remained on the side of the people living on the Winona Street side of Route 1 by backing a cease-and-desist order against a developer whose project is causing property damage and grief in this Ward 5 neighborhood.

The project, owned by builder Richard Marchese, has caused numerous resident complaints, and led Mayor Ted Bettencourt to obtain a cease-and-desist order from the city’s building inspector.

Thursday night, residents from the area told of how the clear-cutting the property of trees and other vegetation by the developer has caused flooding of property, and other destruction.

Winona Street resident Karen Anderson told the Planning Board that the destruction is “tearing the neighborhood apart.”

Others talked of water bursting into their basements, swimming pools filled with silt and mud, and one resident even told how 90% of her property had been destroyed and is now worthless.

The Planning Board listened, and kept the project shutdown. Marchese didn’t show for the hearing, allowing his attorney to be there to represent him, a fact that really bothered board member Joe Gagnon.  

“I’m very sympathetic with all the neighbors. You were harmed immensely. I’m emotional about it,” Gagnon said. “I’m very disappointed that Mr. Marchese is not here today. That really bothers me.”

Well said, Mr. Gagnon.

It’s good to see the city on the side of the residents. More to come here.

Official storm prep information from Peabody Mayor’s office

8 Feb

Hi everyone. Please get to a safe place and ride this out today.  I’m publishing the following information from the Mayor’s office. 

Stay safe,

Bob Croce

FROM THE OFFICE OF THE MAYOR

In anticipation of the expected weather event, Mayor Edward A. Bettencourt, Jr. would like to request the cooperation of residents to help support the City’s response efforts.

Schools:  Peabody Public Schools are closed on Friday, February 8, 2013.

Parking restrictions: The City of Peabody will implement its emergency parking ban effective Friday, February 8th at 8 a.m. After 8 a.m.,  and for the duration of the weather emergency, cars may not be parked on public roadways.  Any cars parked on a public roadway are subject to towing.

Mayor Bettencourt reminds both residents and the business community that the purpose of the parking ban is to allow city departments to efficiently and effectively clear the roadways to their proper widths and conditions, which is critical for the safe passage of public safety vehicles and other traffic.  The blue lights on utility poles throughout the City signal that a message has been released to the public instructing them to tune into radio 1640 AM for more details on the parking ban.

Snow removal: Mayor Bettencourt would also like to remind residents that certain sidewalks, by city ordinance, need to be cleared. We would ask that residents and businesses assist the cleanup effort by clearing their sidewalks if they are able and it is safe to do so. Please do not place snow from sidewalks into the roadway.

Communication: In addition to the blue light/AM 1640 announcements, residents are advised that all updates and additional notifications will also be made on radio stations WBZ 1030 AM and North Shore 104.9 FM.  Notifications will also be made through Nixle Alerts (www.nixle.com), City of Peabody websitewww.peabody-ma.gov, Peabody Police Department Facebook and Twitter accounts, Peabody Public Schools ConnectED system, and the Peabody Access Television channel 9 WebCrawler. The City has also set up an emergency weather telephone line at (978) 538-5758, which will provide recorded information and will be updated throughout the weekend.

Emergency shelter: The City of Peabody is prepared to open a “warming station” at the Council on Aging facility (79 Central Street) for any residents in temporary need of heat or electricity. Residents should call the business line of the Peabody Police Department at (978) 538-6385 first, so that arrangements can be made to have the warming station opened. The Council on Aging will not operate as an overnight shelter. For any residents in need of an overnight shelter, arrangements will be made at the regional American Red Cross shelter.

Power outages: Residents needing to report a power outage or downed power line should contact the Peabody Municipal Light Plant at (978) 531-5975. Please remember that downed power lines may be live, so stay away from them.  ­­

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