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Speliotis owes taxpayers an explanation on why he helped developer get special treatment

20 Nov

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Let’s call it what it is and all agree that it was a questionable deal that allowed a developer to get a no-bid contract to construct a state-of-the-art sports complex on the grounds of the Essex Technical Regional High School in Middleton.


Ted Speliotis

The developer, a company named Edge Sports, was not only granted the rights to build the $11 million facility on public property, it won the contract with no competition. Instead of following state law, which requires that taxpayer rights be protected through an open bidding process on such projects, Edge was granted the contract through a line item added to a larger spending bill on Beacon Hill, according to the Salem News.

Was that legal? Well, the Office of the Inspector General and the State Ethics Commission will need to decide, and a source tells us that state oversight officials are looking into whether there was a violation here.

For now, though, Ted Speliotis – our State Rep, who co-sponsored the legislation that gave Edge the edge outside of the open bid process – has some explaining to do to the taxpayers he represents in West Peabody, Middleton and Danvers.

Not only didn’t he help his constituents receive the protection of the open bid process, he helped pass essentially an “earmark” that will give Edge Sports the opportunity to lease the property at our vocational school for free.

There is a lot that smells with this deal, and so far, we the taxpayers should not be satisfied with the response from Rep. Speliotis.

According to the Salem News, Speliotis said in a phone interview this week that he did not pay close enough attention when the deal was being negotiated.

“I did go along with it, but it was really my colleagues who amended this thing” to require that the lease be awarded to Edge Sports without a competitive bid process or review by the state Inspector General, Speliotis told the Salem News.

Instead of “passing the buck” on this one, Ted, how about giving the taxpayers you represent a real explanation on how you just didn’t look out for our best interests?

Ethical questions arise over construction of new sports complex at regional voke school

16 Nov

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Following the publication of a comprehensive investigative report this morning by Paul Leighton of the Salem News, it might finally be time for the State Ethics Commission to investigate potential political shenanigans on the grandiose grounds of Essex Technical Regional High School.

The latest saga involving the $135 million “Mega-Voke” — which serves 40 communities, including Danvers, Peabody and Middleton — concerns a dubious deal for a new sports complex. Leighton reports that, in November 2013, Essex Tech Superintendent Dan O’Connell suggested – as required when it comes to public projects — that the school board issue a request for proposal (RFP), and put out for bid a plan to build a sports complex on school grounds in Middleton.

But now, two years later, as construction is about to begin on the $11 million facility — with its two ice-skating rinks, an indoor turf field, and an athlete training center — it has come to light that that no bidding process occurred. A developer called Edge Sports Group was simply handed the contract following some questionable maneuvers within the State Legislature.

Ted Speliotis

Ted Speliotis

Contrary to a “strong recommendation” from the State Inspector General that the deal be put out to bid in an effort to ensure “an open and fair deal” for taxpayers, State Rep. Ted Speliotis and Gloucester state Sen. Bruce Tarr sneaked a few lines into a large spending bill on Beacon Hill that gave the lease to Essex Sports.

Not necessarily illegal or unusual on Beacon Hill, but according to Leighton’s report, here are some things that make you go “hmmm” as a taxpayer:

  • According to Leighton, one of the key people behind the passage of the special legislation was Jack McGlynn, a Salem-based attorney and lobbyist who also works as outside counsel to Essex Tech. McGlynn played a significant role in guiding the legislation that created Essex Tech, Leighton writes, adding that, according to state records, the North Shore Regional Vocational School District paid McGlynn $217,000 as a lobbyist from 2005 to 2010 while the merger was being developed.
  • McGlynn, Leighton writes, has been paid approximately $24,000 over the last two years by Essex Tech for his advice on the sports complex and other issues, according to the school district.
  • In 2014, he landed another employer regarding the project – Edge Sports Developer Brian DeVellis. According to state records, Leighton writes, the company hired McGlynn on Feb. 14, 2014, to lobby for passage of the legislation that would specify Essex Sports (Edge) as the developer. Leighton adds that 10 days later, O’Connell and McGlynn hosted a meeting for local legislators at Essex Tech to introduce the DeVellis and Edge Sports Group.
  • McGlynn, Speliotis tells the Salem News, has also contributed to every fundraiser the Rep has held since he was elected in 1997.

Speliotis, meanwhile, told the Salem News that he was not concerned about going through a public bidding process because there were no other developers willing to build the sports facility. “The RFP process is to make sure you’re not giving a special deal to someone in a marketplace where someone else doesn’t have an opportunity,” he said. “There wasn’t any market for this. I’m confident today that if we could put it out to bid, we’re not going to get any bidders.”

Not a market for this? Does Edge Sports really have a “monopoly” on building sports complexes?

The other sweetheart part of this deal for the developer comes through the actual lease. Essex Sports has agreed to allow all of the voke’s teams to use the facility for its games and practices without paying a fee. But there’s also a catch: Essex Sports will deduct a per athlete user-fee from the rent it will pay to the school district. In other words, the developer will probably end up paying no rent at all.

Great job of reporting by Paul Leighton, and I’m sure he’ll have further details and follow up. Here’s hoping that members of the State Ethics Commission read the Salem News.

New voke school is the ‘gift’ that keeps on giving for Peabody taxpayers

17 Sep

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

It’s the “gift” that keeps on giving, and now there’s reason to believe that Peabody taxpayers might be further fleeced because of an oversight when it comes to the new, totally ostentatious North Shore Technical School.

taxesYou see, the genius political movers and shakers, who built this Palace of Versailles of voke schools, forgot about a “little” obligation owed to the retirees of Essex Aggie, which was merged with the new voke.

Turns out that no one figured into the already over-inflated cost of the new school an additional $375,000 owed annually to pensioners. What that means is that Peabody, which wasn’t even part of the old district that included Essex Aggie, might be on the hook for a big chunk this oversight.

Oops! Maybe State Rep Ted Speliotis, a champion of this over-priced  educational edifice should simply throw up his arms and say … “sorry, the dog ate my homework.”

The new school, which will serve fewer than 200 of Peabody’s 6,000 students, is already taking a $3 million bite out of Peabody’s budget. This year, it was the primary reason for Peabody being forced, for the 13 straight year, to raise taxes on homeowners.

The problem now is that no one wants to own this mistake when it comes to the pension obligation, and no one seems to know how or why the oversight happened in the first place. Of course, the answer is simple as to who will “own” it. It belongs to us, and the taxpayers of all of the other communities who joined in here.

It’s too bad, since I’m sure the movers and shakers behind this over-the-top luxurious school building could have easily swept it under the rug when it came to the overall budget. Heck, no one would have even noticed. Right?

But now, we likely own it, and the question is, how much of it will be the obligation of Peabody taxpayers, whose kids never milked one cow at the old Essex Aggie?

Follow Bob on Twitter @eyeonpeabody

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.

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.

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.

Re-development in Peabody should always be connected to responsibility

25 Sep

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

It was a good meeting last night at the West Branch Library. A night during which residents were presented research by a consultant on how we can revitalize Peabody’s downtown, and then asked their opinions on what should go in currently developable properties.

But there was also a moment near the end the meeting that summed up a major challenge we face as we go through the process of not only revitalizing parts of our community, but also reinvigorating our economic engine.

When the presentation was over, and all of the brainstorming done, Community Development Office official Blair Haney made a comment that spoke to something that’s unseen by many, but gotten us into past messes when it comes to development. Essentially, what Mr. Haney told the audience was that — in order to move forward — we need the full cooperation of the Peabody City Council and the residents when it comes to granting developers special permits.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I don’t think Mr. Haney was talking about granting special permits to build everything and anything developers want. After all, haven’t we recently seen the ugly side of blind cooperation when it comes to many developers in Peabody?

But it should cause us to pause, think, and ensure that we don’t get fooled again. This is indeed a cautionary tale.

Wasn’t it unchallenged “cooperation” that got us that ugly condo complex on Walnut Street, and isn’t it unchallenged “cooperation” that is causing the residents of the Winona Street neighborhood near Route 1 major headaches? I could go on and on about developers maximizing profits by building cheap, ugly projects,  grossly violating the terms special permits, and not caring about residents’ property rights.

But let’s spare you of  those gory details, and say that I don’t think there are many residents who don’t agree that we need an economic rebirth in Peabody. After all, we have a lot to pay for these days, and bringing more responsible development to the city will help us pay for capital improvements. At the same time, it would stabilize the residential tax rate. More businesses mean a lot more commercial tax revenue, which in turn means that residents aren’t taxed to death. As a result, we’d find a sane way to pay for a much-need new middle school, and flood mitigation, and all of the other improvements necessary for our civic infrastructure.

Economic development would be a great thing for Peabody, but until we get smart about it and get the right kind of development, a request for our full cooperation with developers sends chills up the spines of residents, who have had their quality of life trampled on far too often.

As a city councilor, I would most-definitely be pro-business and pro-economic development. But the rights of residents still need to come first, and those developers with a track record of violating their special permits can’t be given more chances to mess this all up again. It can no longer be a case of everything goes in Peabody, not in our downtown, and not out on Route 1.

What we need is responsible and well-planned out community re-development, and for Peabody to partner only with reputable developers to get this all done. If it’s  not the right thing to do for a neighborhood, city councilors should never fear  saying “no.”

That’s what those residents who attended that excellent meeting last night want, and that’s what they and our city deserves.

Signs of our times: More ugly billboards on the way

24 Sep

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

While we’ve all been focused on the battle against the giant billboard eyesore on Lowell Street near Route 1, outdoor advertising companies have been lining up to erect even greater monstrosities in other Peabody locations. If you think that the static sign next to the Subway sub shop infringes on your quality of life, wait until you see what’s about to happen elsewhere in Ward 5.

Two giant, flashing digital billboards have been approved for Route 1, and now comes a third, which will soon go before the city council for approval. Welcome to Peabody’s version of the Las Vegas Strip.

Cove Outdoor Advertising is hoping to win city council approval to erect a 14 by 48 feet digital sign on Route 128 near Jubilee Drive. The city, meanwhile, stands to make $25K annually on each one of these eyesores. I know that Peabody needs revenue right now, but are we willing to destroy our community aesthetically for this sort of incremental revenue?

It’s definitely time for the city council to come up with some guidelines on how many of these we’ll allow in our community.  It’s also important that they ask some serious questions when Cove comes before them for a permit on this latest sign.

Here’s the link to the full article in the Salem News.

Please let me know what you think in the comments section.

More ‘good government’ needed to help Winona Street neighborhood residents

7 Jun

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

It’s been almost exactly four months since the city slapped a cease and desist order on the project owned by builder Richard Marchese near Route 1.  And today, the people who live on Winona, Anderson, Mouton, Cardigan and other affected streets, wait, worry and wonder how their properties and lives are going to be further affected as the remnants of Tropical Storm Andrea dump five inches of rain between now and Sunday morning.

Recently, while campaigning for Ward 5 Councilor, I had several conversations with residents living in this neighborhood where this irresponsible developer has operated with total disregard for peoples’ quality of life. They told me stories of flooded basements that had never previously flooded in 35 years of living there, and of their concerns over suspicious cases of cancer, which they feel might be the result of disturbing long-buried contaminants. I met Lou Maio, whose Winona Street property has been devastated by Marchese project runoff. A pool the Maio’s put in for their grandkids is now destroyed, and there is worry that their property will soon be worthless.

I live two miles from the project, yet even I now notice from my backyard how much louder the cars sound speeding down Route 1 since Marchese clear-cut that property of all of its trees. Make no mistake, this developer’s disregard for doing things right, has had a negative effect on a wide swath of West Peabody.

As I’ve written in this space before, good government means protecting the quality of life of residents above all else. But while the city has slapped a cease and desist on this developer, and the Peabody Planning Board continues to back that decision, the residents now need to know what else can be done.

They are waiting for the city and their elected officials to fight harder for them, and maybe even find a way to keep this developer from ever again conducting business in Peabody.  Currently, the cease and desist order only applies to the back part of the property, where residential homes were to be developed.  But work, for some reason continues on the commercial part of the property facing Route 1.

Meanwhile,  residents wait to see what comes next, and hold their breath in the wake of another torrential rain storm. Good government means standing up for people and against scoundrels intent on infringing upon their quality of life. So I ask you today, where is our good government?