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High grades in Year 1 for Mayor Bettencourt

28 Dec

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Among Mayor Bettencourt's accomplishments was the approval of a new middle school

Among Mayor Bettencourt’s accomplishments in his first year was the approval of a new middle school

There are challenges yet to come, but as we prepare for the ball to drop in Peabody Square in a few days (OK, not really), we pause to assess the rookie year for Mayor Ted Bettencourt.  

From where I sit as a taxpayer, I’d sum up the Mayor’s first year performance this way:

It hasn’t been perfect, but it has been very good.

Not an A-plus, but certainly a very high B, bordering on an A-minus. Look folks, even Ted, we feel, would appreciate it if we left in some room here for growth.

So here goes … a look at what just one taxpayer, this taxpayer thinks of Year 1 of the Bettencourt Administration. These are what I feel were his three best and biggest accomplishments:

1. Passing an early challenge on healthcare

With the city stuck in neutral when it comes to revenue growth, the Mayor gets an A-plus for his leadership when it came to reaching an agreement in June with the city’s unions to enter the state’s Group Insurance Commission (GIC). Going the GIC route could end up saving the city between $10 and $15 million over the next four years.

Just months into his first term, it took guts for this rookie mayor to first draw a line in the sand, and then bring all of the city’s unions to the table to work out a smart, commonsense solution. But some of the credit also goes to the unions too. In these days when stories abound about the greediness of some union leaders, Peabody’s unions proved that collective bargaining can be a wonderful thing when neither side acts exclusively in their own self interests.

2.  The Education Mayor

Bettencourt showed leadership again in the spring, getting unanimous support from both the city council and school committee on the construction of a new Higgins Middle School, as the city scraped its original plan for renovating the existing, dilapidated, sprawling facility.  The new school will cost Peabody taxpayers about $45 million after state reimbursement, but it’s definitely much-needed, and for Bettencourt—a young mayor with a young family—it shows that he is intent on becoming the Education Mayor.

Getting new schools built in Peabody the past 20 years has been a huge struggle, but somehow this one seemed easy, and it came with almost universal acceptance from taxpayers. I know it wasn’t all Ted’s doing, but he deserves a lot of the credit here.

 3. The Pro Business Mayor  

Understanding right from the start that Peabody has a revenue problem, Bettencourt made good on a campaign promise to make the city more business friendly in an effort to expand our commercial tax base. If we’re going to get the money we need to pay existing and upcoming bills, and also improve infrastructure and schools, the burden can’t keep landing on residential taxpayers. More businesses, mean more tax dollars. So, with that in mind, Bettencourt did the following in Year 1:

  • Made it known (and even cleaned house somewhat) that he wants those city departments that deal with businesses to make the process for setting up and maintaining shop a lot easier. In 2013 he is also establishing a business liaison position.  to assist businesses in this regard.
  • Established the Economic Development Council, which is looking at bringing business back to Peabody Square and Centennial Park.
  • Got city council approval on a 1.60 tax classification for businesses, meaning businesses will only pay 1.6 times higher than the residential tax rate. In many surrounding communities it’s 1.75.

As for Year 2 …

Not that he’s taking advice from me, but if I were Ted Bettencourt I’d start leveraging some of my “political capital” in 2013, something that I feel will make him unbeatable when it comes to re-election next fall.

What do I mean by that? Well, sometimes I get the impression that the Mayor doesn’t fully realize that there is power in his popularity. We saw this during the spring when he sat on the sidelines during the special election to replace Senator Fred Berry. Meanwhile, Mayor Kim Driscoll got every Salem elected official on board behind Joan Lovely, who is now our State Senator. Suddenly, when it comes to that very influential seat, the power has shifted to Salem.

Love him or not, you have to respect how former Mayor Peter Torigian would have anointed one of the two Peabody candidates, either John Slattery or Mary Ellen Manning, and strongly insisted that every city councilor, every school committee member, light commissioner and library trustee support that candidate to ensure we didn’t lose that seat to Salem.

Ted Bettencourt has earned some tremendous “juice” in Year 1. He is popular in Peabody, and has done the job. Now, will he use that “juice” to take it to the next level, and wield the type of regional clout we saw in the past from politically powerful Mayors Nick Mavroules and Peter Torigian?

Want to let us know how you feel Mayor Bettencourt has fared in his first year? Let us know by taking our poll.

Our top 5 posts of the week

7 Dec

Want to catch up on your Eye on Peabody reading this weekend?

eyeWell, here are the Top 5 most-read posts here on the blog this week:

1. Dunne, Gould, and Gravel positioning for potential run for open State Rep seat

2. Want to run for State Rep? Here’s your chance

3. Hey Nellie, how can we miss you, if you just won’t go away

4. A positive foreign concept to consider for Peabody High

5. Check out your Peabody property valuation here

Please let us know in the comments section which posts you enjoyed most, or got the most value from this week. You can also use the “Send a hot tip” link to let us know what you’d like to see us right about go forward.

Today officially is the three-week anniversary of Eye On Peabody. During that brief span, we’ve had 41 posts, almost 400 comments, and more than 10,000 visitors. Thanks so much for visiting. We hope it’s been informative, entertaining, and helped spark some discussions where you live. 

Check out your Peabody property valuation here

1 Dec

By Eye on Peabody

Although they still need to be certified by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, the Peabody property valuations are posted on the city’s website.

Here’s how to check out your home’s valuation, which will be the basis for your 2013 Peabody property tax bill:

To look up by name, click here.

To look up by Peabody property address, click here.

For concerns or more info, you can contact the Peabody Assessor’s Office at 978-538-5716.

Martino takes fight for beer, wine license to ABCC

28 Nov

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

First, I’d like to encourage all of our readers to immediately go to Yelp.com and tell everyone that you think Frank Martino’s deli is over-rated and over-priced. My opinion is that you get better value on corned beef at the deli counter at Hannaford.

I’d also like to tell Mr. Martino to “bring it on,” since some things are just worth fighting for.

In case you’ve forgotten, Mr. Martino is the guy who first sold his full liquor license to Trader Joe’s for a whopping $205,000. Then, without shame, he came back to the Peabody Licensing Board to obtain a beer and wine license.

Now, after being rejected by the licensing board, he’s dragging the city before the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission on Dec. 5 to appeal the earlier decision, according to an article today in the Peabody Patch.

In fairness, I’d like to point out that Mr, Martino has done nothing illegal here. I mean, it’s not illegal to be a jerk, and when exactly is our city council going to look into whether the rules can be changed here to keep  some other jerk from doing this again?

But I digress!

The issue here is that, sometimes, things are just worth fighting against, and this is one of those times.

The city might very well lose, but as a taxpayer, I hope they fight to the end here, even if it means a lawsuit that could fill Martino’s pockets with more money, courtesy of us. I mean, if he gets a beer and wine license, what’s going to stop him from selling that for six figures too?

Business liaison position a good idea, but it needs to have some authority to get things done

27 Nov

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt

Mayor Ted Bettencourt will tonight ask the city council to approve the creation of a new position he hopes will help make the process of doing business in Peabody easier. This position for a “business liaison” would pay from $45,500 to $58,500 a year.

The responsibility of this liaison would be to guide business people through the process of setting up and maintaining a business in Peabody when it comes to dealing with the governmental issues and red tape.

It’s a good idea, but only if this new position has some teeth. If this only about giving business owners, and perspective business owners, information on what they need to open or maintain a business in Peabody, then it could be a waste of taxpayer money.

But if the person in this position has some authority, backed by the mayor, to break down the walls that typically make it more difficult to do business in Peabody, then I definitely applaud this move.

The mayor tells the Salem News that his intent is to have Peabody be more business-friendly, and that’s definitely a worthy goal. For years now, local businesses have found the process of operating  here complex and difficult, especially when it comes to regulations and permitting. From Day 1, Bettencourt made it his goal to have city departments be more customer-friendly to business owners. He’s made progress here, and shown he is serious through a handful of firings and hirings.

He’s also established an Economic Development Council to come up with a strategy for energizing and expanding Peabody’s commercial tax base. But that committee, of which I’m a member, definitely needs to start meeting again. We haven’t had a meeting since the spring.

But all of this, I feel, continues to show that the mayor is serious about expanding our tax base to give Peabody much-needed revenue in these times when big bills are coming due on school projects and other much-needed improvements to our infrastructure.

So, the idea for this new position is a good one … just as long is it has some teeth.

Poll: Tell us what you think about the city hiring just one person to handle HR

26 Nov

By Eye on Peabody

There are pros. There are cons. Is it worth it to save the taxpayers $70-$85k per year? Or, is it too big of a job for just one person?

Recently, Mayor Ted Bettencourt decided to combine the human resources department for Peabody, tapping Karen Budrow to handle all of the hiring and other HR duties for the entire city. Previously, there were two HR directors, one for the schools, and one for the rest of the city.

EOP would like to know in today’s poll what you think of this consolidation.  Here are the details of Budrow’s hiring from the Peabody Patch. 

Slowing down traffic in the Square meaningless without a plan for development

20 Nov

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

The plan developed was well-thought out, and construction is underway. But something really big is still missing when it comes to the reconfiguration protect on Main Street in Peabody Square.

Right now, we should be hearing voices from the heavens, not from some Iowa cornfield, but while standing down next to Civil War monument:

 “If you build it, will they come?”

In theory, slowing down the traffic through the Main Street corridor seems like a good idea. But the question remains: What exactly are we slowing people down to see? Yet another Brazilian clothing store? The WorldChurch, which now sits in the space that was once home to Brother’s Deli? How about another barber shop?

Just slowing down the traffic will not bring life, or bring businesses people want to patronize back to the downtown area.

We need a plan, and I was reminded of this again today when I read an article in the Salem News about the Beverly City Council unanimously approving a 70% tax break for the first five years, and a 30% break for the next five years for developers who build on a dilapidated stretch of Rantoul Street near the train station.

The article made me wonder when our city was going to start looking into similar incentives to bring shops and restaurants to Peabody Square once the Main Street corridor project is finished.

If you truly want to create life again in Peabody Square, you’ll need to bring back the type of commerce that makes people want to come down there in the first place. And, contrary to what I’ve heard from some city council members, it’s NOT about bringing in a major chain restaurant. The North Shore Mall already has a Cheescake Factory and a PF Changs.

Newburyport, Portsmouth, NH, and Salem, are attractive because of their waterfronts, but they also have unique shops, trendy restaurants, and accessible, affordable parking.

It’s about bringing in bistros, and bookstores, and cafes. It’s about trendy restaurants, and ethnic restaurants, and owner-operated shops. We have a decent start on that with restaurants such as Sugar Cane, and the owner of Maki Sushi has done a nice job turning a previously horrible space into a great little restaurant. But there’s so much more to do when it comes to encouraging businesses into the Square, businesses that are going to attract people from all over the North Shore, improve quality of life, and help Peabody jump start plans to expand its commercial tax base.

Right now, there are a handful of property owners who control downtown, and in recent years they’ve done whatever they can to ensure that the building space they own is occupied. In doing so, they’ve rented on a first come, first served basis.

But what if we as a city offered those property owners tax incentives, if they rented to specified types of businesses? Instead of paying the current tax rate renting to a barber shop, what if we gave them a break for renting to a bistro or café?

There most definitely is a lot to think about, but we need a plan. We need to keep in mind that simply slowing down the cars isn’t going to accomplish anything other than making Main Street safer for pedestrians.

For sure, we all care about safety, but the Main Street corridor project must be about economic growth and revitalization too.

So, “if we build it, will they come?” Unless we come up with a plan for economic growth incentives, the answer is … “no.”

This post brought to you by “You Make the Call,” Peabody’s longest-running cable show on the issues of the day.

Poll: If you were mayor, what would you focus on first?

19 Nov

By Eye on Peabody

So let’s play pretend today, and give you a chance to play Mayor For A Day. Please participate in our poll below, so we can see which issues interest our EOP audience the most.

This post brought to you by “You Make the Call,” Peabody’s longest-running cable show on the issues of the day.

PMLP management, employees union work together on sane contract

19 Nov

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

It seems that We The People spend a lot of time chastising our elected officials and public service employees.  So, it’s only fair and important that we point out when they work together and in the best interest of the taxpayers.

I refer to the recently agreed to contract between Peabody Municipal Light Plant management, and the light plant employees’ union. Both sides got something, and in the end, they all took into account the need to not slam the ratepayers. The PMLP has taken it on the chin lately for some employee issues, but all that aside, it remains the best run government entity in Peabody.

The reason it is so well run is the fact that the light plant is a little beyond the reach of government. The PMLP is run like a business, and it’s run very well. It’s run by a competent plant manager and overseen by a separate elected board of light commissioners.

So, this week, when we learned that management and the union had taken a commonsense and sane approach to a new contract for employees, we weren’t surprised.

The new 4-year deal includes a modest 1.75% raise, but it’s also retroactive, which is a good thing for employees.  In these days of economic malaise, where taxpayers who work in the private sector aren’t getting any raises, it was a nice compromise, especially after the 11% raise the PLMP employees got with the last contract.

“This is a fair agreement for both the ratepayers and employees,”  said PMLP Commission Chairman Bob Wheatley in a statement.

Hats off too to the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, State Council 93, Local 364. PMLP serves both Peabody and South Lynnfield.

Read the full story here in the Peabody Patch.

We need a new middle school, but officials also need to be careful to avoid overruns

17 Nov

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

I guess you could call this our very first cost overrun on the new Middle School project. But this one was also pretty much unavoidable.

Turns out that Peabody won’t be invited to participate  in the Mass. School Building Authority‘s model school program  for the construction of a new Higgins, and as a result the new school could end up costing taxpayers at least $3 million more, putting the new estimated price tag at $90 million.

Mayor Ted Bettencourt recently revealed that the MSBA  voted against inviting Peabody into the model school program  because there is no model middle school that matches Peabody’s needs. In other words, our middle school population is too large to fit one of the existing, off-the-shelf models.

Another  big advantage of being in the model school program is the guarantee of a 5-point higher reimbursement rate from the state. Next step in this process is for the School Building Committee to present a final plan to the MSBA for approval in the spring.

Sounds like this first overrun was definitely unavoidable, but this might also be a good time to insist that our elected officials proceed cautiously with our tax dollars when it comes to avoiding future overruns.

Although not many would disagree that we definitely need to build a new middle school, it’s important that the Mayor also keep his eye on escalating costs, and cut back on the plan and some “amenities” to avoid a larger tax burden. We want a nice, new modern building for our kids, but it’s important to note that the education that goes on in that new building is more important than the structure itself.

As with all publicly funded construction projects, it’s likely that there will be more cost overruns.

We need that new school, but we also want to make sure we manage this in a fiscally responsible way, so that already overburdened taxpayers don’t get fleeced.

Here are some more details in the Peabody Patch about these latest developments.

This post brought to you by “You Make the Call,” Peabody’s longest-running cable show on the issues of the day.