News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

African Festival today at Sampas Pavilion

Only in Lowell can a trip to the Merrimack River be transformed into an African adventure. The weather is perfect today for experiencing the exotic music and culture of Africa at the free festival sponsored by the African Cultural Association from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. This annual festival has become a Lowell tradition rich in music, performing arts, dance, food and crafts. Today’s event includes Liberian hip hop dancers, traditional music and dance from Sierra Leone and Cameroon, a Congo dance band, and music from Kenya just to name a few. In addition, Afro Divas (an eight women dance group) will perform. Also, an African and Cambodian youth group will perform a short play on HIV/AIDS awareness. Along with the entertainment, there will be a variety of foods, crafts and art work from Africa. So come experience the tastes and sounds of Africa on the banks of the Merrimack River at the Sampas Pavilion on Pawtucket Boulevard.

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Mistake regarding “top 100 earners”

I read Sunday’s list in the Lowell Sun of the top 100 earners from area municipalities, and the first thing to get straight is the salary error regarding Fred Abisi, director of Lowell’s Adult Education Program, which is the largest and most successful in the state. The Sun incorrectly reported that Mr. Abisi earned $131,000 in 2006 when he actually earned $105,000. If there were other mistakes in the report, I’m not aware of them, but there were several things worth noting: Out of Lowell’s top 20 highest paid municipal workers, only three belonged to the school department and that includes Mr. Abisi at his incorrect salary. Lowell Schools Superintendent Karla Brooks Baehr, while managing the largest school district in the Greater Lowell Area and the fifth largest in the state, was not even close to the highest paid superintendent for the region. Also, many of the highest paid Lowell employees are police officers (about 16 out of the top 20). I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been okay with paying a decent wage to people who go after bad guys with guns (also folks who rush into burning buildings to save others). Yet, with soaring costs and people reluctant to pay more taxes, it seems overtime should be managed more efficiently. Also, do officers earn overtime or straight pay for doing road details? I heard in Ireland they have lights to control traffic at either end of construction, yet in Massachusetts, we pay police officers to direct traffic at these sites. This appears to be one of those times when what makes sense for the community is not translating to labor relations.

posted in Money Matters | 0 Comments

About Tyler Park and free concerts

When we moved here 15 years ago, people drove their dogs to Tyler Park to do their business. Now, people arrive in limos to have their wedding photos taken here, they picnic on blankets, or they sit on the benches and enjoy the shade. And during the summer, they come and listen to free Concerts in the Park—held the third Thursdays of June, July and August—starting tonight! The festivities begin at 6 with music from 7-8 p.m. It’s fun to spend a summer evening on the gently sloping lawns and listen to music amid the many new trees and gardens. Much of that change is due to the city, the Lowell Parks Department under the direction of Tom Belleguard, and especially, the work of a handful of committed citizens. (Disclosure: my husband, Jay Mason, is president of Friends of Tyler Park.) In addition to restoring the park, hosting cleanups, and sponsoring concerts, the Friends work closely with arborist John Coppinger and Jane Calvin from the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust to replace aging oaks with young trees so the park will live on for future generations. Three weeks ago, 10 new trees were planted, making a total of 30 new trees. In a nod to its history and famous designer, the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted (noted landscape architects of Central Park, Golden Gate Park, and the Emerald Necklace), only organic pest control and fertilizer are used—yet another reason to attend the concert tonight. Did I mention the band, Jen Kearney and the Lost Onion, is fantastic too?

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Are you “debated out?”

Dick Howe mentions the upcoming Congressional Candidates’ forum to be held tomorrow at the Wang Middle School.  A reader questions the wisdom of holding a forum on a Thursday night in Lowell when two other political parties are going on (not sure what these are) and adds that he is ‘debated out’ (see post and comment here).  I can see his point, but the group sponsoring the event is a coalition of neighborhood groups and I’m sure they have very specific issues that they want to air and that they want the candidates to hear.  I think these kinds of issue-specific forums will help us all hone in on the candidate we prefer instead of always listening to very similar positions on the broader issues such as Iraq or healthcare. The neighborhood groups probably don’t care if others attend or not, but these groups are very powerful in their way, and it is good that the candidates will know who they are and what they are about.  That said, if you should happen to be ‘debated out’ as well; consider a Concert in the Park, also tomorrow night, 7 pm, at beautiful Tyler Park in the Highlands.  The concert, sponsored by the Friends of Tyler Park, features Jen Kearney and the Lost Onion (a “non-traditional blues band with an outrageous attitude”).  

posted in Local Groups, Local Politics | 5 Comments

World Cup comes to Lowell!

Yes, it’s true! One Lowell is sponsoring a World Cup Soccer tournament at Cawley Stadium on August 4 and 5. They have 16 adult teams from the region representing nations around the world.  In addition to soccer, there will be food, music and arts & crafts, and the money raised will support One Lowell’s work helping immigrants in Lowell.   

Why am I so excited about this event? Anyone who knows me knows I am not a sports fan; however, last summer I was fortunate enough to travel to Europe and by coincidence found myself observing a lot of the excitement surrounding the World Cup. In London, we were witness to banners, signs and spontaneous parades as the populace geared up for its quarter final match; in Paris, we saw the Champs-Elysee closed down at midnight after France won their match. People were just out celebrating, walking up and down; cars converged from all sides, horns blaring, with flags flying and joyous fans hanging out of windows and sunroofs. The police were on hand in case things got out of hand, but nothing untoward occurred. While stuck at the Frankfurt airport, we tried watching a game, but never saw an actual goal scored. (Unlike American sports, the actual scoring of points does not seem to be the highlight of the game). However, Germany won their match as well. The joyful shouts and sounds of car and taxi horns and general mood of good cheer was infectious. Then in Italy, we saw whole towns close down as everyone gathered in the piazza to watch the game together.  I came away with a new interest in and appreciation for what we call soccer (of course, it’s called football over there). It really seems more than a sport; perhaps it’s somewhat the way Red Sox baseball is to New Englanders, but involving a whole country’s national identity. In any case, the One Lowell World Cup should be a great family event with international flair. Perfect for our city!

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What services are you willing to do without?

Today’s Globe reports on voters in Stoneham defeating a $3 million override which resulted in the school committee cutting all high school sports, as well as eliminating elementary and middle-school arts and music programs. Clearly what’s happening in Stoneham and all over the state proves once again that our current system of funding municipal services on the backs of property owners is failing. Why a fairly affluent community in one of the richest countries in the world (Stoneham may not be Weston, but it’s certainly not Lowell) cannot provide its children with sports, arts and music in school is mind boggling. If we agree property taxes alone can’t bear this burden and recognize that costs continue to rise (consider gas prices and the sickening profits oil companies have made in recent years), what exactly should be done? 

Today a Sun editorial claimed to be “keeping an open mind” while the headline and text revealed another position:Tax Relief? Try Again. In addition to getting the percentage wrong on the governor’s optional meals tax (it’s a 1-2 percent increase, not 1-3), the editorial ignores the governor’s plan for 25% of the revenue to fund tax exemptions for qualifying seniors—those most hurt by rising property taxes. The editorial also chooses to incite fear about finally ending the tax break phone companies have enjoyed for 92 years by stating: “companies will pass the cost on to consumers.” As mentioned in an earlier post, from 2003-2005, the phone companies’ tax bills went down by 46% while costs to consumers increased by 30%. Massachusetts is the only state not to tax them, yet we have some of the highest rates in the country; clearly, the phone companies are not passing on the breaks they’ve received. It’s time to make these companies pay their fair share just like every other business. The editorial ends on a particularly fear-inspiring, mythical note by recycling the label “Taxachusetts.” Ranked state number 28th in tax burdens, this misleading label is not only inaccurate, it deflects attention away from the real issue: Property taxes cannot adequately fund essential services, and without new revenue to meet rising costs, what services are you willing to do without?  (More info on state ranking to follow when I have time for in-depth research.)

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There’s a lot more to like about Lowell

City Manager Bernie Lynch hosted his third Downtown Summit to a packed room at the Doubletree Hotel yesterday. For a guy who hasn’t reached his first anniversary as city manager, he wowed the audience with his vision for Lowell’s “Downtown Renaissance”—artfully displayed in a power-point presentation that included color photographs and artists’ renderings. Aside from the magic of seeing drawings of a trolley play structure for Mack Plaza, an intersection upgrade at Middle and Palmer Streets, and improved landscapes, sidewalks, street furniture, historic lamps, and pedestrian-friendly walkways on those old familiar streets—it was when he started to use words like: immediate, next week, and by the summer, that the spell was complete. (I imagined selling my old house with its clover-infested lawn for a downtown condo by the river.) The Mack Plaza play area will be in this summer. Next week, Central Street will be “beautified” with flowers, shrubs and street furniture, and work has begun to install more and better signs, especially at the city’s gateways.  That’s not all. Yesterday’s plan was based on information gleaned at earlier summits. The first one was an introductory look at downtowns in general, with presentations from the Urban Land Institute and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (One thing I remember about that summit was the consultant’s point about young people adding vibrancy to downtowns.) The second summit included stakeholders concerns about parking; lack of retail recruitment, retention, and marketing; bad traffic etc. The information from the earlier summits was addressed in the plan, from hiring consultants to help with marketing and getting new retailers based on demographics, to looking closely at traffic patterns and parking options. Some issues will be addressed immediately and some are long term. Funding for the immediate projects, which Manager Lynch estimated would cost “in excess of one million dollars,” is a combination of city and Lowell Plan funds with some anticipated state funding around transportation. Also discussed was the city’s revitalized marketing campaign, the use of both traditional and internet sources for self promotion, and the return of the old motto: There’s a lot to like about Lowell. Apparently, there’s going to be even more to like in the very near future.

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Governor’s rally for cities and towns

Today, Margaret and I joined Governor Patrick’s rally to build momentum around his Municipal Partnership Act (MPA). If supported by legislators, MPA will provide options to help cities reduce costs and gain funds. As activists for better schools who have seen how funding services on the backs of property owners does not work, we had to be there. We were joined at the State House by our own Mayor Bill Martin and hundreds of people from organizations such as the Mass. Assoc. of School Committees, Stand for Children, the Suburban Coalition, and the Mass. Public Health Assoc. (For a complete list of endorsements, see here.) 


 Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, president of the Mass. Mayors’ Assoc., spoke at the rally, sending this message to legislators: “If you can’t provide more local aid, than give us the tools to shape our own fiscal destiny.” With that, he nailed the gist of the Act: providing options for cities to save money and raise revenue—beyond property taxes. MPA would eliminate a 92-year-old law that gives tax breaks to telecommunications companies, and make them pay their share just like any other business. Despite being the only state that has this tax exemption for phone companies, we have some of the highest rates in the country. Governor Patrick noted in his speech today that from 2003-2005 while property taxes rose all over the state, the phone companies’ tax bills went down by 46% and yet, the costs to consumers went up by 30%. (This change alone would bring about $800K to Lowell.) In addition, MPA allows for cities to adopt an optional sales tax of up to 2% on restaurant meals and 1% on hotel bills. For what amounts to a $1 charge on a $50 meal, it would bring about $2 million to Lowell. Our total meals tax rate of 7% would be the same or lower than more »

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The Angry Republican

So, I was out doing errands and an angry Republican saw my Deval Patrick bumper sticker, “How do you like him now?” he asked, and not waiting for my answer, “Everyone I talk to says he should be impeached.” “Well,” I began, but was cut off by several more questions, “Are you a teacher, oh, you live in Lowell, who are you supporting in the Fifth?” “Well,” I managed to get in, “I’m waiting for the debate on July 18th which is sponsored…”  “You’re a democrat obviously. I’m supporting Ogonowski.”  Obviously.  “So, Deval Patrick, have you ever heard him speak?” “Yes, in fact, I was just down at the State House for a rally for the Municipal Partnership Act.”  When he asked what that was I explained that one of the pieces to it would give local cities and towns the option to add up to a 2% hotel and meals tax….and he was off, “Just raise ‘em all, just tax everything, because we have to take care of the poor people and the illegal immigrants and…” “Well,” I said, “I think this would be more fair than…” But, he wasn’t listening and then he started in on Marty Meehan (can’t stand him) as I got in my car to drive away. “Have a good day,” we said half-heartedly to each other as we parted.  This, my friends, is what we are up against with the Municipal Partnership Act.  The word ‘tax’ is so demonized that it cannot be mentioned without the word ‘cut’ after it.  Even democrats are resisting the act and angry Republicans who don’t know the first detail about it are resisting it on principle, because if it’s a tax, it must be bad.  


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Hot for an active crime hotline

On Friday, the Globe reported a plan by Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (our very own former chief) to institute an anonymous text messaging system to get tips on crime from residents—particularly young people familiar with this modern form of communication. On Saturday, the Herald ran an editorial “Crime-fighting now made EZ” where it reported that Hill, Holliday, a leading ad firm, was developing a free publicity campaign promoting the program. Great for Boston, huh? Good for them. (Maybe you’re sensing a bit of envy here. Well, it’s true; I’m envious.) As a member of the City Manager’s Gang Advisory Board, I can tell you some of the discussion at our June meeting centered on Lowell’s crime prevention hotline and its language, staffing, and other limitations due to lack of funding. For instance, are you aware we have a crime stoppers hotline? Do you know the number (978-459-tips) or that you can receive cash awards for information leading to an arrest? Did you know the information can be provided to police anonymously—and you still get the cash? Unfortunately, our hotline is not staffed 24/7 by multi-linguists who speak the diverse languages prevalent in our gateway city (not even close). Yet, we know residents in neighborhoods, witnesses, bystanders, and even victims can make a huge impact on police ability to capture criminals and prevent crime, but these same people are often afraid, unwilling, or unaware how to help. The fact is, like most complicated issues such as gangs, it takes a community to impact change—that means all of us, eyes open, and willing to make the call. It also means someone is at the other end to receive it. 

posted in Local Groups, Youth | 0 Comments

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