Mayor Alex Morse’s
State of the City Address
April 1, 2014
Thank you, members of the City Council, for the opportunity to address you tonight.
I would also like to thank those of you tuning in at home. It because of you – the people of Holyoke – that we get to remake the Paper City together. It is because of you and your energy that Holyoke is becoming an example to a new generation and a new century of American cities.
It has been five years since a Holyoke mayor has provided a State of the City address, and I am proud to reinstitute the practice. Tonight marks an important step forward in governmental transparency. Further, tonight is an opportunity for me to discuss the great strides being made in our city, and to outline some ways to build on our successes.
When I first took office, our city faced many great and complicated challenges. We knew then, as we do now, that none of those challenges would be resolved overnight. But we also knew that we couldn’t let the difficulty of our task exempt us from action. We got to work. And over the past several years, Holyokers from all walks of life have worked toward a brighter future.
Together, we prioritized early literacy for our students and welcomed a new superintendent of schools. Together, we expanded community policing – restoring relationships between our Police Department and our citizens, and making the city the safest it’s been in decades. Together, we attracted new businesses and helped others expand. Together, we ushered in a new era of civic pride and community engagement. And together, we sent the clear message that the City of Holyoke is making a comeback.
Because of the work we have done together, I can proudly say that the state of the city is getting stronger each day. Our city’s rebirth is well underway. And it’s up to each and every one of us to make sure it continues.
Central to achieving the City’s agenda is properly managing the City’s fiscal health, which is why threats to our finances should be faced with utmost diligence and attention. It is widely known that there are a few situations that are fiscally unsustainable, and which I propose we tackle together in the months ahead.
Fresh on everyone’s mind is the current situation with the Holyoke Geriatric Authority, which my administration has been working hard to resolve. I updated this body recently on steps we are taking to protect the city, the taxpayers, and most importantly, to protect those who have called the authority their home. For years, the Geriatric Authority has struggled with mismanagement, forcing the taxpayers of Holyoke to subsidize the facility upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. As with other obstacles, we have faced this head on. We have been working hand in hand with the Department of Public Health and the Attorney General’s office to ensure a smooth closure. We have worked diligently to transition every resident to another healthcare facility, and upon the request of my office, the state department of labor has sent a rapid response team to help employees find other employment opportunities or career training options here in Western Massachusetts. My office has also facilitated the transfer of the Adult Day Health program, the only one of its kind in Holyoke, to another site in the City, preserving jobs and ensuring that the 54 individuals who rely on the program will continue to receive care. As of today, only 14 residents remain at the Authority, and I look forward to working with all of you in the coming months to officially acquire the Authority’s property and spur a project that generates tax revenue and creates job opportunities for our residents.
My administration has also worked hard over the past two years to aggressively collect back taxes owed to the City. City Treasurer Jon Lumbra announced last year that the City had set a back-taxes collection record for any one fiscal year, over $1.2 million dollars in FY13. I’m pleased to report that we are on track to collect the same this year, if not more. In addition, last year the City hosted its first public property action in over 45 years. By taking properties for nonpayment of taxes, we have succeeded in putting properties back into private hands as taxpaying entities, and watching vacant properties go back into use and improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods. We are preparing now to have another auction later this year, and expect to see strong interest in the available commercial property throughout the City.
Now as you all know, we are in the midst of crafting our budget for the next fiscal year. I have been meeting with my department heads to review their proposals and have been working diligently to cut costs while improving city services. New this budget season, I have also scheduled community forums where my administration will explain the budget proposal and allow questions and input from the community. I’d like to do the same for all of you – if any councilors have any input as I prepare my budget presentation, I welcome your thoughts and ideas.
There are few who would disagree that the process in which we approach our city budget is not nearly as transparent as it should be. Each year there are millions of dollars in expenses that are not included in the final budget, which end up being paid for through supplemental transfers. The current system of departments requesting free cash transfers for expected budgetary items is extremely inefficient. This is not a new practice, and while there have always been reasons that this has been necessary to do, the time has come for us to confront the budget head on so we don’t have to rely on these kinds of practices.
In about one month, I will be submitting a budget that is an honest reflection of the needs of the City, based on historic trends. The goal behind this is to present a final budget that is truly balanced, from day one.
This will allow us to use our certified free cash to pay off debt, invest in capital expenses, and increase the reserves in our stabilization account. In addition, I’m proud to say that over the last three months we’ve been negotiating a new single source Health Insurance contract, which will guarantee the same level of coverage that city employees enjoy now, but also provide a reduction in costs to both employees and taxpayers. In fact, if the plan on the table now is accepted, there could be millions in savings made to the general fund. While making these strategic adjustments to the budget is a promising start, it will not be enough. In order for us to maintain the current level of city services we provide, new sources of revenue must be sought.
Tonight on the council’s agenda is an order seeking approval for us to assess a local meal tax similar to the hotels tax that the city council adopted early on in my first term. A local meals tax would increase a $100.00 check at a local eatery by just $.75 cents and would generate over $500,000 in revenue annually. This will provide much needed relief to Holyoke’s already strained property taxpayers. I’ve heard the argument that this will scare diners away from our locally owned food establishments but I disagree; in contrast, most of this revenue will come from the fast food restaurants located in and around the Holyoke Mall. The tax would increase a $5 lunch by less than $.04 cents. The adoption of the meals tax has the support of Holyoke’s largest dining and entertainment establishments, not to mention that nearly every neighboring community has already adopted this tax. Our delay to act in the same manner has cost us $2.4 million dollars in revenue, according to the Department of Revenue. That money could have helped prevent the increase we have seen in commercial and residential property taxes. The order to adopt this is on your agenda tonight and must be certified by May 1st so that we can apply this additional revenue to the FY15 budget.
It is also time for the council to act on sewer rates. For far too long the general fund has been raided to help cover the cost of deficits within the sewer fund. While I fully support and understand the council’s effort to go after delinquent sewer customers, it’s simply not enough. Even if we achieved a collection rate of 100%, there still wouldn’t be sufficient funds to cover the fund’s operating budget, requiring taxpayers to foot the bill, some of which don’t even benefit from the sewer fund. As we prepare for FY15, we are anticipating a $1.8 million dollar deficit in the sewer fund. If we do nothing, this debt will once again be passed on to Holyoke taxpayers and limit our ability to invest resources in long over due projects. It is time to either set an appropriate rate, or approve the creation of a Water and Sewer Authority allowed under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 40N. Creation of such a board will not only increase aggressive enforcement against delinquents, but will also serve as an independent board that will regularly review and adjust rates in a sustainable and beneficial way, removing the politics from what are often tough decisions.
As we make progress on stabilizing our city’s finances, we become more able to make the necessary investments to move our City forward. The most important investment is in our children. A discussion about Holyoke’s future cannot happen without a discussion about the quality of our public schools and our ability to prepare our young people for the future. I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the palpable frustration that exists around our literacy rates and high school graduation rates. In early January, the Department of Early and Secondary Education released statistics that revealed that while the graduation rate for the state of Massachusetts has overall increased, including Holyoke’s by 3.3%, we are still among the lowest in the state. This is an alarming statistic that simply cannot be ignored.
As a district and a community, we have to hold ourselves accountable for these disparaging numbers. As Mayor, and as Chairman of the School Committee, I have to take ownership for these discouraging statistics. The reality is that the decline in the performance of our school system did not happen overnight, and it simply won’t improve overnight.
Since the state’s takeover of Morgan School last fall, I’ve participated in regular meetings with a local stakeholder group comprised of school officials, union representatives, parents and teachers, and we’re having the difficult and honest conversations about where we go from here.
I’ve heard from educators, parents and community leaders about how disconcerting the state’s takeover of both Morgan and Dean has been, and how many hardworking, talented, and passionate teachers throughout our district are left feeling defeated and concerned about the future of our school system.
I hear the frustration from teachers who are working tirelessly on behalf of all of Holyoke’s students, but are expected to do more with less. Moving forward, we have to consider alternative ways to provide them with the resources they need to adequately educate their students.
I am confident that we are heading in the right direction under the leadership and vision of our new Superintendent Dr. Sergio Paez. I have no doubt that we will see progress swiftly in the coming months and years, and succeed in making the Holyoke Public Schools the number one choice for all of our families.
Dr. Paez joined our district eight months ago, embracing a serious challenge, because, like so many of us, he saw Holyoke’s potential. Since then, he and the innovative new leaders he has surrounded himself with have introduced ideas that are the breath of fresh air our school district has needed. With new directors in the departments of early childhood education, early literacy, and the arts and humanities, we are prepared to reemphasize and restructure our early literacy initiative to better fit the needs of all of Holyoke’s students. Understanding the myriad challenges we have had, together we’ve set more realistic goals for early literacy achievement and aim to have 40% of third graders proficient in reading by the end of this year.
Furthermore, I’m excited to announce tonight that we are launching an effort that will provide universal pre-K at all of our city’s schools, and by this fall, you’ll already see such programs at EN White, Lawrence and Morgan. This expansion of pre-K programs will drastically improve kindergarten readiness of our students and no doubt improve our 3rd grade reading scores for years to come.
Despite all of these efforts, we can’t focus our energy on test scores, academics, and graduation rates without also addressing the underlying problems that occur in the lives of our students outside of school. Holyoke’s students are faced with socioeconomic disparities and challenges that students in other districts across the state are fortunate not to experience. Yet I emphatically believe that our students’ circumstances, their neighborhood, their socioeconomic status, or even their zip code, should not determine their fate. Every young person in this City deserves equal opportunity, and we can no longer continue to point fingers – at our parents, at our teachers or at our kids. All of us need to take collective responsibility to ensure a bright future for our children.
That’s why our schools are introducing innovative programs, like the ones at Kelly Full Service Community School that bring therapeutic dogs into the classroom to sit with students while they read. School officials are hosting home visits to encourage parent involvement and reading within neighborhoods. Zumba instructors are teaching our students fun and different ways to be healthy and active. We’re fortunate to have the collaboration and support of so many agencies in our city like the Boys and Girls Club, the Holyoke YMCA, Girls Inc, and Enchanted Circle Theater, just to name a few. It is not enough to put the responsibility of teaching solely on the shoulders of our teachers; as a community, we are just as responsible for their education.
In order for our City to decrease its poverty rate and attract sustainable economic development, we need to make sure that our children have access to a great education. We need to continue to empower our youth and create job opportunities for them so that when they graduate high school or college, they’ll actually want to come back to work in Holyoke and make our City a better place. While our summer jobs programs are reaching hundreds of young people, there is still more work to do.
And upon completing their education, we want our youth to find prosperity close to home. Which is why we’ve worked together over the past years on reinventing Holyoke’s value proposition to meet the challenges presented by a global, competitive and knowledge-based economy.
Through the recently instituted Urban Renewal Plan and the plan for an Innovation Based Economic Development Strategy, we’ve laid out the framework to accomplish this goal, and can proudly say that we’re making progress.
Over the past years we have secured over $600,000 of external resources for developer assistance, brownfield cleanup grants and technical documentation, all aimed at making sure we have sites that are move-in or development ready so more businesses can produce and hire right here in Holyoke.
We’ve also worked to create valuable partnerships with local, regional and state organizations to leverage resources, link industries and make an ecosystem of innovation and promote job growth into the future. Our efforts and initiatives were recently recognized by the Boston Federal Reserve Bank, which seeded Holyoke’s entrepreneurship initiative with $250,000 over the next three years. Called SPARK, the program will be run in cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce, the Public Library, the Juntos workforce Training Collaborative and the Food and Fitness Policy Council, among other partners.
But no other strategy better embodies our innovative approach to economic development than our efforts to support, grow and showcase creative industries and individuals. The creation of the state’s first full time, municipal Creative Economy Coordinator right here in Holyoke has put us at the forefront of Massachusetts’ own strategy to make this sector a strong economic force. The City has been able to leverage the Coordinator position to obtain its salary many times over for local projects, and assisting dozens of businesses and individuals to connect with mentorship and development opportunities. However, this position is scheduled to sunset by June of this year. I ask the Council to extend it into the future, so that we may ensure the City continues to build the creative economy in the years ahead.
And speaking of building, we’ll be doing a lot of that this year. From the completion of 250 new parking spaces in downtown, to major intersection improvements at Lower Westfield and Homestead Avenues and a major connector road towards HCC, we’re making the City more accessible to incoming and resident traffic.
This spring we will also break ground on the second phase of the CanalWalk, an more than $4 million investment, along with additional improvements along Dwight and Appleton streets. These improvements will also connect to our City’s new passenger rail platform, a $2.5 million investment, to begin construction also later this year. And thanks to the leadership and advocacy of our State delegation, we expect inter-City service to increase in the years ahead, allowing hundreds of travelers to connect with Holyoke every day. In the coming weeks we will need City Council action for the purchase of some land needed to make the project happen – for which we have already identified funds.
Going forward, Holyoke must continue to make key investments in public infrastructure, particularly on infrastructure engineering and design, so that we may be well positioned to secure state and federal construction funding for additional projects.
These types of public infrastructure investments are needed to catalyze private investment. Projects such as the bus transportation center and Veteran’s park improvements have made the possibility of 55 new units of housing at the former Holyoke Catholic school site a viable project, projected to begin construction this year. Likewise, improvements to the Holyoke Public Library have now attracted a developer to its neighboring block, to create another 55 unit, mixed-income housing project. The City’s public investment in the Library can be paid back many times over with the improvement of these vacant, blighted buildings, which increases the value of the entire neighborhood.
Indeed, one of the largest challenges to new development, increasing property values and broadening the tax base is the perception and existence of blight in many parts of the City. Blight comes in many forms – whether it’s a building that’s been boarded up and vacant for years, gang graffiti plastered on a wall, a littered yard or unshoveled sidewalk, or even an abandoned shopping carts. Left unattended, small things cumulatively can create an environment that feels abandoned and neglected. Over the last few years the council has established many common sense ordinances that have made code enforcement possible, but more needs to be done to make it easier. In the coming weeks I will assemble an Ordinance Enforcement Task Force that will consist of department heads, enforcement officials, and community members that can improve the City’s protocols for code enforcement. It is my hope that the council will work with this group, where appropriate, to make sure that our laws are written to be enforced, and that our departments have the resources they need to ensure a great quality of life for all Holyoke residents and future generations to come.
Our governance infrastructure will also need improvements starting in the months ahead. City Hall must adapt in order to meet the demands of the 21st century, which call for an easier and enhanced interaction with government.
Our constituents deserve initiatives that allow us to act swiftly, and at a lower cost. As a next step in this evolution, I will be proposing a reorganization of City Hall offices, including the movement of various personnel. This plan is being carefully crafted with the input and support of both past and current department heads, City Councilors and community leaders. Once this reorganization is completed, not only will our staff benefit from this improved and efficient workspace, but more importantly, I’m confident that constituents will find that their visits to City Hall will be centered around the customer service experience.
Recent efforts to improve citizen interaction with City government have already proven to be successful. In my first term, we launched a completely new city website that won an award from the Massachusetts Municipal Association, and we introduced a new citizen notification system to communicate with residents and businesses about weather related events and other important announcements. Furthermore, we recently launched Holyoke’s first smartphone app, which allows citizens to report a wide array of quality of life issues via their smartphone or on the city website. These are just a few examples of our successful efforts to bring Holyoke’s government into the 21st century and engage our residents in new and innovative ways.
As we continue to invest in our city’s public infrastructure, it is equally as important that we address our city’s communications, which many would agree is in grave need of repair and directly affects our provision of public services, safety and quality of life. There are areas in the city where police and fire are unable to communicate with one another by using their radios. Often times, our DPW trucks are unable to coordinate and communicate with one another during a snowstorm. Replacing a phone headset for an employee at City Hall is near impossible, and our city email server is nearing the end of its useful life.
For far too long we have been managing this piecemeal, resulting in a collection of incompatible equipment and networks. It is time for us to build a new system, from the ground up, which will allow for clear communications throughout every corner of the city. By utilizing cloud-based solutions we can have a state-of-the-art system, which will complement and evolve well with changes in municipal communications, ultimately delivering a lower overall cost to the taxpayer. All of these necessary upgrades will require us to work together to fund these vital improvements.
As I near the conclusion of my remarks, I also want to acknowledge our Chiefs of both the Police and Fire Departments. These men work tirelessly on behalf of the City of Holyoke, as do their men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line each and every day. We thank you Chiefs, as it has been a complete honor and a privilege for me to work by your side to protect all of Holyoke’s residents.
And to our department heads, from the DPW to Conservation, and everyone in between. Many of you are here tonight, I thank you. We all thank you. You are the unsung heroes of our city government and you don’t get the credit you rightly deserve for the impact you are making on this City. For you, as for many of your staff members, your position with the City of Holyoke isn’t just a job; it’s a much larger and meaningful effort to make Holyoke the place we know it can be. To the staff in my office, I thank you for working so tirelessly on behalf of the people of this great City, and I look forward to continuing our work together in the coming months and years. Accomplishing the goals I have outlined tonight would be impossible without having such great people working with me in Room One.
And thank you again Councilors for the invitation to be here tonight, and for your commitment and dedication to the City and the people you represent. It continues to be an honor to work with all of you, as each councilor brings with them a unique skill set and perspective, which has proven to be an extremely valuable asset for our City. Now, I don’t expect that we’ll agree on every proposal I’ve made tonight, and frankly, I don’t have all the answers, nor do I pretend to. Passionate debates are to be expected. But we should always remember that far more unites us than divides us — that many shared hopes lie beneath even the fiercest debates.
Over the course of this term, we have the opportunity to do great things — things for which this era of Holyoke’s history will be long remembered. The people who call Holyoke home can feel the sense of possibility in the air. They aren’t waiting for us to act; they’re taking Holyoke’s future in their own hands. Where the city government can further empower our citizens, and bolster this homegrown renewal, it should; where the city government now impedes that renewal, it should get out of the way.
We should let Holyoke make Holyoke again.
That is what we are called to do. That is what we have been sent here to do. People all across our city are prepared to shape Holyoke’s future. And they are counting on us to do our jobs — to put aside the pettiness that too often afflicts our politics, and to embrace the tasks to which we’ve been charged.
To let Holyoke make Holyoke again, our city government must be worthy of our city’s people. Our politics must be worthy of their proud, compassionate, resilient spirit.
So as we take up the many issues I have outlined tonight, I ask you to consider the long view. I ask you to consider how our decisions will affect Holyokers in fifty to a hundred years from now. These future generations of Holyokers won’t remember our feuds, or our clashes of personality. What they’ll remember — indeed, what they’ll be able to observe all around them — is the work we accomplish together. We must not, in the words of President Kennedy, be rivals for power, but partners for progress.
I know we are up to the task. At this unprecedented moment in our city’s history, let us summon what is best in us. If we do, I have no doubt that Holyoke will forever remain a city that people are proud to call home.