by Irina Costache, Campaign Organizer | Subscribe by Email
On Thursday this week, Bill kicked off his third pass knocking doors around Ward 5 and received a lot of policy and community updates from city staff!
Lawn Signs requests
As mentioned in last week’s newsletter, a September 10 preliminary election has been scheduled for the Ward 5 race, so Bill has begun to distribute lawn signs to voters around Newton! As ours is the only race in the city to have one before the November general election, we want to start spreading the word now!
If you decide that you would like a sign to put up in your front yard, please email me so that we can coordinate on getting one dropped off to you! We are trying to get signs onto as many Ward 5 lawns as we can, whether or not they are in a high-visibility spot, because every vote counts in such a small race!
All-department city staff briefing to candidates
On Tuesday, Bill got to meet with nine Newton city department heads to ask questions and learn about each department’s needs. This briefing was open to all municipal candidates and incumbents but had been put together following Bill’s request early in the campaign. Here are some of the important things he learned from some of these departments, from his notes:
I finally had the opportunity to speak to Newton Fire Chief Gino Luchetti about my platform favoring the de-privatization of ambulance services in Newton, bringing it back in-house via the Fire Department, which I knew was something the Fire Department has been advocating for some time now, too. He went over his eight-year transition plan to municipalize the ambulance services. Initially, there would be a public-private partnership, and there would have to be a continued private contract for backup services and Mutual Aid situations, and some billing services would still be outsourced, but primarily ambulance services would be provided by the Department directly ultimately in most cases. The city’s current contract is with Cataldo, and the Fire Department has repeatedly expressed concerns about their handling and fulfillment of the contract, and the company grosses $3.5 million per year. The chief noted that the Fire Department and by extension the City of Newton would generate net revenue by providing ambulance services in-house, rather than it being a burdensome cost, and the upfront cost of the transition would only be $1.5 million. He believes that services would be less expensive to residents and a higher level of quality would be offered if the profit component were eliminated by municipalization (and with a willingness to pay paramedics and EMTs more than the private sector, which has famously low wages and high turnover). Additionally, Newton’s HR Director was sitting next to us and overheard the conversation, and she mentioned that she used to work for the town of Norwood which has in-house ambulance services and it was working great there, and she noted that she believed Newton was an ideal community for in-house ambulance services as well, particularly because we do not have a high rate of uninsured residents.
I also discussed with Chief Luchetti various chemical and environmental hazards facing firefighters on the job, which is something that the Massachusetts Sierra Club and other environmental groups have worked on with Massachusetts firefighters at the state level.
Department of Public Works
Many residents have asked me for clarification on the new formula for deciding which streets get prioritized for repairs, and I stressed to the Department of Public Works the need to communicate that more clearly to residents, so that they are not left in the dark. The department staffers went over the new formula for me and explained that they rated all of the city’s roads 0-100 for their current condition and combined that with a rating for level of traffic so that high-traffic roads and very terrible quality roads regardless of traffic level both get prioritized. They therefore plan to pave roads that are rated under 25 on the Paving Condition Index within 2 years, while they plan to pave roads that are rated under 35 within 3 years. So, if you live on a minor dead-end street that is in terrible shape, you should still see repairs very soon – not 15 years from now as some residents had worried.
On stormwater management, the department says that it has redefined fees to charge more for impervious services. They also said that wetlands and ponds need dredging as part of flood control, and that the channelized brooks and culverts need repairs.
Speaking about waste management, the department noted that recycling fees have climbed a lot, but that there is still product demand, contrary to some of the more alarmist media reports
I also spoke to the department about the private way streets issue that many residents have brought up to me, but they stressed that City Council would have to change the ordinances before there were any policy changes on that.
Health & Human Services
The department is currently working on a food security program providing breakfasts and lunches to hundreds of Newton families over the summer, underscoring the ongoing inequality in our community that is largely hidden. We discussed how 11% of Newton schoolchildren live in poverty and one in eight households lives on $25,000 or less, despite the city’s reputation for wealth.
On the issue of vaping, they said that purchasing a vape is restricted to those over the age of 21, and that there will be spot checks of compliance. There is also a flavor ban on all tobacco products except at the 21+ stores (with a continued exception for menthol). All vape products could soon be banned from convenience stores. There will be an opportunity for public input on this proposal.
The department also reported that the known fatal overdose rate is in decline, and that the Diversion staffer has been able to offer more resources to get people help instead of sending them to jail.
There is also currently a rats problem that they are dealing with.
Parks & Recreation Department
The Parks & Rec Department talked to me about funding needs, saying that the Mayor did give them more funding for field maintenance.
I also asked about the public input and approval process for various parks and recreation projects, given a contentious meeting several months ago at the Waban Area Council where this became a major point of confusion. Non-school playgrounds always have public hearings at the Recreation Commission, except in the unusual case of the play structure in question, which was proposed for a traffic island and therefore requires a different process (through the City Council’s Public Facilities Committee).
I also asked for an update on playground ADA accessibility efforts. They are currently working on planning upgrades for 11 of about 19 sites in need of accessibility improvements. A core part of their strategy now is making sure that the playgrounds or recreational fields are accessible from the edge of the properties or parking lots so that children or parents in wheelchairs can get to the play structures or bleachers without getting stuck at the perimeter. A separate ongoing challenge on playgrounds themselves is that some of the requirements for fall safety for all children unintentionally conflict with the requirements for wheelchair access because wheelchairs require more rigid surfaces and fall safety requires more bouncy surfaces; the department is attempting to solve this problem by creating designated wheelchair pathways across the areas while the rest of the surfaces are still flexible enough to prevent dangerous falls.
Information Technology Department
I spoke to the IT Department about the city government’s fiber internet service and the possibility of exploring extending that service to residents and businesses across Newton as a reliable, high-speed, net-neutral public option, which is something that other councilors have floated and which has been part of my platform as a possible idea from day one.
Currently, a combination of RCN and Comcast provide fiber internet and wifi for city buildings and the public pools/lakes. It is theoretically possible to extend this public, high-speed wifi network across the entire city, although the city would still need a major carrier to provide the underlying service to offer a public option, essentially like the low-cost mobile phone carriers that pay for time on overall national networks but provide cheaper plans to consumers.
The department also updated me on their security testing and efforts to train staff and officials to avoid phishing scams.
The NewMo Senior Rides program: Some seniors had expressed concern to me that they could not order rides in the evening to go to programs at the Newton Free Library or to attend public meetings at City Hall, and I passed these questions along. The department is currently reviewing ridership levels and interest to gauge the possibilities for extending service hours and expanding the destination options, because initially costs were a barrier to providing full service. The program has applied for grants from the state and federal Departments of Transportation to be able to extend service and expand the coverage areas. The program had to scale back some services compared to the previous rides program based on usage for the new program, but they want to bring it back to full levels, if possible. However, the city pays for the vehicles by their hours on the road, and this makes it harder to extend hours into the evening, when there is lower demand. I noted that if a lack of service disenfranchises some residents from being able to attend public meetings, then we do have an obligation to provide service, even if it costs more money.
The Assessors Department oversees the senior property tax deferral program, which is available to seniors over 65 with annual incomes of not more than $86,000 per year who own and occupy their homes. (It is hard to defer if a mortgage is outstanding, but most eligible people have paid off their house already.) The income cap was raised this year, and the department actively made efforts to contact people who had previously been denied but would now be eligible. They expect more people to take advantage of the program next year.
Newton is the biggest deferral community in the state – more than 10% of all deferrals statewide – in part thanks to efforts to educate residents on its availability.
One of their biggest challenges is making sure low-income seniors understand that this program is a net benefit to them and not a “burden” to their children as many people worry, according to the assessors. The total amount of tax payments being deferred (even with a small penalty for deferral) over time is always a very small amount relative to the value of the property when the property is ultimately sold later. (Or, if the heirs do not plan to sell and will be taking over owner-occupancy of the home, a very small mortgage generally easily covers the outstanding tax.)
Senior residents have been asking me whether the income eligibility level for the property tax deferral program could be raised, or perhaps even eliminated so any senior would be eligible. I passed along this question and the answer was that removing an income cap would be unsustainable for the city because it would be turned into a profitable tax shelter for the very wealthy. Residents would likely defer the taxes for a small interest fee later and in the meantime invest the money elsewhere at a rate of return greatly exceeding the deferral penalty, while the city would have to borrow money to cover the interim revenue loss at an interest rate also exceeding the deferral penalty.
Following up on some questions from voters who have been struggling with contractors or developers on abutting or nearby properties who are not following rules or being disruptive to the neighborhood, I asked what the Inspectional Services Department can do to help residents trouble-shoot these issues. Unfortunately, the department remains stretched very thin. They said that they do try to send people out to check on complaints with a 3 strike rule that can lead to a stop-work order, but private property disputes are beyond their jurisdiction. Overall, it sounds like they could use more resources to hire more people to be able to do more.
Bill also spoke to the Planning Department, but there was no new information relative to previous meetings and hearings on planning, development, and zoning issues over the past year.
Newton Highlands Area Council
On Thursday night, Bill attended the Newton Highlands Area Council meeting. On the agenda was a discussion with Newton Police Chief MacDonald, shuttle bus congestion, Cold Spring Park, exploding manhole covers, and other community updates. Here are some notes from the night’s meeting:
As of June, a number of streets in Newton Highlands have a new parking regime to reserve spaces for residents of the area and local business employees, while also making space for customers. Relevant residents and businesses should have been notified by mail but can also find more info on the city website.
City Councilor Lappin announced to the audience that Traffic Calming measures are now under the Department of Public Works’ jurisdiction, not the Traffic Council.
Police Chief Discussion:
Most of the discussion was about traffic safety enforcement issues.
One point during the discussion was about illegal swimming in Crystal Lake. Unexpectedly, there were not very many complaints reported this summer, despite the intense heat.
Residents asked the present police officials about the buildup of long term business shuttles and temporary MBTA night shuttles in the village center of Newton Highlands. (Not a lot can be done on short term shuttles, but the longer term ones will need a bigger conversation.)
The Police Chief said that “Traditional Crime” (things like break-ins or muggings) is down in the region, while internet scams and in-person con artistry continue. For example, recently, there was a man falsely posing as a pest control guy and going door to door in Newton Highlands. The Chief also said that Involuntary Committal rates are currently going up.
Due to the high number of violations of leash and off leash rules, such as cleanup, the city’s two animal control officers have been given more overtime this summer to be able to better enforce dog regulations in Newton parks. Many of the violations are by non residents coming from neighboring communities.
The meeting then shifted to a more detailed community discussion about the shuttle infrastructure in Newton Highlands.
The Area Council was considering writing a letter to the City Council advising for clearer regulations on shuttle stops and parking ahead of special permits.
Later, they approved the letter, calling for a comprehensive plan on all shuttle services ahead of the special permit votes on specific projects with shuttles like the Northland development.
Because of public pressure, Cold Spring Park is no longer on the list of proposed areas for the new Senior/Community Center. The short list of possible land, however, is still not ideal - it’s all playgrounds, athletic fields for kids, or dog parks. Most people in the room wanted to keep pushing against any parklands or recreational spaces being considered.
Councilor Lappin clarified that this short list is just city properties that will now be tested for potential viability. The city is still looking out for private properties as options, although this doesn’t sound too likely at the moment due to the acquisition costs.
Alan Nogee, leader of Friends of Cold Spring Park, voiced concern that the list of potential sites got narrowed to only parks, given that there had been some non-park locations on the previous longer list.
A couple of weeks ago, there was a big explosion at the intersection of Walnut St and Center St where a manhole cover shot into the air. The City has endorsed a state bill to push the companies to fix the leaks everywhere. At the moment, the gas company remains largely unresponsive whenever leaks are called in. But you should always continue reporting them if you can.
The MBTA track work project is continuing. Remaining work in Newton Highlands is scheduled to take place for two weekends in December. In the meantime, the work is now further inbound around Newton Center. Some separate station accessibility work will also be happening in Newton Highlands in late August.