The State Of The City Address by Mayor William M. Manzi III was delivered at the Methuen Board of Trade Meeting February 10, 2011**
Let me begin by thanking Karen Broscoe and The Methuen Board of Trade for hosting this great event again this year. The Methuen Board of Trade excels in bringing the business community together, and this year’s Senior Center event is proof positive that the Board’s important mission is being fulfilled.
Congratulations to City Council Chairman Jack Cronin and new City Council Vice Chairman, Jim Hajjar. I look forward to working with both of you and the entire City Council in a positive manner over the next year.
I would like to express my thanks to all of the men and women who serve in the United States military, especially our Methuen residents on active duty. Words cannot express our gratitude for your service.
In this, my sixth and final year addressing this body, Methuen, our State, and our Nation continue to face great economic challenges. As I said last year, those challenges will require new thinking, shared sacrifice, and a willingness to tackle problems that for too long have been deferred.
These problems have not stopped us from making great progress in the past five years, and Methuen’s future is bright despite the sluggish economy.
Last year, I laid out an aggressive list of priorities and proposed solutions to our financial problems. I would like to begin by briefly outlining the accomplishments that we as a city have made this past year, as well of highlighting some of my future goals.
As you in the business community well know, economic development is a linchpin of our recovery and has long been one of my top priorities. The past year has seen some exciting progress in the way of new business.
Last year, much needed new jobs came to Methuen as Suntron, a contract manufacturer formerly based in Lawrence, MA and Manchester, NH, relocated to Methuen. This brought over one hundred skilled jobs to Griffin Brook Park.
More jobs came to our area last fall as Lowe’s hardware store opened on Route 28 in nearby Salem. For Methuen, this meant road widening and traffic improvements on Route 28 in Methuen, as well as what has been called a reverse TIFF, allowing Methuen to tax a vacant parcel of parking space on this site as if a commercial development existed on it. Those tax payments will begin to come in this month.
On Wheeler Street, construction continues at the former Zambino gravel pit. Toll Brothers is constructing 240 units of age-qualified housing and related infrastructure improvements along Wheeler Street, which will bring a new stream of property tax revenue as well quality housing for our residents.
The Loop continues to thrive and is now home to the very successful Friendly’s Express as well as Radio Shack and Aspen Dental. Methuen’s Loop is now fully occupied, and brings in approximately $1 million annually in property tax revenue to our city.
At the Merrimack Golf Course, The Reserve, a new neighborhood of 43 luxury homes on the golf course, is also nearly complete.
We have also seen many small businesses open in our city last year. Downtown Java Joe’s, Plaza Azteca, Colizzi Memorials, and Salem Co-op Bank, are just a few examples of thriving small business that now call Methuen their home.
I would like to thank all of these companies for investing in Methuen at a time when other cities are still seeing businesses close. As mayor, I will continue to do whatever is in my power to help these businesses thrive in our community, to create a larger tax base and to create jobs for our people.
In the areas of business and development, 2011 promises to be an exciting year as well.
In the heart of East Methuen, at the former Rendezvous site, a new office building will soon join Dunkin’ Donuts and Salem Co-operative Bank. Construction is now underway.
Construction is also underway at the new Burger King site on Haverhill Street.
The condominium project at the former Howe Street School is complete and these unique condos in a historic Methuen building are now on the market.
The downtown Appleyard site will finally be redeveloped in 2011. The remediation and construction work has now commenced. Once completed, we will have additional parking for our downtown, as well as a beautiful passive recreational park adjacent to a residential neighborhood. This remains a key component in the revitalization of our downtown.
Close by, the building at 2 Charles Street is being restored to its original architectural beauty, thanks to the hard work of owner Benny Espaillat and his team. A federal grant in the amount of $190,000 has been utilized to improve this building and create a public-private partnership. This restoration will allow us to move our entire historic collection to this site in the spring. It is exciting news for our City, and for our collection, which is long overdue for a dry and secure home.
The I-93 Rotary improvement project is also underway. Short-term improvements have gone out for bid and the project is still on time and budget thanks to Sen. Baddour, Rep. Campbell and the MassDOT. Within five years this vital regional transportation project will provide us with a much-improved ability to traverse our roadways and end the bottleneck that has been such a hindrance to citizens and an impediment to further economic development.
Through the actions of the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, HeadStart is constructing a new childcare facility on Gill Avenue – a long-awaited opportunity to provide quality care for Methuen families here in the City. Despite the bad weather, construction has begun and we are hoping that the project will be completed and up and running later this year.
I look forward to the completion of all of these projects and welcome new opportunities for business expansion and community development. As we look to the future there is nothing more important than maintaining a regulatory environment that allows for capital investment and job creation in the City. Our financial future depends on maintaining and expanding our commercial tax base, and we must frequently examine regulations on a cost/benefit basis to ensure that we are not stifling growth.
Along with development, education has been another important focus of my administration. To that end, I have made the modernization of Methuen High School a fundamental goal.
Tonight, I can say that we are well on our way to achieving our goal of having a modern high school facility in the near future. I get a lot of questions on our progress, so let me give you a quick overview.
Last night the City Council approved two contracts for this project. The first was for the General Contractor for the Central School, where our freshman class will be going in September. The second was for the Construction Manager of the main High School Project, which should begin in late summer.
The Methuen High School Project will combine improvements on three separate buildings within the original budget. And the funding for the project did not require us to ask for a Proposition 2.5 override from Methuen taxpayers. I would be remiss if I did not offer thanks to the Methuen City Council, who supported this project and collaborated on the finance plan. The Methuen School Committee and our wonderful new Superintendent Judy Scannell have not only been supportive but have worked very hard to move this project along.
And our Building Committee, doing the hard work day in and day out, have brought us towards the goal we all share. And a very special thank you to the very best Building Committee Chair in the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Suzanne Lamoureux. You can believe me when I tell you that we would not be where we are today without her immense contribution to this project. Thank you Suzanne!
With Suzanne and our current team in place this project will come in on time and on budget, completed in three years.
According to economic forecasts, 2011 will be only marginally better than 2010 was. For the last two years we were able to avoid layoffs and service cuts largely due to our city employees taking deep cuts in pay.
I would like to express my appreciation to all of the employee unions who have worked in a proactive way to help with our budget problems and save jobs. As I have said many times in the past, I value the work of the 300 plus dedicated police officers, firefighters, DPW workers and others who keep city government running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I will continue to do everything I can to keep them on the job and serving the public.
My Chief of Staff Matt Kraunelis likes to joke that bad weather has followed me into the Mayor’s Office, and his humor is not far off. Since 2006 we have had two major incidents of flooding, an ice storm that cut power to most of the City, and recently a gas outage that cut heat to much of West Methuen. From a management perspective the reform of our Emergency Management system, enacted in 2006, has been tested under fire, and water. But just as importantly, that through these events, the value of our municipal employees has been shown. They have responded to emergencies with professionalism and hard work. We appreciate and value their service.
As we gaze to the future, our ability to keep our work force in place and provide core services to the citizens of Methuen is threatened by the un-sustainability of the current municipal financial model. Reform of the system is both needed and inevitable. As we look to that reform I remind you of a quote from President John Kennedy, who said, “Our task now is not to fix the blame for the past, but to fix the course for the future.”
That course will require reform of municipal health care, with cities needing the ability to change plan design outside of the parameters of collective bargaining, or to have the right to enter the state GIC without a union veto. Real pension reform must also occur, for without it we will inevitably have to continue to cut vital services to our citizens in order to keep funding a system that will eventually bankrupt us, as a Commonwealth and as a nation. I ask the Legislature to support the initiatives of Governor Patrick in both areas, and have the courage to reform today, to avert collapse tomorrow.
Although economic development, adequate public facilities and financial stability are important topics, I know that many Methuen citizens are equally concerned about so-called “quality of life issues.” To that end, I find it important to balance the city’s policy agenda with matters that are vital to the quality of life of our citizens.
Last year, Methuen made recycling simpler by implementing the popular single stream-recycling program. This allowed residents to put all recyclables in one bin rather than sorting. This change has already had an impact, driving up our recycling rate and driving down our solid waste tonnage, saving the taxpayers of Methuen thousands of dollars. We will continue to look for ways to make recycling easier and more popular.
We are also are making progress on energy. Recently, we upgraded lighting in eleven city and school buildings to make them Energy Star Efficient. This saves both money and energy.
Additionally, Methuen has received a $179,000 Energy Efficiency Block Grant from the Obama Administration as part of the Recovery Act. We have used this grant to conduct energy audits in all of our grammar schools and will be making energy improvements based on those findings.
We have also entered into a contract for a major solar energy project within the city. Through the use of grants and performance contracting, solar panels will be constructed at the municipal landfill at no expense to the city. The project will be paid for by the contractor, who will provide the energy produced to the City at rates well below market pricing. This allows us to derive direct savings, as well as moving a portion of our consumption to renewables.
The city has also entered into a similar contract through a regional effort coordinated by the Merrimack Valley Regional Planning Association. This performance contract will allow us do major energy upgrades in city and school buildings without having to expend funds up front.
At Henry P. Schruender Memorial Park on the Merrimack River, the non-profit Trauma Intervention Program (TIP) continues to create and take stewardship of the “Healing Garden.” Last year, the park was cleaned and landscaped and new stone benches were installed throughout. This spring we look forward to further improvements. My thanks to Jayann Landry of T.I.P. and her team who have worked hard to make this possible. It is the first Healing Garden in the Merrimack Valley.
Cable competition is important in Methuen. A few years ago, I was able to negotiate a contract to bring Verizon FIOS to the city. With Comcast’s contract expiring next year, I have already assembled a team and met with Comcast regarding its renewal. A survey will be conducted, and a public hearing will be scheduled in the spring so that residents can give input into the process and tell us what they would like to see in the next contract.
With the economy and job market still down, many citizens find it difficult to continue to feed their families. Recognizing this need, my administration has made an effort to support local nonprofits such as Lazarus House and The Merrimack Valley Food Bank. We held food drives in city buildings and held a benefit concert at the Senior Center in order to help these charities and fight hunger. Last fall, the city was honored by the Merrimack Valley Food Bank as a “Hunger Hero” for its efforts. We will continue to hold drives and support these important programs this year.
The City’s Artist of the Month program continues to thrive. I look forward to meeting Methuen’s talented artists every month as they hang their work in my office.
Last year, Methuen’s 1893 Robert Frost Attendance Register was fully restored thanks to a grant and some private donations. The Register, along with other Robert Frost items are currently on display at the Tenney Gatehouse. Methuen has received much attention for these efforts, and I am pleased that my administration will leave the Register in much better condition than when we found it, so that it can be viewed and enjoyed by future generations.
Open space is becoming a precious commodity in Methuen. I am pleased to report that the city recently received a state grant to update its Open Space Plan. This will allow us to better identify open space and ways to preserve it.
The Nevins Library continues to be the cultural hub of Methuen. I look forward to working with the library on future activities as I have done in the past. Despite the economic difficulties in Massachusetts, we have managed to maintain funding for our library and our senior center. Our Library remains accredited, and I will, in the upcoming budget, recommend to the City Council sufficient funding to maintain that accreditation. I will also be working with and supporting the Methuen Rail Trail Alliance and continuing my efforts to construct a new clubhouse at the football stadium so that our student athletes have modern locker room facilities.
Over the past five years I am proud to say that we have improved Methuen’s financial position. We have, through aggressive financial management, put ourselves $3.5 million dollars below the Proposition 2.5 levy limit. We have slowly built reserves back, although they are not where they should be.
But achieving financial security for the City has come at some expense, both from employees and from capital investment. We have, quite frankly, been forced to under fund needed capital acquisitions. I will, in the next two weeks, submit to the City Council a Capital Improvement Plan that will outline areas that need investment. I have done what needed to be done to stabilize our finances, but it is a fundamental deception to pretend that government does not need to make capital investments, or that such spending is wasteful or not worth paying for.
We must strike the right balance on that issue, and I hope the plan we submit will begin an adult conversation on spending and taxes. We should consider additional allocations towards financial reserves for the City. What the proper level of reserves should be can be discussed, but it is my belief that we need to do more to build those reserves, and create a stronger financial picture for the bond market.
As I begin my final year in office, I look forward to working with citizens and business people alike on many of the critical initiatives that I have outlined here tonight. I am sure that this year, like years prior, will bring many challenges. But as long as we remain focused and positive, the state of our city will remain strong. I thank you all for the privilege of serving as Mayor! God bless the City of Methuen.