Unfunded Mandates Hurt Methuen Taxpayers

By: DJ Deeb – April, 2017

There have been many noteworthy stories about the City of Methuen this past month. New contracts have been approved by city officials, the Marijuana dispensaries are on hold, a 40-B housing project is being discussed, preliminary budget planning is taking place, and the school committee voted against televising workshop meetings. To quote Valley Patriot publisher Tom Duggan, I hope that Methuen residents are now “Paying Attention.”

The Methuen School Committee voted to extend School Superintendent Judy Scannell’s contract for 1 year (until August 31, 2018) with an option to extend for 1 more year in a unanimous vote on Monday night, March 13th. In a show of real professionalism, Superintendent Scannell made it known to the committee that she did not want a raise. This is the 4th year in a row that the School Superintendent has not taken a raise. With the budget crisis that the city faced last year and the anticipated potential shortfall this coming year it is important that our city leaders and city officials lead by example. Judy Scannell is a real class act and leads by example! Superintendent Scannell works well with the entire board and attends practically every extracurricular event happening in the schools. The residents of Methuen are truly fortunate to have a Superintendent as committed as she is.

The mayor recently proposed and the city council approved 5-year contracts for the Police Chief and Fire Chief. Although Methuen is truly fortunate to have great and committed people in these positions it is my view that anything beyond a standard 3-year contract is excessive. Chief Solomon especially gives his all for our city. He is on call and available 24-7 to respond to residents. We are lucky to have him. But I would have supported a standard 3-year contract with renewal provisions for Chiefs Tim Sheehy and Joe Solomon instead. I am philosophically opposed to awarding 5-year contracts for anyone, including school superintendents.

Although I have heard many criticize the raises contained in these contracts, in the big scheme of things they are actually not excessive when you survey what surrounding communities are paying their chiefs. The Fire Chief received a 9% base pay raise while the Assistant Fire Chief (Bill Barry), who was awarded a 3-year contract, received a 12% base pay raise. With longevity and other benefits built into the new contract, the Fire Chief’s overall pay will increase from $132,522 to $193,262. Likewise, the Assistant Fire Chief’s pay with the built-in benefits will increase from $95,389 to $151,753.

In addition, the Police Chief received a 9.8% raise, but accepted additional responsibilities taking on the role of emergency management director as well. What I found surprising and did not know was that these salaries are legislated by a formula established by the Commonwealth. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 48, Section 57G legislates compensation for Fire Chief and Police Chief. Does this amount to an unfunded mandate? I think so. Why is the State legislating salaries for local police and fire officials? Now, I am certainly not blaming these individuals for accepting these salary adjustments. Frankly, who, wouldn’t? It should also be noted that the Superintendent’s salary is not legislated by the State. I call upon our State Legislative Delegation to file legislation to repeal Chapter 48, Section 57G thereby permitting local city/town officials to fix the salaries for Police and Fire Chiefs locally at their discretion.

I also call upon the mayor and the City Council to work with union leaders through the collective bargaining process to grandfather in longevity for existing city employees and phase out the longevity benefit for any new city employees hired in the future. This will save the city significant sums of money in the long-term.

The last few months have also been busy surrounding the proposed Chapter 40-B apartment complex on Pleasant Valley Street. This project would contain 175 2-3 bedroom apartment units and would certainly create the need for more space in the schools as well as more teachers, police officers, and firefighters to handle the growth in the city population. Under the so-called Affordable Housing law, developers need to just rent or sell just 10% of the total units at below market value for the entire project to qualify under MGL Chapter 40-B ‘Affordable Housing.’ This is a complete scam and always has been. It is yet another unfunded state mandate. I proposed abolishing Chapter 40B as a candidate for State Representative in Dracut in 2002 and replacing it with ‘Market-Based Affordable Housing.” Given recent events, this solution is more relevant today than ever before. I call upon our State Senator and State Representatives to file and support legislation to repeal Chapter 40-B immediately. The State should not be permitted to allow developers to circumvent local zoning laws in the name of providing “Affordable Housing” at the taxpayers’ expense. In the meantime, I call upon the Zoning Board in Methuen to deny the permit for construction and force the issue with the State.

Finally, I want to again express disappointment and disagreement with the Methuen city council and Mayor Zanni for withdrawing initial letters of support for three companies applying to open medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. The voters have spoken. Marijuana in controlled amounts has been decriminalized in Massachusetts and medical marijuana has been legal since 2012. Why not take advantage of potential tax revenues that could be generated for our city? We should be encouraging, not discouraging, businesses seeking to operate in Methuen. The mayor and members of the Methuen city council should encourage these dispensaries to consider Methuen as an option for operating their businesses. This will generate both jobs and tax revenue for our city.

At our school committee meeting on March 27th, I supported a change in policy proposed by Mayor Zanni and committee member Jana DiNatale that would have required all meetings and workshops of the Methuen school committee to be televised. Currently, only regular meetings are filmed and televised. Workshops are not recorded. Kudos to Mayor Zanni, committee member DiNatale, and yours truly for supporting televised workshop meetings. Unfortunately, the motion failed 4-3. It is my view that the public should be able to see and access the important discussions and debates that take place at school committee workshops.

Changing subjects, I want to take an opportunity to extend heartfelt congratulations to the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) at Methuen High School. JROTC is the largest extracurricular organization at Methuen High. There are a total of 223 cadets. At a recent competition in Revere, MA, our cadets returned home with 3 trophies: a first place for JV Leadership, third for Varsity Leadership, and a third place trophy for Academics. Our JROTC was also recently designated as an “Honor Unit With Distinction” during the 2016-2017 School Year by the U.S. Department of the Army. The award received by the Methuen High JROTC acknowledges “Exceptional performance in all areas of the Junior ROTC Program.” Kudos to these students!

Remember your influence counts. Use it.

D.J. Deeb is a Methuen resident and member of the Methuen School Committee. Deeb is an Adjunct Professor of History/Government at Bunker Hill Community College and an Adjunct Political Science Instructor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Deeb also serves as Social Studies Department Chair at Notre Dame High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He is the author of Israel, Palestine, and the Quest for Middle East Peace (University Press, 2013) and The Collapse of Middle East Peace (IUniverse, 2003).