By Bernard F. Lynch
Special to The Sun
In June 2006, I was given the honor and responsibility of being appointed Lowell city manager. After more than 25 years in municipal government this was an opportunity for me to serve a city that, as a student at the University of Lowell, had inspired me to move my interest from national government and political theories to the more nuts-and-bolts matters of municipalities.
I immediately immersed myself in the myriad issues facing the fourth-largest community in Massachusetts and determined the priorities for the administration I would lead. I identified areas of attention including finances, infrastructure, economic development, public safety, neighborhoods, partnerships, and government integrity. I remember noting in my inaugural speech that I intended to "operate as if the city government was a business because it is, it is the people's business." I did not mean that we should focus solely on bottom-line results, but instead we should remember that the city government belongs to all of its people.
I believe we have abided by that commitment. I know we have tried. As I leave the position of Lowell city manager I am proud to look back on the accomplishments that have been made by this administration. I know the city is in a far better place today due to the philosophy we embraced, and the commitment and dedication of department heads and employees under very difficult circumstances.
Building fiscal strength
Municipalities have to be in a strong and stable fiscal condition in order to preserve services, maintain affordability, and provide the environment that encourages development. In 2006, Lowell's finances had largely bottomed out with negative free cash, a bond downgrade, added oversight by the state Department of Revenue, and a fiscal 2007 budget that didn't match with what had been voted by the City Council. Immediate attention was required to right the fiscal condition. The economic collapse of 2008 only added to the challenge. Today, Lowell's finances are strong and well-positioned with healthy reserves, stable enterprises, stable taxes, upgraded bond ratings, a clean bill of health from the state, clean audits, reduced fixed costs, new revenues, and overall improved financial systems.
As an older urban community, Lowell has roads, utilities, sidewalks, parks, buildings and equipment in need of continual investment. In 2006, Lowell did not have a comprehensive multiyear capital plan; today we do. We have invested nearly $200 million in the physical plant, including road paving, park projects, energy improvements, a new Morey School, water and wastewater upgrades, building improvements, the Early Garage, and new Fire and DPW equipment.
Development in a community is crucial to enlarge the tax base, increase revenue and create new economic activity and jobs. Since the late 1970s, the city of Lowell has been generally successful in attracting investment but challenged in maintaining this success. This challenge was exacerbated by the economic collapse of 2008. While many cities saw projects grind to a halt, our development projects continued. Some major projects include the Hamilton Canal District with the Appleton Mill and 110 Canal Place buildings completed, the new Lowell Community Health Center, the completion of the Boott Mills project, the beginning of the Counting House Lofts project, the Jeanne D'Arc Credit Union corporate headquarters and its new branch and Loan Center, the LGH expansion, Lowes, the Target complex, and the Bridge Street Market Basket complex. We have seen an increase in the total number of businesses in Lowell, more jobs in the city than the 1980s, and a higher occupancy rate of business space than most communities.
A priority of every community is making its people feel safe. This is particularly true in cities like Lowell that for a variety of reasons tend to have crime rates that are higher than the suburbs. The city made great strides beginning in the 1990s in pushing the crime rate down. However, in 2006, there were still issues related to crime with robberies, gang violence, shootings, and murders. In 2006 alone, there were 13 murders.
Gang violence was made a top priority that year with a number of initiatives, including the establishment of a Manager's Task Force. Since then, the overall crime rate has dropped almost every year. Lowell had four murders in 2013. However, recent incidents show problems persist and continued vigilance will always be necessary.
Police staffing dropped as a result of federal funding cutbacks, but locally funded staffing has increased. A recalibration of the police organization will provide additional on-the-street coverage, as has the smart-policing efforts of targeted deployments.
Fire coverage is also a public-safety concern and, like the Police Department, frontline staffing was spared a reduction during the 2009 layoffs. The average company closure per shift has been reduced from nearly two to almost one through careful staffing and use of overtime.
Broadening outreach, alliances
The city is fortunate to have a robust downtown that is a neighborhood as well as a hub shared by the entire community. However, early on we committed to making all neighborhoods a priority for public investments, service delivery, and engagement.
We implemented numerous neighborhood initiatives for improved code enforcement, including a residential rental-unit inspection program, the certificate of inspection program, a vacant and foreclosed-property registration program, a problem-property task force, and a troubled-property receivership program.
We also established a Manager's Neighborhood Initiative in which targeted neighborhoods received a yearlong comprehensive focus of staff and resources for investments in roads, parks, economic-development efforts, etc.
To maximize effectiveness and provide citizens with confidence in their government, it was necessary to adjust the organizational culture to embrace long-term perspective, deliberate decision-making, integrity and transparency. This change required continual reiteration of these values and distinct initiatives, such as data-based decision making through LowellStat, performance-based budgeting, restructured operations, merit-based hiring, and standards of high integrity.
The city of Lowell has a long history of partnerships with the private sector, nonprofits, institutions, and other levels of government. We have strengthened these partnerships and expanded into more regional efforts. Perhaps the greatest effort has been with the University of Massachusetts Lowell with which we instituted quarterly meetings to discuss and coordinate on common issues and work jointly on development opportunities.
Beyond these larger issues there have been other notable achievements, including meeting education spending requirements, enlarged recreation programs, expanded recycling and enhanced cultural programming.
I have attempted to list all of the major efforts that have occurred over the past 7 1/2 years. The list is lengthy and yet I feel I omitted other important achievements. These accomplishments have been the result of an outstanding team of city employees and volunteers, and with the support and occasional push of city councilors.
When I leave office, I will have served for longer than all but two other city managers. One, Lowell's first city manager who served during the 1940s; and the second who served during the 1950s. I have appreciated the opportunity to be part of an incredible city with an amazing history and great future. Thank you to the staff, department heads, city employees, board and commission members, and city councilors for your support and dedication. I also want to thank the business community and representatives of all the partner organizations for your commitment to the city. And lastly, but most importantly, thank you to the residents of the city for the privilege of serving as your city manager.