FEbruary: Crash data and responses
February sure started with a shiver. I hope you have been keeping warm!
The most concerning news affecting Newton last month was the estimated costs of not passing the operating override for Newton’s school children. Our public schools are Newton’s crown jewel, and our budget reflects just how much we value them and the education and care they provide our youngest residents. (Over 60% of our operating budget is in the schools; the school budget is roughly 80% staff). More details here.
In this issue:
Override for SchoolsCrash DataCool Articles
Override for SchoolsOne of the more painful votes I have taken in my Council tenure has to be last year’s school budget without some middle school aides to help with pandemic learning losses in reading and math.
That vote looks to be a picnic if the operating override doesn’t pass. According to NPS’ early estimates, the $4.5 million for the schools in the operating override question will still leave a $1-2 million budget gap to fill (Fig City outlines the possible outcomes here).
I remember too well the cuts in the late 1990s/early 2000s when much-beloved enrichment classes were eliminated just before my children could enroll. I don’t want that for any current or future NPS kids.
Please, vote yes.
Car crash statistics, patternsPublic Safety heard from Chief Carmichael again in January with the latest year-over-year numbers for crashes, including those where a person on foot or on bike or skateboard was involved.
The police department (NPD) ranked the top 20 crash locations, but if you map the various intersections, they are grouped into three big clusters:
Other patterns—the fall seems to have more crashes than other seasons. And the times of day that have the highest crash rates also correspond to school arrival and dismissal times. The whole report is here.
The next question is how Newton will use this information. Already, we have made progress in adding safe crossings and reducing travel speeds near schools and along school routes. We will use crash data to prioritize additional safety changes, particularly where they intersect with walking routes.
I have docketed and passed several dozen 20 mph “safety zones” near parks and schools—this should affect the algorithms used by Waze and Google, making these cut-through routes less attractive. Last month, I docketed and Traffic Council passed the reduction of 35 mph speeds on the eastern end of Washington Street and paralleling that on Tremont (both feed into the Circle). This employs a new legal option to reduce speeds, and we will see how it works before tackling other areas.
While speed limits help, road design is the most effective safety measure. For us to have the funds to continue this work, however, we will need to pass the operating override.
Cool articles I’ve read this month: A doctor for the homeless reveals unseen people
San Francisco considers adding “gentle density”
Transportation accounts for 40% of greenhouse gasses in the US, but the road to sustainability is not necessarily just swapping out the car’s engine: “The least ambitious scenario — just switching to EVs — could increase the need for lithium by up to threefold by 2050, the authors say. But if the country boosts density, invests in mass transit, builds out lithium battery recycling, and regulates EV battery size, it could cut the amount of extra lithium needed to decarbonize transit by 2050 by more than 90 percent.” Globe article here.
Happy New Year!
As I write, you may be writing your resolutions, or just looking back over the highs and lows, and the tumult that was 2022. And so have I.
Looking back & ahead
Newton's Crisis Intervention Team
Looking back & Ahead
This year I was pleased to see progress on several long-term projects: safer two-way biking on the Carriagelane, more 20 mph safety zones, traffic calming projects finished at the northern end of Walnut and starting on Lowell, for instance. Implementation of post-construction audits of traffic calming. Regular data reports from police and fire departments, and more training in both to keep our staff at their peak.
But this month also saw three crashes at Crafts/Eddy/Eliot in West Newton. Two cars also veered off Crafts Street and into the fences (or further) at Albemarle. Removing flex posts in Waban Square and near Oak Hill Middle School saw a resumption in unsafe driver behavior. I will be holding a meeting this winter on crashes and the traffic calming priority list to address this.
Newton’s Crisis Intervention Team
In October I wrote about rising drug and mental health calls. This month, Public Safety & Transportation heard more detail about the city’s Community Crisis Intervention Team. Consisting of police, the health department and a number of private partners, the CIT meets weekly to discuss calls, how best to handle them, and how to address the underlying issues, because, as Chief Carmichael told us, “none of the entities involved…operate in silos. None of us can [solve issues] by themselves.”
Meghan Kennedy, director of Social Services, noted the importance of working with the state Department of Mental Health --to reveal trends across the state, evidence-based programs that work and who can advise on individual treatment that can head off a 911 call. Working with the Riverside program, which screens people in our schools and community and connects them with help is also pivotal.
In a hypothetical instance, a young parent contacts the HHS with concerns about alcohol abuse. Underlying this, Kennedy said, is often PTSD, stress or depression. And she is able to provide this person with a plan to deal with both the substance use, treatment for depression or PTSD. The police social worker is fantastic at connecting police involved residents with treatment. Kennedy said many residents learn about HHS’ help from friends, but she also uses the holiday gift drive and other venues to connect residents with services.
The CCIT program is still new to Newton; it is showing some early success. I look forward to seeing some metrics of success in future reports.
Override Questions AnsweredThere are three school projects on the March ballot--two (Franklin and Countryside) are debt exclusions (which raise taxes only until the project debt is paid) and one, Horace Mann improvements, is in the operating override. You can do a virtual tour of all three schools here.
The bulk of the operating override is for the school’s operating budget (which is mostly staff salaries and benefits)--it will prevent cuts. Having reluctantly voted for a 2023 budget that cut middle-school academic interventions, I hope we can prevent further damage. Details on what the schools face without this funding are here.
I look forward to seeing you on Zoom January 7th, 11 am, when I am hosting a virtual coffee hour with my colleagues in Ward 5, Deb Crossley & Bill Humphrey, along with John Rice, to help answer any remaining questions you may have. Email me for details.
Cool articles I’ve read this month (please feel free to share your recommendations!):
If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, what are the most effective actions?
Why am I obsessed with evaluation of road design? Because some stuff works better
Out of the dozens of worthy Newton non-profits that could use your help this winter, here are two of my personal favorites:
November-Is that street safer?
In this issue:
If you feel like your street is treated like a racetrack, you are hardly alone. It's one of the most common complaints I hear from residents. The city has a list of requests for traffic calming--which uses paint or curb changes to force drivers to take it easy--for over 150 streets. Despite increasing budget lines (now at $350,000, plus $2m in ARPA funds), that list keeps growing.
Before we invest further, I asked the Transportation Division of DPW to report on some completed installations. It is important that we know whether these traffic measures work. The division has data on Grant, Beethoven, Allan, Chestnut and Pearl.
The upshot: more investment often produced slower speeds. Still, Director Jason Sobel and the committee agreed, Newton needs a regular process for post-construction evaluation so that we can invest smarter. Details of the department’s findings will be in the final report, in next Friday's packet. Meanwhile, the audio is here.
Keep moving forward!To continue this important work, the budget line for traffic calming will need to grow (and there's inflation…). This is one reason I enthusiastically support the proposed operating override--it will include funding for safety, add to our in-house team that does pavement markings, and help drive more repairs to roads and sidewalks. (More on the debt exclusion questions in a future update).
But that’s not all--to get up to speed on the whole proposal, visit the city’s informational site here, or attend one of these meetings
October-Mental health Data
L’Shana Tova! Happy New Year to those who celebrate. May this be a sweet year. And happy fall to all.
Local overdose/mental health calls
Local overdoses, mental health calls Every quarter, the Public Safety & Transportation Committee, which I chair, reviews data from the Police Department. Our latest review focused on police calls related to mental health, domestic abuse and substance abuse (full report here).
The data is concerning: mental health calls seem to be increasing (the 2022 data in the chart is only through August), perhaps reflecting national trends.
In addition, overdoses, including fatal ones, appear to be increasing year over year locally and statewide.
One reason appears to be the increasing contamination of illegally obtained drugs with fentanyl. State data shows that 93% of overdose deaths have fentanyl present. The NIH has found fentanyl in powders like cocaine and other street drugs.
In December, PS&T will talk with Chief Carmichael and Health Commissioner Linda Walsh to get more in-depth information about the city’s response to substance abuse disorder and mental health calls: the Crisis Intervention Team.
Cool articles I’ve read this month (please feel free to share your recommendations!):
Safety Zones This month I was pleased to nominate and vote for three additional 20 mph safety zones in Newton--these zones are applicable where we see a lot of people walking or biking and need traffic to go slowly. They have been hugely popular with nearby neighbors.
Albemarle Road near Day Middle School & the new Early Childhood Center
Allen Ave near Richardson Field
Beethoven Ave near Zervas School
Brandeis Rd near Newton South HS
Chestnut St. from Bobby Braceland Park to Upper Falls Village Center
East Side Parkway near Cabot School
Ellis St. near Hemlock Gorge
Lincoln Street near Newton Highlands village & Hyde park
Walnut Street near Newton North HS & Newtonville center
Lake Ave near Crystal Lake
Homer St. near City Hall & the Library
Watertown through Nonantum center
All of these were championed by the councilors from the ward, and many were also suggested by the School Transportation Working Group.
Our next PS&T meeting is Oct. 19. I am planning to include discussions about traffic calming efforts so far, and what we have learned about how well various installations have worked.
Chestnut St. between Beacon and Commonwealth will remain a construction zone through the spring. The city doesn’t have a sidewalk contractor or a paving contractor yet. So hold on and take it slow in this stretch!
Other Council News
The council proposal, which I signed on to before all the details were spelled out, would extend the penalties to all trees over 55” in diameter at breast height, and allow neighbors to weigh in against cutting.
Our mature trees provide more than shade and beauty: they absorb carbon and suck up stormwater, soften noises, provide habitat. But is the balance of increased oversight and penalties right? How much is too much to pay to cut down a tree? Should we waive the fee for cutting trees like Norway Maples, which shade out native trees that provide more habitat and food for local birds? What else should we know?
I welcome your thoughts!
SEptember: Zoning, Recycling, roads
It's almost the start of a new school year and a busier working session in City Hall. Here's what you need to know:
Village Center Zoning
Village Center Zoning
You have a chance to weigh in on village center zoning redesign starting Sept. 1st. As you may recall, Council has been discussing what zoning changes would make our villages more vibrant, sustainable, attractive and would allow enough housing to meet the mandates in the MBTA Communities law (MCL).
If Newton meets the MCL zoning requirements--which are designed to lower carbon emissions from transportation and create needed new housing--the city will then also be able to require all-electric new construction. The latter is important consumer protection for homebuyers who otherwise might have to retrofit boilers, kitchens and appliances to meet evolving climate mandates.
Village center structures will be more attractive if Newton can remove costly parking mandates (requirements to provide parking spaces based on number of housing units or seats in a restaurant, for instance) from zoning. Mandated parking is what makes modern structures massive (or surrounded by heat-absorbing pavement) and unduly expensive. Currently, Council regularly waives parking requirements near village centers and the T in special permits, but the permitting process adds uncertainty and expense. And any zoning that requires special permits to build near the T will not pass MCL muster.
The Zoning committee saw several examples of what could be constructed in our village centers now, and what modest changes would allow--I think the changes result in buildings that better fit Newton’s villages. Another proposal is to include robust design review, which I think makes a lot of sense. Having design professionals make decisions is more predictable than facing an elected body--and that’s perhaps why no other Massachusetts municipalities have elected bodies making those determinations. There were a total of 12 recommendations that the Zoning committee approved--you can read about all of them on the zoning website, where you can also weigh in with your own thoughts. Please do!
To maximize reductions in traffic and emissions -and build stronger communities--I would like to see the city also plan more proactively for 15-minute neighborhoods.
After my last newsletter, several people asked about plastics recycling. The thing is--this changes all the time as the market for various materials changes. Best practice, according to Newton’s Director of Sustainable Materials Management, Waneta Trabert, is to consult the state’s Recycle Smart website. They update daily.
It is still true that black plastic is too hard to “read” for the sorting machines, so those takeout containers aren’t really recycled (I will use them to gift cookies). Plastic bags get caught in the machinery and cost Newton in fines from the recycling depots--but if you take clean, dry plastic bags to most grocery stores, they can recycle them. They are used in composite lumber! Plastic drink (and other) pouches can’t be recycled.
Rule of thumb: if it’s otherwise a bottle, container, jar, tub with a lid or a jug, it can go in the recycling bin. Clear plastic is preferable to colored--in fact clear plastic cups can go in the bin, but not colored ones.
Fabrics: To find out where bins are, visit Helpsy.co . Wearable clothing is re-sold, and Newton will get a percentage. The rest can be shredded and used as insulation and in various paddings.
Recycling something else? Check here.
Cool environmental articles (please feel free to share your best reads):
Chestnut between Beacon and Commonwealth should see gas work finished by mid-September and the beginning of sidewalk construction. Once sidewalks and curb ramps are finished, the road will finally be paved.
Waverly and Ward will be rough until water pipe repairs are finished.
Washington Street from West Newton to Newton Corner should get new pavement in September. Also Washington in Lower Falls. Intersections:Crafts at Walnut is now more of a T intersection--much safer for kids walking to school. The new berm will be planted once the drought lets up.
Waltham at Derby will see traffic calming work to improve sight lines and safety. Meadowbrook at Fox Hill is getting drainage improvements.
October 29th, 2022
August--Climate items; 128 changes
Climate items Following votes in Congress and at the state Legislature on climate action, I am feeling hopeful. How about you? Locally, despite the heat, there are few things happening that may help:
July-Summer, Budget part 2
Crystal Lake is open, which for me is the real start of summer: purchase your membership for Gath Pool and Crystal lake here.
There are many things that make a Newton summer:
BudgetCouncil was part-way through budget debates when I last sent an update. Here’s the highlights of the rest:
Schools: We voted down the school budget to protest the cutting of resources for middle school students--particularly mental health and academic interventions. Despite this, the mayor did not increase the budget, but did point to new mental health resources outside of the school budget that she was offering all Newton residents.
In the end, the council voted against the entire budget in a way that ensured our vote was symbolic--and Newton still has funds to continue into the next fiscal year. I voted in the minority, for the budget, because it overall is a very good budget--despite the school cuts--and the task ahead is to come together to plan for increases in revenue. This may mean an override campaign.
Besides restoring school cuts, where do you see a need for more funding in the city budget? I have been hearing about speeding cars and the need for more traffic calming.
Police: Chief John Carmichael updated the council on the department’s progress on many fronts--most of them relating to state and local reforms. Read the full report to get a sense of the department’s objectives. I was impressed with the department’s focus on outreach to all sectors of our diverse community, training, mental health, hiring, transparency and more. I look forward to a planned staffing study, which I hope will examine how best to serve Newton resident and officer needs with the resources we have. I was also pleased to see the department purchasing hybrid vehicles, and focusing more on prevention than on rapid response.
Fire: Our Fire Department is one of the few Class 1 departments in the state and Newton has much to be proud of. However, council is concerned about morale and training after two discrimination settlements last year to department employees. At the time of the budget hearings, Newton was still searching for a new chief; in the end Assistant Chief Greg Gentile, who handled the budget hearings, got the job. Both police and fire face a shortage of applicants for entry-level posts, and the result in the fire department is increased overtime. The department is mostly younger men, as older firefighters face mandatory retirement. Diversity and training are also a focus here. Full details are here.
More Short Items:
May--the budget, part 1
THIS weekend is action-packed in Newton--there’s the Multicultural festival →
Also May 7, you can walk Upper Falls history 1-3 pm
And don’t forget the outdoor pop-up market in the parking lot of Dunn-Gaherin’s while you’re in the neighborhood!
ALSO--there’s Taiwan Day in the Highlands:
Starting at 11 am Saturday, with a Dragon Dance at Lincoln and Bowdoin St, continuing down Lincoln, which will be briefly blocked off to traffic and ending at the Hyde Center, 90 Lincoln Street, Newton Highlands. Performances at the Hyde Playground continue until 4 pm.
Finally, the Newton Neighbors Diaper Drive is in full swing; if you want to donate, a great way is via their Amazon Wish List.
BudgetMay is budget season, which provides a way to reflect on all the good things that our Newton government delivers to residents.
Schools, of course, are the biggest piece of the budget, and rightfully so--they are the future of our city, state, and country. More children should have the benefits of a school system like Newton’s that nurtures and prepares them for life in college or in a vocation as well as citizens of the world.
This year’s budget gap of about $2 million in the school department is painful, but inflation and the need to retain our teachers will mean that next year we will face a similar gap--unless we find new revenue. In municipal government, particularly in Massachusetts under Proposition 2.5, which limits the tax levy increase to 2.5%, money is always tight unless there is lots of growth or tax overrides.
Council’s responsibility, however, is the municipal side of the budget. Here are some of the details that I found interesting:
April--Streets, Guns, Data
There is so much happening at the Public Safety & Transportation meetings, it needs an update. Very soon, Council will work on the budget and I will want to write an update focused entirely on that.
Tomorrow: two street designs
At our April 6 meeting, the committee considers options for the Commonwealth Avenue Carriageway from east of Ash Street to the Marriott and for Grove Street just west of 128. Both of these are state-funded, and safety for those outside of cars is my main concern.
Air gun regulation After hearing about a backyard air/pellet gun practice area in a West Newton neighborhood, PS&T and the full Council speedily approved an ordinance to ban discharge of such weapons (and BB guns). We learned that they can fire not just plastic pellets and ball bearings, but also hollow lead bullets, sometimes in quick succession (ie automatic). Thanks to Councilor Andrea Kelley, the Law Department and the Police Department for quickly drafting a feasible ban.
Training for public safety We also had a long discussion on March 23 with Newton Fire Chief Gino Lucchetti and Chief Greg Gentile as well as Police Chief John Carmichael about training. Council became concerned after settlements with two fire department employees who alleged harassment and discrimination. Human Resources’ Director Michelle Pizzi O’Brien and Chief Gentile described an inclusive and ramped-up series of trainings (exceeding state standards) that they have recently implemented in the fire department. Most (94%+) of the department is now trained. They have heard positive feedback from our firefighters and leadership on the programs, and I look forward to hearing more about improved workplace climate.
The NPD hired a consultant to work closely with the department on implicit bias, respect, diversity and other workplace and customer-facing issues, starting late last month. In the meantime, they were actively training the force as required by state and Newton police reform laws and policies. Community policing is a big focus of Chief Carmichael, which I welcome.
Police data: Overdoses/mental health calls up
Our quarterly review of police statistics showed steadily high numbers of mental health calls and overdoses in Newton. Already, the city had two residents overdose—one sadly fatally--as well as 7 non-residents (for comparison, last year Newton had four overdose fatalities and 10 calls total). Chief Carmichael, the NPD and a team of professionals, including an NPD social worker and the Health and Human Services Department, as well as non-profit mental health organizations, have developed creative and focused mental health crisis responses and preventive measures, including mental health first aid--in which 100% of the department is now trained. The department is also applying for funds to work with teens on various kinds of prevention—from drug use to domestic abuse.
FYI--the state’s “good Samaritan law” shields those who report overdoses (including from alcohol) from arrest or prosecution. So if someone calls in an emergency, they should stay on the line so the dispatcher can get timely help to anyone in danger. While so far there have been no hate crimes reported in Newton, police have recorded 30 bias-related incidents in this first quarter of 2022. Last year, there were a total of 58.
Public Safety will continue to review police statistics quarterly, including looking at year-over-year data and traffic safety. The full report on this meeting is here:
March--Saving energy & Water
New Library Parking Lot--more than meets the eye
Even before the solar panels went in, the main library parking lot was in need of resurfacing. '
But this summer’s $1.8 million in work is more than a repaving job. After dozens of patrons lost their cars in a flash flood in the late 1990s, it was clear that the Library lot had a problem with water. Further, EPA’s storm water permit for Newton requires the city to remove phosphorus and salt from the parking lot (and all our other) runoff before it pours into the Charles River. Phosphorus (present in car exhaust) and heat create ideal conditions for blue-green algae (or cyanobacteria) that can make swimming or boating on the river unpleasant (and is deadly for dogs). So I was pleased to vote to include investment in storm water retention and treatment--about $775,000 from the storm water fund for this parking lot. By putting in permeable pavement and underground water retention, the new parking lot will be less likely to flood and will remove nearly 3 lbs of phosphorus per year. This will be a significant improvement for water quality.
Next Step on Newton’s Climate Goals Council learned more Monday about measures to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A Building Emissions Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO), modeled on one passed in Boston, would require owners of our largest structures to plan to cut emissions to zero by 2050.
City staff determined that roughly 400 large buildings contribute ~27% of Newton’s emissions. This step is probably the next-easiest way to significantly reduce greenhouse gasses after Newton Power Choice.
The idea would be to give property owners multiple paths and time to make orderly changes when their heating & cooling equipment reaches the end of its useful life, or when doing planned renovations or construction.
The first step is city engagement with owners before the ordinance is written. Separately, Council is petitioning the state legislature for permission to require all new or substantially renovated houses to go all-electric. I see this is a consumer protection measure, since we will be required to retrofit our homes by 2030 or thereabouts.
Almost every month I write constituents about a topic before the city