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.
Parks, Privacy, Plans!
Surveillance and Facial Recognition Technology It’s important to me that our local government respects your civil rights and right to privacy. It is also important that, any time the city, state or nation acquires a new way to compile data on you, the reasons and guardrails around unwarranted intrusion are clear and openly debated.
So on Feb. 9th, I invited the Massachusetts ACLU’s privacy and surveillance expert, Kade Crockford, to the Public Safety & Transportation committee meeting. Crockford laid out the dangers of “policy by procurement.” This is when police or other departments buy surveillance technology, often using grant funds, without a full Council discussion about what the technology does, how it works, and how it will be used.
We also learned about the fallibility of facial recognition technology for identification, and how it particularly mis-identifies women, the young, the old and people of color. You can read the report here:
Our next steps will be to examine ordinance language to limit facial recognition in Newton—building on what Sen. Cynthia Creem has done at the state level—and to ensure that Council properly vets any technological surveillance and the use of and access to any collected data.
Almost every month I write constituents about a topic before the city