Yesterday on Melrose Patch, Mayor Rob Dolan joined us for our monthly live chat, taking questions about trash and recycling, charter schools, athletic fields and more. You can read a full transcript of the chat; below are highlights from the Q&A session sorted by subject.
Trash and Recycling
Lynn Reznick Parisi: Dear Mayor Dolan, As you transition to a private contractor for trash removal, are you going to use this opportunity to enforce the state recycling regulations (that residents were reminded about in the transition letter)? Will the contractors really check the trash to see if it has recycled items and reject picking up the trash or will this be a lost opportunity increase the amount of recycling by Melrose residents?
Mayor Dolan: If it is visible, they will enforce, but they will not open bags looking for stuff. Over the last three years, tonnage has gone down and recycling has gone up, which is the first time this has ever happened. That means we are heading in the right direction. We are running a neighborhood by neighborhood campaign to try to encourage neighborhood captains to help is with recycling. We had our first meeting in Ward 5 last night and people were very enthusiastic. Jess Schmitt, our new recycling coordinator, is spearheading this effort of community education and enforcement, with a stress on education. We are working in this budget to hopefully move her from a part time to a full time position, using recycling revenues.
Bob Burgess: Hi. I'd like to forward a question from Howard Street's Phil Solmonson. Since the city's paying JRM $420,000 a year, where does the remainder of residents' $200 a year trash fee go?
Mayor Dolan: The $420,000 does not cover the cost of disposal of the trash that JRM collects. That is roughly $600,000 per year. Additionally, the city still performs some collection of trash at local parks, business districts, school and municipal buildings, and special events. The department still collects yard waste year round, which is unheard of in other municipalities in the area, and the department also collects recycling and Christmas trees, processes and provides free compost to Melrose residents, and keeps the City Yard open on Saturdays for most of the year. The cost of all of these items far exceeds the trash fee collected. The goal of this privatization is to ensure we will never have to raise the trash fee and still be able to provide the unique services the people of Melrose enjoy and expect that other communities do not. Excellent question, Phil!
Sandi: Any thoughts to picking up recycling every week?
Mayor Dolan: Yes. We are working very hard to figure out a way to make weekly recycling cost neutral. The general sense is that weekly recycling will increase recycling and decrease tonnage. As you may know, we do our own recycling with one truck. In order to do weekly recycling, we would have to either buy another truck which is extraordinarily expensive or bring in another partner. Both those things will cost money. I think one piece is going to be this ward-by-ward campaign to increase recycling. if we can see over the next six to 12 months a spike in recycling and a continued reduction in trash, there is a clear path to recycling. It's an issue in which every citizen can do their part to help their community as well as help their environment. If you have any ideas as to how to achieve this, please call Jess Schmitt, recycling coordinator, at 781-665-0142, or attend one of the ward meetings that will be posted on the city website. I would love to see weekly recycling.
Dave Benson: To go back to the recycling topic. Have we ever thought about using a program like RecycleBank (www.recyclebank.com) to entice residents to recycle more? or perhaps moving to a comingled recycling system (no need to separate from paper from aluminum from glass, etc.)?
Mayor Dolan: RecycleBank works for communities with very low recycling rates. Many urban centers like Everett use it because their recycling rates are low. Melrose has a high recycling rate, and we bring our material to the open market and sell it at a profit. That profit in turn goes back to pay for our recycling trucks, our recycling coordinator, and to enhance the efforts to increase recycling and get to the goal of weekly recycling and significant decreases in trash tonnage costs. By involving the RecycleBank you are bringing in a middleman that will take a portion of the profits, thus making our road to weekly recycling longer.
kitkat: Thank you Mr. Mayor. I remember you as being opposed to the union-free Charter school, which I never understood, as they have measurably better results than Melrose schools. How are you working to improve Melrose schools and are you still seeking to cut funds to the kids at the Charter?
Mayor Dolan: First of all, I believe your question is incorrect. I am not opposed to the charter school at all. I have been a visitor and participant in lessons at the Charter School, and in fact I spoke at their first graduation. The charter school gets significantly more per student than the Melrose schools, and that money comes from the taxpayers of Melrose. I think a more equitable solution would be a total transfer of per pupil spending to the charter school, meaning if we lose a student to the charter school, we lose that student's per pupil amount, and not a penny more.
There also is the issue of accountability. Unfortunately, their spending is not open to public scrutiny as the public school budget and the vocational school budget is. Every other item in the City of Melrose budget is open to public debate, but this is not. That is a problem.
As it pertains to the City of Melrose, we are competitive, if not beat, the charter school in most MCAS scores before high school. Obviously, MCAS is only one way to judge. I think the charter school does a number of excellent things we can learn from. They certainly have flexibility because of the non-union environment, and we do not have the same rights. There are also things the charter school learns from us. Melrose has been extraordinarily successful in a number of areas. Last night was an outstanding School Committee meeting with presentations by the high school and middle school principals and department heads. it was an excellent example of public educators innovating in Melrose, and I felt at that moment proud about the future of education. I also look forward to interviewing the last five finalists for superintendent to find a new leader who will take us to the next level. I believe my relationship with the charter school administration is mutually respectful and actually very good.
Paul: Good question about the charter school, kitkat. Why don't we do in some of our schools what the charter school does? It's successful? Parents looking for that type of school could just stay in Melrose. Is the teachers union the problem? Is that why we can't have longer school days and year?
First of all. Paul, your question is very broad, but if you want to narrow it down to longer school days and year, it would have to be negotiated, and that would cost a lot of money the wages we pay and the benefits we offer are much more generous than any charter school. considering that we remain in one of the worst economies of our history, if we have any additional money, I would want it to go to enhance classrooms and direct services for students. A similar example is that there are double the number of students who go to St. Mary's as go to the charter school. I believe there should be sound educational choices for parents that do not put any other group at a disadvantage. Although they may have a longer school day at the charter school, we have one of the finest fine arts programs not only in Massachusetts but the U.S., as well as a diverse athletics and extracurricular program. Perhaps we could partner with them for student enrichment programs the bring the two groups together.
mike: mayor Dolan, what's your take on the Morelli situation? yet another year where the citizens and kids of Melrose will have to suffer the inability to have a baseball field. Are the contractors being pursued for damages beyond just replacing the field? what's the timeline?
Mayor Dolan: First and foremost, although this field will not be in use, they will be able to use the other world-class field we built for them last year at Pine Banks. There was a period of time after the Roosevelt was built when we had one Babe Ruth sized field in Melrose. We have built two at Pine Banks which are state of the art and will be online. The point of Morelli is the fact that we are very lucky that it didn't snow because we would not have seen the pooling. In fact, the oversight was so strict, the average individual could not see the pooling, and the fact that our team took it upon themselves to go to an independent lab to test the soil samples after the grading was checked and met specs is a clear example of the level of oversight of this project. No contractor has been paid for any part of this project, so there is no money to be returned. In fact, I would say that we are extraordinarily pleased with all other aspects of this project, and I would say that the 3000+ fans that showed up on November 4 for the opening of the football field could attest to that.
The point is to ensure that we get what we paid for. We will settle for nothing less. The contractor to date has been responsive, a plan is in place to fix it, and we will get what we paid for. We are very lucky to have the oversight team that identified this issue before it became a problem that we would have to live with forever. I think you could name several community projects over the past 50 years, both statewide and locally, in which that level of oversight was not exercised. As a parent of someone that plays baseball and hopefully one day will play on this field, I want it to last for the long haul. Shortsightedness does not accomplish that. Therefore, we will make sure it is corrected and those young baseball players will be able to play on a world class field at Pine Banks park until them. That's something that very few of us, as young children who grew up in Melrose, ever had the opportunity to do until Dr. Morelli as a private citizen came forward to build a new field in 1984. Almost 30 years later, we want to do the same for this generation of Melrose children.
Beth: Whats going on with the Pine Banks fields?
Mayor Dolan: Pine Banks remains on schedule. As stated, the first Lady Red Raiders softball game will be on May 1. A lot of the site work and environmental work that is being done every day is not easily visible to the public, with large cranes and moving of dirt. The project is on schedule.
Craig: What will happen with the Snow Removal budget dollars that go unused from the lack snow this year?
Mayor Dolan: We budgeted $450,000 for snow; we have spent approximately $200,000. We have some overages in gas and utilities, and since it is one-time money, because we will need it next year, it will be used for any sort of deficit or capital cost that may be identified in the next several months.
misterdonut: Why the playgroups, movie nights, golf course, memorial hall - these don't seem like good uses of taxpayer money. Can we cut those out, shrink town government? Any plans to shrink town government at all?
Mayor Dolan: I believe the issues you brought forward are not only extraordinary uses of dollars but most of them make money for the city or cover costs. The golf course, for the first time in its history has been profitable for the past five years and brings in a surplus to the city. Memorial Hall, the city's oldest veterans monument, brings in over 50,000 patrons that support our local businesses and restaurants, that again support taxpayers. Movie nights have been paid for by the McLaughlin foundation and other private entities. Play groups bring people together as neighbors and shareholders in this city we call Melrose. That creates connections that make this city safer and stronger than ever. Never in our history has this city shrunk more than in my time as mayor. We have lost millions upon millions of dollars in state aid, yet provide I believe to be exceptional service in public safety, at our library, in our schools. We are state leaders in regionalization. We have worked with our unions on health reform and a wage freeze. We have approximately 20% fewer employees than we did when I started as mayor. For a city with one of the smallest industrial bases, we have done more with less than communities like Saugus, Malden, and larger urban centers with incredible commercial and industrial bases.
Craig: Is there a benefit to see city for you being named to the GIC?
Mayor Dolan: The direct benefit is the fact that we are in the GIC, and health insurance is the second largest municipal item outside the public schools, and the fastest growing line item. To put it in perspective, the health insurance increase has historically been greater than the amount of money we bring in in new taxation every year. It doesnt take an MBA to realize that is the road to insolvency, and that is why the issue of municipal health insurance has been in the forefront over the past three years. The GIC is the 10th largest health care plan in the country. The stability and future growth in Massachusetts depends in large part on that entity's continued success and sound management. As the only board member from the municipal sector, I think that is critically important if we want to continue the advances we have made in making Melrose a great place to live.
Washington Street Redevelopment
Kris: What is going on with the DMV space on Washington street? Why hasn't anything moved in there?
Mayor Dolan: There is a lot of interest in the DMV space, however, a lease has not been signed. Hopefully with the Stone Place apartments being built across the street, it would be a use that meets the needs of those new citizens. We are finding one of the hardest parts of new businesses is the owners getting loans. Getting financing has never been harder. There is interest in all the vacancies in Melrose—thankfully, there aren't that many—but getting financing is an issue for property owners and entrepreneurs.
Ben: With the Washington St/Pleasant St development underway, does Melrose have any plans to encourage businesses to come into the area near the development - i.e. the old RMV building. The development will do a lot to clean up the area, but more is needed.
Mayor Dolan: Sure, in 2009 that area went through a full rezoning that was one of the most pro-business rezonings in melrose. Before that area was zoned for industrial use. now it has an array of as-of-right zoning that will begin with the Stone Place apartments a further regentrification of that area for uses that meet the needs of Stone Place, Oak Grove Village, and the commuters that travel that road daily. As the economy slowly turns, with the stress on slowly, I think you will see this as a reality, but the market for this regentrification right now is slow. Melrose has seen its greatest new growth in terms of regentrification of property in its history in the last five years, as seen on Main Street, downtown, and throughout the city. The issue, which is a federal issue, is banks lending to qualified entrepreneurs to make great things happen and put people to work. That goal has still not been accomplished.
Mayor Dolan: We have received the draft audit and it is in the hands of the police union and my team. Our hope is to release it with a joint statement by the police union by the early next week. Following that you will see from the police chief and from my office in the FY13 budget, a formal action plan that takes the report and uses it to improve in areas identified.