Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Confessing a C.R.U.S.H.: An Interview with Rebecca Lisi, Part I

by Greg Saulmon
Tuesday September 09, 2008, 2:19 PM

On the last Thursday in August I went to the Waterfront Tavern to check out the first public event held by a group calling itself Citizens for the Revitalization and Urban Success of Holyoke -- or, more succinctly, C.R.U.S.H. At the event, there were snacks; there was a Duraflame in a fire bowl; there was a survey asking about the city's strengths, weaknesses, and most important priorities. There were also a lot of people discussing a lot of exciting ideas and visions for Holyoke. Last week, I caught up with one of those people -- Holyoke At-Large-Councilor Rebecca Lisi -- to learn more about C.R.U.S.H.

Tell me about the origins of C.R.U.S.H. -- who was involved in getting it off the ground, what was the inspiration, and what are the group's goals? The initial thought was that we were going to create a young professional society. James Sutter and I were running into each other often --

And James owns a jewelry store here in Holyoke --
Right. And he was always talking about the issues, and about the need to get people involved, and I told him I had the same ideas, the same feelings. He was talking a lot about how he'd tried to create a newsletter, and how everyone who talks to you talks the same way about the issues -- but nobody seemed to be able to follow through with action. I come from organizing experience, and I think one of the most important things you can do is to follow through on an idea.

So we sent out a mass e-mail to set a date to talk about forming a young professional society, which was the original model. We went to a young professional society meeting in Northampton -- the Wednesday before the first Sunday that we met -- and I took notes and asked questions: How did you guys get developed? Where did it come from? Who sponsors you? How did you organize? I presented that to the group that met on Sunday -- it was a lot of James and Becca Sutter's friends, as well as other folks who were interested in redeveloping the city -- and I explained what the original concept was. I told them I wasn't wed to it, that I wanted to hear what they thought would work, what they thought would help.

What we decided was that we didn't want to be exclusively young; we didn't want to be exclusively "professional". And, even more so, we couldn't afford to be exclusive in any way, shape or form, because the city is really lacking organization overall. So we wanted the group to be a place where people could come together, to get organized around ideas and vision, talent, energy. We really needed to throw the net wide and welcome everybody in. So that's why you saw the generational diversity, probably even class diversity.

It was a mix of artists and people from the business community, as well as people who've been around and who've been doing business in Holyoke for some time, like David Scher from the Canal Gallery.
He was really happy to be there.

And he sort of straddles the art and business communities. So it did seem to draw from a wide crowd.
And one of the things we decided is what we're not going to be -- we're still hammering out what the function and organization of this group is. The one thing I think is really important is that we're mostly a place where people can connect -- to the organizations, resources, the other people who will support the different ideas that you and your friends and your neighbors have about what needs to be done. So it's just a place, a space we're creating where all of that can happen.

If I'm remembering, when you spoke the other night you used "silos" as a metaphor for how people and organizations are separated or disconnected in the city. Can you talk more about the disconnect that exists in the city, and how you're trying to overcome it?
The idea of "silos" is very prominent in my mind, because the first way I started connecting with the city, being a newcomer, was through the youth-serving agencies, and the Holyoke Youth Task Force. The agencies had been struggling a lot with replication of efforts, really feeling that they're in silos due to funding restrictions, funding constraints, funding competition, and the Task Force was a place where they could network and share ideas.

And it really, in my eyes, permeates a lot of what's happening beyond just the social service agencies. The business community isn't talking to the artist community, and the artist community isn't talking to the community groups -- there are lots of things happening, but the word is not getting out. There are lots of people -- there's Friends of CanalWalk now, there's the Taxpayers' Association, the Chamber, all these social service agencies, that are all doing really good work -- but we're not getting a synergy so that you can see a measure of real difference in the city.

So James and I have both been talking to different groups, different people, and we're finding that there's a common theme; we're all focused on the same thing. We all want to see the city succeed. We all want downtown to be revitalized. We all want to see business come back. We want to see a revival of the middle class, of a working community here in Holyoke. We all have different talents, and we all have different ways of going about doing that. [...] You have your skills, your talents, and I need to connect you to the people who need those skills and talents. There's a nice exchange that can happen if you bring everybody to the table.

Since you'd originally envisioned a young professional society, it makes me wonder -- is Holyoke, as a city, getting younger? Is there a growing pool of young entrepreneurs and business people in the city, and is that an increasingly important force in city politics and in the city's business community?
I don't have actual statistics. My sense is that our generation -- people currently in their twenties and thirties -- I think they have a very entrepreneurial spirit. And there is so much potential, and so many available resources in this city that it's like a blank canvas. So I think that a lot of entrepreneurs and people who have brilliant ideas see this as a canvas, in a way. It gives a chance for individuals with ideas to express themselves.

I think there's a pull in the city, because of all its needs. People are stepping up and saying, "Well, the city has needs, but I have needs too." And there's a good match there.

It seems to me, as an observer, that in addition to having housing that people will find affordable, especially for a first-time homebuyer -- the city also has space, if you're looking to open a business, for people who may be priced out of a place like Northampton or Amherst. Especially if you're not doing something retail-oriented that will rely on foot traffic --
It seems like there's ample space, and it seems like the city is calling out for activity. So, you can really be a pioneer, in a way. And that's really the entrepreneurial spirit -- going into a place and creating something where there is nothing.

You talked the other night about having fun this fall, and then really hunkering down and creating sub-committees to work on different projects. Can you tell me more about how you see this group evolving over the next several months, and what the work of C.R.U.S.H. will be like starting in the new year?
There are two parts that I see as the foundations. One is the fun, the social networking part, which is what we drew from the young professional society. Because there needs to be an element of fun and lightheartedness, and to acknowledge that it's in our own interest to meet people in our community, and to create community and create social bonds. And there are new people mixing with people who've lived here a long time, young people mixing with older people, and they're interested in knowing who is in the city.

The other foundation is action. I feel like as far as I've lived in the area, I've heard people talking about Holyoke coming back. And while there are individual projects that have been successful, I feel like there hasn't been a real groundswell of movement to really signal that success. So we really need to focus on creating concrete and tangible goals and following through on them. That's really important to me, and to the other folks who we're working with. We expect more from the city, and we're not expecting anyone else to take care of it. And we feel like we have skills, we have talents, we have the energy, we have the vision to start implementing the things that we want to see.

It doesn't mean that it's only our vision. It's really about creating a space for everybody to say, "This is what I want to see, how can I connect to the people and resources who will help me realize that?"

Check back on Wednesday for Part II of our conversation.

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Residents have 'crush' on Paper City

from The Reminder; September 4, 2008

By G. Michael Dobbs
Managing Editor

HOLYOKE- A group of Holyoke residents recently expressed having a crush on their hometown by launching a new organization, Citizens for the Revitalization and Urban Success of Holyoke (CRUSH).

The group met for its first event on Thursday at the Bungalow of Waterfront tavern. With music playing in the background and about 20 mostly young people seated and talking in the outdoor area, it appeared to be a gathering one would find in Northampton.

One of the points CRUSH is hoping to make is to challenge the public's perceptions about Holyoke, according to CRUSH members Laurie Landry and Rebecca Sutter.

To help that effort all of the people attending the event were asked to fill out a survey that asked what the city's strengths and weaknesses are as well as what respondents would like to see as priorities for the city.

Both women are Holyoke natives and residents who said the organization's first meeting in July attracted not only natives, but people who have moved to the Paper City as well as those who just work in Holyoke.

The organization is a grassroots effort and Landry thanked the owner of the Waterfront tavern for donating the use of the bungalow for the meeting.

The plan for CRUSH is to sponsor one event a month culminating hopefully in a New Year's gala, Landry said.

Sutter said that some people don't realize the advantages Holyoke has in being located next to three major highways and having the river providing a green power source. She added that potential homebuyers could find affordable beautiful homes in the city as well.

The organization will be making announcements about future events on its Web site at http://www.crushonholyoke.org/.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Holyoke sewer fee increase fails

from The Republican; Wednesday, September 03, 2008

HOLYOKE - A City Council move to increase the fee for sewer service failed by a narrow vote Tuesday.

The council voted 7-6 in favor of the increase. But because the motion requires a two-thirds majority vote, the proposed rate increase was not approved.

Voting in favor of the increase were Councilors Diosdado Lopez, Joseph M. McGiverin, John J. O'Neill, John P. Brunelle, Patricia C. Devine, Anthony M. Keane and James M. Leahy. Voting against were Councilors Rebecca Lisi, Todd A. McGee, Elaine A. Pluta, Peter R. Tallman, John E. Whelihan and Timothy Purington. Councilors Kevin A. Jourdain and Donald R. Welch were absent.

If approved, the sewer use fee would have been raised by 74 cents or 15.8 percent from $4.66 per 1,000 gallons to $5.40 per 1,000 gallons.

The increase is needed mainly to help pay off $6 million in debt for the city's new sewage treatment plant and $3 million for a combined sewer overflow abatement project on Mosher Street, William D. Fuqua, Department of Public Works superintendent, has said.

Several councilors spoke in favor of the proposed rate increase. "I certainly don't want to see an increase but I think it would be short-sighted for us to vote against this," Keane said.

"I think we have to do the responsible, fiduciary thing," Leahy said.

But opponents to the defeated rate increase mainly noted the way the sewer system is currently managed through a contract with a private company, United Water.

"We do have the capacity to manage it on our own," Lisi said.

That's why Pluta said she believed the city should investigate the possibility of getting out of the contract with United Water.

"We have no oversight as to what's going on," Pluta said.

Last month, Fuqua said he hoped to implement the increase as soon as it was approved by the council. "It's important because we're losing about $150,000 a month in anticipated revenue," Fuqua said Aug. 6.

On May 19, the Board of Public Works voted 3-0 in favor of recommending the rate increase.
The proposed increase was not a big surprise because public works officials planned two years ago to review sewer rates every two years, Fuqua said in May.

As a result, Fuqua said he does not envision rates going up again in the near future.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Holyoke officials at odds over additional pay for retirees

from The Republican, Sunday, August 31, 2008

HOLYOKE - City officials are at odds over whether 61 retirees should receive additional money for last fiscal year, which ended June 30.

If the appropriation is approved, the increase will not affect all 61 retirees the same, according to records from the city's retirement board.

One retiree would receive $360 more. Another would receive $6,311 more. A third retiree would receive $17,014 more. And that's just for one fiscal year.

In the case of one retiree, due to similar adjustments made in years past, the retiree has received $513,921 extra on top of the regular retirement payments the retiree would have received if such adjustments had not been made each year in years past, according to city records.

Such statistics are the reason why Mayor Michael J. Sullivan has refused to approve an additional increase for 61 retirees last fiscal year.

"I don't think it can go any farther," Sullivan said earlier this month.

On Aug. 5, the Holyoke City Council voted 14-1 in favor of three separate agenda items related to the additional money for the 61 retirees. Councilor Rebecca Lisi cast the sole dissenting vote.

But there's confusion over whether the raises can go into effect. That's because a previous order signed by Sullivan contained the phrase "subject to appropriation," something Sullivan has said he will not do since he believes the appropriation would be financially disastrous to the city. Sullivan has not signed the Aug. 5 order.

But City Councilor Kevin A. Jourdain speaking at an Aug. 14 retirement board meeting insisted

Sullivan cannot qualify his signature. Therefor, the additional raises for the 61 retirees can already go into effect.

"You can't put conditions on your signature," Jourdain said. "Either you sign it or you don't sign it."

The retirement board tabled a motion to grant the additional retirement benefit for the 61 retirees. Specifically, the board wanted a legal opinion from the city solicitor on whether Sullivan can qualify his signature on the appropriation for these retirees. The retirement board's next meeting will be held on Sept. 11.

Currently, there are 909 municipal retirees, Sullivan has said. All of them receive a cost-of-living increase each year. For last fiscal year, that would be a 3 percent increase.

But among the 909 retirees, 61 may be eligible for additional money for last fiscal year if the dispute over Sullivan's signature is resolved. Specifically, the 61 retirees would be paid 50 percent of the current salary for an employee performing the same job. Such retirees also had to have worked for the city for at least 25 years.

The additional money the 61 retirees would receive for last year varies from $47.04 to $17,014 for one year, totaling about $58,000.

Such figures are deceiving, though, since the additional money would be added to the base salary every year in the future for such retirees, according to Daniel R. Owens, executive director of the Holyoke Retirement Board.

So in the case of the person who stands to receive an additional $17,014 last fiscal year, that retiree would receive $17,014 extra every for the rest of their life, plus any additional cost of living increases or similar additional one year adjustments. The $17,014 is on top of $30,800 they would receive under the standard retirement benefit.

In another case, one employee stands to receive an additional $6,311 for last fiscal year on top of the $31,188 they would receive even without last fiscal year's added benefit. And the $31,188 already includes $3,630 in additional added benefits due to similar increases approved in years past.

Another retiree would receive an additional $1,800 next fiscal year on top of the $42,894 they would receive even without the added benefit. The $42,894 figure includes $26,098 in additional added benefits due to similar increases approved in years past. And since this person retired, they have received an extra $513,921 in retirement benefits on top of the $328,323 they would have received without the added benefit.

As a result of the recurring costs in future years due to a single increase, Owens said providing the additional funding for last fiscal year's proposed raise for the 61 retirees would cost the city a one-time set-aside of $580,000, Owens said.

That's because the city would need to set aside enough money to invest and pay for raises in future years due to the higher payments made to retirees.

If the city were to simply provide the necessary funding for last fiscal year and not future years, Owens has said that would be fiscally irresponsible and would simply add to the debt created by similar financial practices in the past.

"These costs are being pushed off to future generations," Owens said earlier this month.
Currently, the city has accumulated $94 million in debt due to similar retirement practices in the past. As a result, the city must pay $9.7 million extra this fiscal year out of its annual budget to pay for such so-called unfunded liabilities.

In contrast, the amount of money the city must appropriate for its normal retirement costs is $2.3 million this fiscal year.

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