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Morse sets agenda for the future in ‘State of the City’

Date: 2/20/2015

HOLYOKE – From changing the composition of municipal government to previewing future initiatives, Mayor Alex Morse covered a wide range of topics during his state of the city address on Feb. 17.

Speaking before the City Council and a packed chamber audience, Morse requested the council to take action on three measures on its agenda that would revise municipal government. The council “laid on the table” all of the resolutions, which means they asked Law Department for additional information before they would vote on them during the first meeting in March. The council elected not to send the resolutions to committee.

The mayor asked the council to petition the Legislature for Home Rule legislation to amend the City Charter to increase the term of the mayor from two to four years. Another Home Rule petition would reduce the size of the council from 15 to 13 members with one member elected from each ward and six members at large.

The final Home Rule petition would increase the term for councilors from two to four years. 

These changes would not take place until the next regular city election following the passage by the voters at the November election.

Morse said that Holyoke has made much progress, but has much to do to continue the success.

“When it came to reviving our economy, we decided to change our value proposition. Where we were once the world’s Paper Capital, we have now signaled to the rest of the country that Holyoke is building an economy for the 21st century – an economy driven by technology, innovation and creativity,” he said.

He noted, “Several new projects are ready, or will soon be ready, for construction: Marcotte Ford will significantly expand its operations on Main Street; the former Holyoke Hotel will become a quality retail destination; and the blighted gas station on Dwight Street will be torn down and rebuilt in much improved form.”
The development of the former Mary Lynch School and the Holyoke Geriatric Authority property are also projects for the city, he said.

The upcoming SPARK program for developing entrepreneurship, the growth of the culinary arts program at Holyoke Community College into a new downtown facility and the creation of Holyoke Media were all presented by Morse as examples of ways of growing the city’s economy.

He said in the next few months he would introduce “a Renewable Energy Development Fund – with grant moneys already identified – in order to stimulate the creation of more renewable energy installations on existing buildings.”

He also called for the creation of a citywide tourism plan and said he would submit a capital funding budget for city infrastructure projects.

Morse lauded the efforts of the Holyoke Police Department and said, “From 2013 to 2014, overall crime dropped by 14 percent. The drop we saw in violent crime is due, in no small part, to our department’s renewed efforts at taking illegal guns off the streets. Partnering with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Holyoke Police Department seized 70 illegal firearms in 2014 – up from 26 in 2013.

“The drop in crime is also a testament to the character of our officers. Community policing is tiring work. But our officers do it, each and every day, with empathy and integrity.

“Nearly 40 percent of our police department is trained to deal with crisis intervention situations. Last year, Chief [James] Neiswanger appropriated funding for a cultural sensitivity training. Our officers are trained to deescalate tense situations—to use their voices and their intelligence before resorting to force.”

The proposed changes in the City Charter are just some of the efforts Morse wants to undertake to change city government. 

“A 21st century economy needs a 21st century city government – and for too long, we have accepted an antiquated government structure that functions less efficiently, less transparently and less responsively than we all know it should. We can do better,” he said.

He suggested a better enforcement of city ordinances could take place with better communications between departments. Morse also said the city must revise the paperwork business owners must use and credited City Clerk Brenna McGee with what she has done already to address that issue.

One the topics of finance, Morse said, “I understand that the city of Holyoke is not a business – that the incentives of a government are necessarily different from those of a business. But, when it comes to our finances, some commonsense business practices should be adopted. Try to imagine a corporation whose CEO has no meaningful say in appointing members of their financial team and very little ability to deal with daily operations in financial offices – that, in effect, is what we have.

“That’s why I’m proposing that we create a Chief Financial Officer position, appointed by the mayor and confirmed the council, that would be in charge of our whole finance team. That will ensure greater accountability within the departments and improve our city’s financial health. Later this month, we will receive recommendations from the Division of Local services on how best to make this change, but we do not need to wait to start the process.”

Morse said the combination of the water and sewer departments is another change he is hoping the City Council will approve. 

Speaking about the city’s schools, Morse said, “We all know that poverty contributes to the challenges our teachers and students face, but poverty can no longer be an excuse for unacceptable outcomes. In Holyoke, we must work so that all kids can get the same quality education—whether they live in a homeless shelter or the Highlands. We can still do better, and, indeed, we must.

“But, as we move forward, we must stop pointing fingers. It is time to share collective blame for our schools and accept collective responsibility to change them. I understand that the recent state review of our district has raised tensions. That is why, in all of my meetings with state officials, I have made the case for the hard work we are doing here, and the same is true of Dr. [Sergio] Paez, Dr. [Paul] Hyry, and our public school teachers. I also joined my colleagues on the school committee last week in sending a letter to Department of Early and Secondary Education that makes the case to maintain local control.

“While we cannot know what decision the Commissioner will make, we should agree on some basic truths. For example, we must agree that the status quo will not do – that our city cannot tolerate hundreds of students leaving our schools each year, or the fact that only one in 10 of our students can read proficiently in third grade. We must do better. Further, we should agree that local control matters, which is to say that a corporate takeover of our district, or a charter organization running our district, is not acceptable, either. Whatever the state decides, I will fight to ensure that our voices are heard and that we can work collaboratively and cooperatively to change our schools. For the sake of our students, we need to pull together in common effort.”

Morse received a standing ovation from the council and the audience.