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3/11/2009 - State of the City Address

STATE OF THE CITY ADDRESS

AGAWAM, MASSACHUSETTS

MAYOR SUSAN R. DAWSON

March 2009

    Good evening.  I would like to extend my sincerest welcome to all those present and those who are watching on our local public access cable channel.  My State of the City address highlights Agawam’s most recent accomplishments that I want to share with you – the citizens of Agawam.

    I have recently completed my first year of service as your Mayor.  When campaigning for the office of mayor, the residents of Agawam identified several important goals for our community.  This evening I will outline our continued progress in achieving those goals.  The progress in achieving those goals would not be possible without the positive assistance and support of both the City Council and School Committee.  I would also like to thank our state elected officials for their support and helpful assistance throughout the year.  My office staff, department heads and all city employees must be thanked for helping to make my administrative team work so well for the citizens of Agawam.

    During my first several months, I was forced to deal with two significant legal matters that I inherited from the prior administration.  The first was the pending Appellate Tax Board proceeding involving the Tennessee Gas property in Agawam.  Tennessee Gas had filed for abatement applications based on their contention that the town had illegally and grossly over assessed their real and personal property in Agawam over a five year period.  Frankly, the town was facing a potential six plus million dollar judgment had the case gone to trial, not to mention expert witness fees and legal fees.  Given the current economic crisis and cuts in state aid, this judgment would have crippled the town financially.

    Initial attempts to meet with officials from Tennessee Gas were rebuffed based on their assertion that prior town officials had ignored their pleas to resolve the problem when it first arose over five years ago.  Luckily, through hard work and perseverance, we were able to establish a new professional rapport with the officials at Tennessee Gas, and resolve the matter with a five year interest free payment plan.  Once we were able to demonstrate that all the citizens of Agawam matter, even the corporate citizens, we were able to avert this near financial catastrophe for the town.

    The second matter was the longstanding dispute between the former administration and the police officers and their unions.  When I became mayor, the town was facing a six hundred thousand dollar plus judgment on the police fair labor standards federal case, prohibited practice charges at the state labor relations commission, stalled negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement, and pending labor arbitrations.  All these things were driving down morale in the police department and consuming important town resources.  Again, through hard work and clear communication, we were able to resolve all the open issues with the police officers and their unions, thereby allowing the officers to focus all their efforts on continuing to provide outstanding public safety services to the residents of Agawam.  Again, utilizing a management style that stresses cooperation and not conflict, the town was able to resolve these longstanding and divisive disputes.  

    Every citizen can take pride in our community and where it is heading.  While the nation is struggling with the downturn of the economy, our community is still providing the same top quality services that our residents expect and deserve.  While we face very tough fiscal decisions every day, there is no city better prepared to come out of these difficult economic times than Agawam.  There is much Agawam can celebrate and a lot we can be proud of as a community.  We have aggressively managed these challenges and that is why we can celebrate real achievements this evening.

    One of my major commitments is to improve our public schools.  It is only through a strong and cooperative commitment at the Federal, State and local level that we can continue to adequately address our educational challenges.  The Superintendent of Schools, the School Committee, and the entire dedicated school staff, work cooperatively in finding effective ways and practices that are successful for all of our students.
  
    Under the direction of our Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Mary A. Czajkowski, and her dedicated staff, the School Department continued its accomplishments contained in the District-Wide Plan for 2005 – 2010 which consists of:

      • Improving class sizes and resources that support curriculum, instruction, and  academic excellence;
      • Increasing collaboration for learning that involves family and community;
      • Attracting and retaining highly qualified teachers, administrators, and support staff;
      • Providing an emotionally supportive and physically safe school learning environment; and
      • Enhancing the support of technology as a tool for teaching, learning, collecting and analyzing data. 

    The School Department budget increased by over 1.7 million dollars and included the retention of all teaching staff and programs, replacement of 24 retiring teachers which included two principals/directors, continuation of full day kindergarten, additional “fixed costs” such as vocational education tuition increases, transportation increases, and special education increases. 

     The Capital Improvement Budget included funds for the Clark School Parking Lot repairs, additional classrooms at the Middle School, and an Autism room at the Agawam High School.  These capital improvements totaled $544,000.

    The city continues to maintain a strong financial position due to solid reserve levels and continued conservative financial practices.  Conservative budgeting assumptions have produced positive revenue variances.  In the past, these positive revenues, combined with the savings generated through strict expenditure controls and the monitoring of departmental encumbrances have generated budget surpluses and provided free cash to reduce the tax burden.  This strong financial position will help us in this difficult economy.  We are now faced with significant reductions in state aid, as well as, lower receipts from motor vehicle excise and interest revenues caused by the current national financial crisis.  The city continues to operate within Proposition 2 ½ without the need of an override or debt exclusion.  In view of the downturn in the economy, the fiscal year 2009 tax levy was expected to raise by 2%, one-half per cent lower than the increase allowed by Proposition 2 ½  in order to ease the burden on our taxpayers.  Tax collections account for over half of our general fund revenues.  Our tax rates are still amongst the lowest of the surrounding communities, and our commercial tax rate remains business friendly.

    In November, 2008 our bond rating was raised one notch by Standard and Poor’s from AA- to AA based upon their “assessment of the city’s continuing ability to manage and maintain consistent operating results and very strong financial reserves through various economic cycles.”  Our bond rating by Moody’s Investor’s Service was reaffirmed with a rating of Aa3 in recognition of the city’s “continued conservative financial practices guided by an experienced management team.”  These continued good bond ratings allow the city to borrow at lower interest costs which is especially important during the current national credit crunch.  The city was able to issue bonds at 4.05% in December at a time when many public entities were unable to obtain credit.

    In 2008, the Department of Public Works completed the construction of a fabric covered salt storage structure.  This has allowed the Department to purchase and store a larger supply of deicing materials for the winter season, saving taxpayer money through bulk purchasing and insuring an adequate supply.

    The Highway and Grounds Maintenance Division had a busy 2008 with the following projects completed:  A portion of Barry Street was reconstructed and paved.  Portions of Shoemaker Lane, Springfield Street, Poplar Street, Leonard Street and Garden Street were milled and resurfaced and included the placement of a stress absorbing membrane to reduce reflective cracking.  Oxford Street was reconstructed and paved in conjunction with the Clark School Parking lot project.  The drives and parking lot at Clark School included the installation of storm drains to eliminate puddling that had existed in the parking lots.  New storm drains and outfalls were installed at Tracy Drive to eliminate a serious street flooding problem.  New storm drains and the relining of drainage pipes and manholes on Cooper Street was completed to improve drainage capacity which had been restricted by the failure of old pipes installed in the 1930’s. 

    Working with Principal Lemanski, the traffic pattern at the high school was revised creating new parking areas and areas for busses and student drop off and pick-up.  New cross walks were established and 40 new signs installed.

    The Water Department completed the installation of 2,700 feet of new water main linking the Liswell Hill high pressure area with the Sunset Terrace – Hamilton Circle neighborhood.  This greatly improved water pressure in that neighborhood and allowed us to abandon an old water pressure boosting facility on Hamar Drive that had become unreliable and required significant investment to improve and maintain.
  
    The Water Department also continued the programmed installation of meter transceiver units over existing outside meter reading receptacles to allow the reading of water meters remotely by radio to reduce reading time and costs.  Approximately 1/6 of our water accounts have been converted to radio read capability. 

    The Engineering Division, in conjunction with the Fire Department, has begun a program of location of fire hydrants on the city’s GIS map to improve both fire protection and hydrant maintenance.

    The Wastewater Department obtained funding and design began for the first phase of the Southwest Area Sewer Project.  At an estimated cost of $3.7 million dollars this phase will extend the sewer system westerly from Shoemaker Lane along Route 57 to South Westfield Street and then southerly on South Westfield Street to the former Police Training Academy property.  It also includes an up-sizing of a portion of sewer in Springfield Street to provide future capacity for sewer extension in the north portion of the project area.  The city is continuing its efforts to locate funding sources to advance this most important project.

    A major failure of a 20 inch sewer force main where it crosses under the Westfield River occurred in May.  The leak of sewage into the river was quickly curtailed.  The leak was a result of the undermining of the pipeline caused by the shift of the river some 40 – 50 feet southerly since the pipeline’s original construction.

    All the programs offered by the Parks and Recreation Department continued to be successful in 2008.  New programs offered this year included a spring fling and skateboard camp at the newly renovated Shea Field Skate Park.  Agawam also expanded our tennis program to include a Junior Tennis Team that competed throughout the Pioneer Valley in a USTA sanctioned league and tournaments.

    The Parks and Recreation Department again joined forces with the Agawam Cultural Council and the Agawam Rotary Club to be co-sponsors of the Summer Concert Series.  The weekly concerts held at Veterans Green have become one of the community’s best family activities.   In 2008, the Parks and Recreation Department continued hosting KidsFest.  KidsFest shows on Wednesday mornings gave children, families, camps, and day care centers the opportunity to see a variety of entertainers including musicians, magicians, puppeteers, and story tellers.

    Significant improvements were made to the parks throughout the city.  Perry Lane Pool had a $250,000 facelift which included a new pool floor, a new filtration system, and a new concrete deck.  The playground at Phelps Elementary School was rebuilt after a fire severely damaged the structure in the spring.  The new playground was completed for the first day of school so the children returning to Phelps School could enjoy their brand new playground.  This was made possible with funding from the Community Preservation Act as well as a generous donation from the Liquori family in memory of their late son Franco.  In October, the new playground at Phelps Elementary School was officially dedicated in Franco Liquori’s name.

    The highlight of 2008 was the grand opening of the School Street Park on October 18th.  Throughout 2007 and 2008, construction on 30 of the 50 acres was completed.  Amenities include a 90 foot baseball diamond, a 60 foot softball diamond, shuffleboard courts, bocce courts, room for 3 full size multi-purpose fields that can be broken into smaller fields depending on the season and the demand.  There are over 200 parking spaces, a restroom building, 2 miles of walking/biking trails, a 48 foot wooden pedestrian bridge crossing wetlands, a basketball court, picnic tables, and a $250,000 fully accessible playscape with ramps and poured in place rubber surfacing.  The park is also home to a historic barn built in the mid 1800’s.  The celebration officially opened the park, as well as, dedicating the 90 foot baseball diamond in the name of Michael Pietroniro, dedicating the Berkshire Power Playscape, and dedicating a Liberty Elm Tree donated by the Elm Research Institute of Keene, New Hampshire.  The day was filled with family activities, a youth field hockey game was played, bocce and shuffleboard demonstrations were given, the Rotary Club hosted an annual Harvest Festival with more than 30 craft vendors and the barn was open for tours.  More than 1,000 citizens attended the all day activities and ceremonies on a beautiful fall day.  When completed, the total investment in this first class park exceeded 2.4 million dollars.  The funding was comprised of nearly 1.7 million dollars from the Community Preservation Act, $500,000 from an Urban Self Help Grant, $172,000 donated from Berkshire Power, $7,000 from our local ADA Commission, and $32,000 coming from a capital transfer of city funds.

    The Office of Planning and Community Development successfully applied for a $69,150 Technical Assistance Grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.  This one year grant study is being used to conduct a comprehensive economic development study that will identify parcels for future commercial and industrial development and will also determine what the appropriate zoning for these parcels should be, and where infrastructure must be improved to create feasible development sites.  The grant has also allowed for an update of Agawam’s Development Guidebook.  The guidebook details all permits that are necessary for new development, as well as, fees, time frames and staff responsible for each permit.  The guidebook fulfills one of my earlier pledges to make Agawam more business cooperative and friendly.

    Despite the national trend, there has been a flurry of new openings indicating that many continue to wish to grow their businesses here in Agawam.  The new state-of-the-art CVS on Springfield Street opened up this past fall.  The 13,225 square foot CVS pharmacy replaces the out-dated,  9,000 square foot structure.  The building is one of a number of significant investments made by local businesses.  Also this past fall, Development Associates opened its new 32,000 square foot office building and United Bank its 2,975 square foot bank at Agawam Crossings located at the intersection of Silver and Suffield Streets.  Joining CVS and Development Associates are Frank and Joanne Locke who recently purchased the former medical office at 141 Main Street which will soon be the new home of the Main Street Deli.

    Also approved in the fall were additions to local businesses.  Action Air, a heating and air conditioning company located on Industrial Lane, has been approved for a 1,200 square foot addition.  V & F Auto, Inc. of Springfield Street has begun work on their 2,200 square foot addition.  A ribbon cutting ceremony was held for the new Pananas Restaurant and Banquet Facility located at 916 Suffield Street and an earlier ribbon cutting ceremony was held at the new Dave’s Soda & Pet Food City.  Finally, Six Flags is in the permitting process for a new ride and other amenities at the Park.

    Agawam will continue to remain ahead of the curve when it comes to providing services and assistance to its business community.  My administration will support those activities that will make it easy to do business in the City of Agawam.

    Additionally, the Office of Planning and Community Development has undertaken, with the assistance of the School Street Barn Advisory Committee, a six month long study of the School Street Barn.  During the study period, the barn was opened to the public on two occasions, questionnaires were distributed, meetings were held with civic groups and professional staff and other rehabilitated historic barns were visited.  Also during this time, necessary repairs were made to the barn using Community Preservation Act funding.  A final report will be released by the Barn Committee this year.

    The Fire Department had a busy year responding to the needs of our community.  The department’s apparatus and three ambulances responded to 4,347 incidents.  This reflects an increase of 4.8% from the previous year.  The number of fires also increased in 2008, with the resulting high dollar loss from fires.  Total ambulance runs also increased, with a total of 2,974 runs to area emergency departments, up from 2,914 in 2007. 

    The men and women of our Fire Department continue to be motivated, conscientious, and dedicated firefighters for the community they serve.

    The Agawam Police Department responded to approximately 18,000 calls for service, with about 500 arrests.  The Police Department investigated over 516 reportable accidents which included 3 fatalities, 85 personal injuries, 340 property damage, and 73 hit and run accidents.

    In 2008, our server that is the heart of our computer aided dispatch system was replaced.  Older computers have been upgraded as part of an annual replacement program.

    The men and women of the Agawam Police Department remain committed in providing our citizens with a safe environment and we are appreciative of their collective efforts on our behalf.

    The Agawam Emergency Management Office has had a very busy year.  This office continues to work with city departments in a variety of ways with our city-wide notification system.  Connect-CTY has been used to notify residents of weather conditions, assist the fire department to notify residents within a mile of a leaking propane tank, a notice was sent out to businesses when heavy snow on flat roofs and a heavy rain had the potential for collapsed roofs, the Health Department used Connect-CTY to notify residents of available flu shots, and residents were notified of traffic detours when roads were being paved.  Connect-CTY has been a great asset for our community.  If you haven’t checked on your Connect-CTY listing information, I urge you to visit the city web site and sign up for Connect-CTY.

    Public libraries always seem to be busier during times of economic slowdown.  This has been true with the Agawam Public Library.  Citizens are using the library more often to help cut down on their personal expenses.

    Last year library circulation increased to 337,058 items, or about 108 items borrowed for every hour that the library was open.  Library patrons are borrowing more books instead of buying them, and borrowing more DVD’s instead of renting or buying them.

    Over the past year, the library has averaged 5,720 visits a week by patrons coming to the library to borrow materials, study, use the computers, browse newspapers, or attend informational programs or meetings.  This is an increase of about 15% over the previous year.  The library staff has answered 14,704 reference questions for patrons of all ages.

    Computer use at the library has increased over last year.  About 600 people a week are coming to the library to use the computers or to access the internet.  Many students in the elementary and high school grades regularly visit the library to use the computers for word processing and internet access for homework assignments.

    The Health Department provided flu vaccinations to a total of 1,100 residents comprised of approximately 650 seniors and 450 employees and residents.  Nine hundred Agawam residents received nursing services consisting of home visits, blood pressure screenings, blood sugar testing, B12 injections, and wellness checks.

    The Health Department issued a total of 211 food permits for retail and food service establishments.  These permits were issued to restaurants, markets, schools, churches, mobile units, and private clubs.

    A total of 127 housing complaints were investigated by the Health Department and corrected.  The majority of the complaints involved rubbish and trash violations of the Sanitary Code.  In 2008, 32 housing inspections were conducted for the purpose of determining compliance with the Minimum Standards of Human Habitation.

    The IT Department focus for 2008 was to implement the final phases of Agawam’s IT Disaster recovery project.  Critical data is now being backed up to two locations within Agawam as well as out of state.  Recovery time should a mission critical server fail will now be measured in hours instead of days as a result of this project.

    The IT Department also installed a Microsoft Exchange email  server which allows a greater level of electronic collaboration between departments.

    The Agawam Senior Center and Council on Aging had a very memorable 2008.  Work progressed on the new senior center at 954 Main Street and was completed for a ribbon cutting ceremony on January 20, 2009.  The funding for this project had been approved prior to my becoming mayor.

    The Friends of the Senior Center spent the year fundraising and raised $180,000 to furnish the new building.  Local businesses, patrons and memorials have given us financial gifts for additional furnishings and accessories.   We are very grateful to the Friends of the Senior Center and to all who donated to make our new senior center such a beautiful facility for our senior citizens.

    The senior center serves approximately 140 meals on wheels daily and up to 150 people daily at the center. 

    The major event in the Assessor’s Office over the past year was the completion of the Fiscal Year 2009 update for the city, and also the completion of the four-year full measure and list of the city.  The 2009 update was a three-year, or triennial, revaluation of property.  For residential properties such as single-family homes, condominiums, two family and three family homes and vacant land, the  update process consisted of analyzing calendar year 2007 sales for those type of properties and adjusting our fiscal year 2009 assessments to reflect the market for that time period.  For commercial and industrial properties, the methodology involved analyzing market rents and expenses to arrive at an income adjusted cost value for those types of properties.  It is important to note the next full update for the city will be Fiscal Year 2012.

    Our successes over the past year have been many.  However, I would like to take a moment to discuss the recent budget reductions made by Governor Patrick that the town has been faced with.

    In anticipation of the Governor’s reductions, I met with my department heads as well as the City Council resident and Vice President, the School Committee Vice Chairperson, a member of the School Committee Finance Sub-Committee as well as the School Superintendent to discuss various scenarios to address the budget cuts.  The budget cut as announced by the Governor amounts to a reduction of $446,795.   While unfortunate, the announced cut for Agawam is manageable and I will continue the current spending and hiring freeze.  The city and schools will not incur any layoffs at this time and we anticipate the effect on the use of reserve funds to be minimal.

    The announced budget reduction for the next budget – Fiscal Year 2010 – is approximately $1.8 million.  As we proceed through the budget process, cuts to both the city and school budgets will be made.  It may be necessary to institute layoffs.   I will take the action that is necessary to submit a balanced budget to the City Council.

    I want to close by thanking all those who are present and those who are watching at home.  I also want to thank the people of Agawam for their support.  While we are experiencing a very difficult economy, the support of our community has been tremendous.  I believe with the continued support of the community, my department heads, the school administration, and with the exceptional financial team I have the pleasure of working with, Agawam will continue to have a bright future.

    It is my honor to serve as your mayor.  I enjoy working with the dedicated and talented individuals employed by the city, as well as, all those who volunteer their time for our community.
 
Thank you and good evening.