MAYOR PAUL BRODEUR talked about the city’s accomplishments and challenges Monday in the new Dr. David Driscoll Learning Commons at Melrose High. (Photo by Raj Das, edphotos.com)
MELROSE — Mayor Paul Brodeur said this week that the city faces a lot of difficult work, including paying for expensive public safety facilities and sustaining a quality post-COVID eduction in Melrose schools.
Brodeur gave his first in-person State of the City address Monday night at Melrose High. He was elected chief municipal officer in 2019, just months before the pandemic took hold.
Speaking at the newly named Dr. David Driscoll Learning Commons, the mayor said the space is a “tremendous testament to what investment and reinvestment in our infrastructure, investment in our kids, and investment in our community can mean:
— In 2016 we replaced an outdated resource center and classroom suite with this award-winning space designed to invite creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking, serving as the “living room” for the entire campus.
— It’s also a gathering place for important community events like this, to create those critical connections that strengthen the ties that hold us together as one City.
— The Learning Commons project reflected our community pride and continues to inspire us to work together to support key investments in our community.
Brodeur’s address, edited for length, continues:
“Tonight, I am proud to be in this special space to tell you that the City of Melrose is: vibrant, committed, connected, invested and generous, and that, together, we will continue to build a bright future for this City we all love.
“I want to start with generosity. People in Melrose give back – through acts of kindness, through their time, or giving financially – to support the causes we will care about that lift each other up.
“Practically every day, someone stops by my office to drop off a check for the Emergency Fund, just one example of how deeply people care and want to make a difference in the lives of their neighbors. Thanks to the generosity of Melrose residents and community partners we have: Addressed diaper needs for our youngest community members; provided 80 Recreation Department scholarships; distributed over 300 free meals to kids and their families last summer; collected donations of medical supplies for Ukrainian refugees; and witnessed and supported the great work of MelroseKind and other groups.
“And at this time, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the tragic earthquakes that took place in Syria and Turkey these last two weeks. The horrific toll of devastation is unfathomable, and its impact is felt by family and friends of those communities who live right here in Melrose. On behalf of the City of Melrose, we send our thoughts and prayers to all who have been affected by these humanitarian crises.
“This year has had many difficult moments, but so much good has also happened: We have begun to see a return to the normalcy that we had hoped for three years. This return includes many beloved traditions and celebrations.
“Tonight, we add the State of the City to that list of events that bring us together as a community. In that spirit, I hope you will join me in celebrating our accomplishments, acknowledging our challenges, and looking forward with excitement and optimism to our shared future.
“Following on my announcement at last year’s State of the City that we were making 2022 the Year of Community Health and Wellness, I am proud to share with you the significant steps we have taken to support this critical need:
We hired the City’s first full-time social services coordinator and continued to fund a part-time social worker primarily working with elders, thanks to Friends of the Milano Center. As witnessed by their enormous caseloads, they are addressing previously unmet needs, often exacerbated by the pandemic; formed the Melrose Health and Wellness Coalition, which works to prevent substance abuse, increase access to critical resources, and promote health and quality of life for all Melrose residents; trained over 120 community members in both Youth and Adult Mental Health First Aid; and offered Recreation programming to nearly 5,000 participants, including 100 who are taking the new Mindfulness program spearheaded by Recreation Director Frank Olivieri. Frank, I want to thank you in particular for your efforts.
We have focused on youth wellness in particular:
• This past summer, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Wakefield and Stoneham partnered with the City to offer a “Summer of Wellness” a free healthy meal distribution and wellness-centered recreational program for families;
• Our Health and Wellness Coalition has been working closely with our schools to develop primary prevention programs for students, and education programs on both substance use and mental health for parents, including webinars on how to manage family stress and how to understand teen depression.
• Under the leadership of our Health and Human Services Director, Anthony Chui, we secured a 3-year federal Stop School Violence Grant that will fund a new adjustment counselor for Melrose Public Schools as well as trainings for teachers.
“The City also allocated over $3.3 M in federal ARPA relief funds to our schools to deal with the costs associated with COVID and also make much-needed investments in school buildings and infrastructure.
“We know that the FY22 and FY23 budgets were not sufficiently funded to meet the challenges presented by the increased costs to our schools – driven primarily by special education and related transportation costs. We also know that we should have discovered the fy22 shortfall earlier, with a resulting concern about the fiscal management of our schools. We covered FY22 with ARPA funds and are confident that the School Department is putting the best budgeting practices in place, I today sent a request to the City Council to appropriate $2.5 million to ensure we can provide the level of programs and services we committed when we passed that budget.
“I want to take a moment to remark on the resiliency of our students, teachers, and staff and would like to particularly lift up the remarkable achievements of some of our programs in and out of the classroom.
Our sports teams continue to excel, our student artists and musicians thrive, and our World Languages Program is again sending students back to Europe, and we have a hugely successful Melrose Robotics Team.
“I know I join my school committee colleagues in being incredibly proud of all our students, their mentors, and faculty advisors for these activities. They are truly shining examples of what is possible when people work together to create opportunities for learning and growth.
“I am happy to say that opportunities in Melrose are not limited to young people. Our population of people over 60 is our largest and arguably fastest-growing population, which is currently at over 6,000. We are truly committed to supporting older adults in Melrose and giving them enriching experiences and an excellent quality of life in the City.
“This year we saw the grand reopening of the Milano Center, after renovations that included upgrading the HVAC system for improved air quality and public health; construction of a patio pavilion to provide an outdoor gathering space (Thank you KLG) so that we can provide additional outdoor space for programming for our older adults and the entire community in a more comfortable environment. We have also taken important steps taken towards becoming an Age- and Dementia-Friendly Community (Upwards of 130,000 in Massachusetts alone have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. The number is projected to increase to 150,000 by 2025; expansion of our Senior Circuit Breaker tax relief program and increased deferral options for property taxes, water/sewer, and trash fees to some of our lowest-income seniors dealing with the high cost of living in our area.
“I am appreciative to Chief Assessor Sarah MacLellan, and Council on Aging Director Stacey Minchello for their hard work on this issue, and grateful to the partnership of Rep. Kate Lipper-Garabedian and State Senator Lewis for everything they did to pass the home rule petitions that made this possible, starting with unanimous City Council support back in 2019.
“This year the City worked on our goals to be a more inclusive community:
The City is committed to creating a culture where diversity is valued, and this year our HR Department launched a series of DEI trainings and education for all staff, including anti-discrimination training and training on the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“I’m very proud to say that for the first time since 1996, thanks to the Commission on Disability, Melrose just completed an ADA Self-assessment Evaluation and Transition Plan that will be our roadmap to addressing the impediments that make accessing public buildings, and facilities and programs a challenge for people living with disabilities.
“These are just the first steps.
“To ensure that the City provides all our employees and community members with equitable treatment and access to opportunities, we must first identify the blind spots and shortcomings that perpetuate institutional bias and systematic disparities for certain groups.
To do that work, the City will be conducting a comprehensive assessment of the City’s employment policies, procedures, and benefit programs, as well as our outreach and engagement practices.
“I want to thank the City Council for their wisdom and forethought in approving the funding that is allowing us to make progress on our goals for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and to our HR Director Polly Latta for spearheading this effort.
And because we’ve seen how hard it has become these days to talk about the things that matter most, we’ve launched the Community Conversations Initiative to build a more open and engaged Melrose where everyone’s voice can be heard and valued. Why this program? Because civil public dialogue is critical to our civic foundation. Respectfully, Twitter and the like are not going to bring our community together.
“We have provided strong support to Local Small Businesses this year: As the City’s first-ever Economic Development Director, Lauren Grymek has hit the ground running to coordinate efforts to help our small businesses:
“In addition to police and DPW support of the Victorian Fair, Trick-or-Treat, Home for the Holidays, and the like.
• We’ve awarded grants to 32 Melrose small businesses and nonprofits through the City’s new Small Business and Nonprofit Recovery Grant Program, providing much-needed financial support as they continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
• Launched a second round of Project: Pop-Up to fill an otherwise vacant commercial space on West Emerson with several women-owned businesses.
I would note that much of our innovation in businesses is the result of woman-owned businesses including Molly’s book Store, the Loop, The Worklery, our popup on West Emerson, etc.
We have cared for the environment this year:
• In the past year, DPW has planted 202 trees and held 11 recycling events/drives. Our annual tree planting program started off as a beautification initiative but should now be also thought of as a climate change program.
• We have held various sustainability events and programs in partnership with Zero Waste Melrose, Melrose Energy Commission, and other community partners. Thank you to all for your dedication and commitment.
“I’m proud to say that we are facing the Climate Challenge head on and this year we have moved the City towards a net-zero carbon emissions future: Adopted the Melrose Net Zero Action Plan which creates a roadmap for reducing community carbon pollution in buildings, transportation, and energy supply.
• Secured half a million dollar grant to decarbonize the Library renovation project
• are installing solar panels on Hoover and Horace Mann Schools and a Solar-ready roof on the Salt Shed
• Continuing to grow Melrose Community Power (MCP) – if you’re not in it, you should be! MCP has saved Melrose households over $3.5 million in electric bills since its inception – another successful program to make Melrose more affordable.
“Melrose has consistently taken a lead when it comes to combatting greenhouse gas emissions and promoting energy efficiency, thanks to the tireless work of our outstanding Sustainability Manager, Martha Grover.
“This year we have made investments in preserving our historic civic buildings so they can serve for generations to come: we broke ground on the renovation of our historic 1906 Carnegie library renovation and we should be finishing the building envelope restoration of our beautiful 1912 Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building this Spring.
“Throughout the year, we have been working hard to address our critical infrastructure needs, through numerous projects across the City and through planning for a more thoughtful, sustainable approach to capital investments in the future….
“Thanks to the efforts of department heads across the City, we have secured millions of dollars of state and federal grant funding to address many critical needs, including a 1 million-dollar Stop School Violence Grant (which we are splitting with Stoneham and Wakefield) and a 1-million-dollar federal earmark for Ell Pond climate resiliency. These are only some of the grants we received this year.
“I am particularly proud of the $615,000 MassWorks grant that will finally make the redevelopment of the Caruso’s building a reality, and I want to thank our friends in State government and Director of the Office of Planning and Community Development Denise Gaffey and her staff who were instrumental in securing it.
“I’ve told you a lot of good news, and while I wish we could stop there tonight, it’s important to address the challenges facing the City.
“We are not unique – across the state – and the country – every community is grappling with issues coming out of COVID – what do we need to do to reimagine education in a post-pandemic world, how do we confront inflation, how will we recruit and retain employees increases in energy costs, deal with a regional lack of affordable housing, traffic, and a global climate crisis.
“In facing these challenges, we must be future-oriented, goal-directed, and focused on solutions with an emphasis on clear, concise, and realistic goals. Essentially, we need a plan:
• Practical, goal-driven: how do we get from where we are to where we want to be in the future?
• We are addressing many long-standing needs that will require a long-term commitment.
• That does not stop us from making progress now.
CHALLENGE: CONSTRAINED FINANCES
“I want to start off by addressing our fiscal situation:
“Our City finances are sound. This year we benefitted from an increase in State Aid due to the Student Opportunity Act, as well as higher-than-normal new growth due to the completion of certain utility work in the city. Together with federal relief funds, this revenue has allowed us to meet our obligations to our employees and provide the consistent level of services to our residents and businesses expect.
“We have also taken steps to ensure future stability by putting aside funds in reserves. Our bond rating is excellent, we maintain healthy balances in our stabilization accounts for good reason, and our non-exempt debt service is currently under 3% of our budget. This prudent fiscal management allows us to look ahead with confidence in our ability to weather these times of economic uncertainty.
“Our budget priorities for FY24 will include making record investments in our schools, bolstered by the strong commitment of Governor Healey and the legislature to support public K-12 education, expanding training opportunities for our police, and bringing the services of a recovery coach to help residents and families struggling with substance use.
“Budgeting this year will be a challenge, and for sure there will be some tough decisions ahead. We are asking all departments to scrutinize their budgets to ensure we are getting all possible efficiencies and making the best use of all revenues to support the services that we all rely upon every day.
“I have complete confidence in the City’s financial team led by longtime CFO Patrick Dello Russo. And I am very optimistic, based on recent estimates of state aid, that we will meet our immediate needs (thank you to Governor Healey and Lt. Gov Driscoll) thanks in no small part to Mr. Dello Russo’s prudent fiscal management.
So how are we meeting these challenges and what are the solutions? Over the past years, we have been doing a lot of planning for our future, from “Age-Friendly” to “Net Zero”.
“Now it is time to put those plans into action.
OPPORTUNITY/CHALLENGE: Public Safety Buildings
I want to begin by addressing head-on the challenge of what to do about our Public Safety Buildings which has been an issue going back several administrations. The need grows clearer and more urgent with every passing day.
We simply can’t expect our first responders to provide modern public safety services in aging and obsolete buildings, some of which were built over 120 years ago.
That is why I am committed to bringing a viable Public Safety Building project to the voters of Melrose so that we can make good on the City’s commitments – going back decades – to address this unsustainable situation….
“We won’t have a clearer picture of the costs until the end of March at the earliest, and whatever we learn will require a great deal of public discussion. I want to make it clear that the Public Safety Buildings Committee is 100% committed to a public process that will continue with a City Council hearing on March x. and additional listening sessions in the Spring.
“But here’s what we can’t do: we cannot continue to keep our plans on the shelf.
“This is the last time around the block for these buildings. The Public Safety Buildings must and will be the City’s top priority in terms of finance, public safety, and infrastructure.
“To be crystal clear, as we sit here today, there is NO funding currently available through any state or federal grants for this type of project – believe me, we have looked – so we must be prepared to pay for these buildings ourselves.
“We are, however, pushing hard with our partners in the legislature to create a state funding program like the school building authority to assist cities and towns with these costs. But this project cannot wait – we must move forward regardless.
“I want to emphasize one very important thing: The Public Safety Building project will be expensive, especially considering we have not made significant investments in them since the East Side Fire Station construction in 1964.
“However, because this project will be funded through a debt exclusion vote, we don’t have to compromise our finances for other critical needs including our schools to replace these buildings. Since the debt exclusion will provide a dedicated funding source, other needs will still be met within our regular budgetary model and will not compete with public safety.
“We know that even within our mostly residential tax base, there are still opportunities to make the most of the development potential we do have. That’s why we are so fortunate to have Denise Gaffey at the helm of the Office of Planning and Community Development, which continues to play a critical role in improving our downtown and laying the groundwork for future development while preserving the character of our community: We have permitted projects which have added both residential and commercial spaces that will increase our tax base, revitalize underutilized and vacant buildings, and help fill the local demand for housing; we are also unlocking economic opportunities through the redevelopment of distressed properties, like the Caruso’s building – which will show up as new growth on our tax rolls; we are investing in public art and placemaking to beautify downtown and make it a more desirable place to open new retail shops or restaurants and increase the foot traffic that is the lifeblood of our local economy. Investments in local arts and culture are good for our residents and good for the economy; that’s why I will be asking the City Council to double our financial commitment to the Messina Fund, a catalyst for the creative arts community in our city.
“And our Economic Development Director, Lauren Grymek, has been working tirelessly to attract more businesses to invest in our community, including new types of businesses that the community is eager for. We have also been analyzing the changes to local regulations, like our liquor licensing, that are needed to sustain and strengthen the retail environment that we want for our unique downtown and commercial districts and have been approached by restaurants and brewers seeking to do business here in Melrose. In the Spring, I will be asking our Liquor Commission to update our regulations to improve business opportunities in the hospitality sector – including changes necessary for a brewery to operate.
“But I also challenge us all to look ahead to where we want to go as a community: what does Melrose 2030 look like – or even 2025? What are our aspirations for our future? What kind of city do we want to be? Where do we want our schools to be? How can we better ensure that all our students are ready for the future – college, career, or whatever that future may be? How will address our challenges in recruiting and retaining public employees? What investments do we need to make to support our seniors and make Melrose a more age-friendly community? How will we sustain the investments we have made in economic development and social services? How will be able to preserve our open spaces, address housing affordability, and implement the changes recommended in our ADA audit?
“For sure, we need a new strategic plan for our schools – I look forward to working with our next superintendent and community stakeholders to plan for providing – and paying for – a comprehensive 21st-century education.
What are the tools at our disposal?
• We’ve already mentioned debt exclusion as one important resource for dealing with major capital expenses, like Public Safety Buildings. Melrose has only used it one time – to pay for the Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School in 2007.
• If we want to grow investments in our schools or maintain and grow other city services, we will need to consider whether and when the community should consider another override, as we knew eventually might be back in 2019.
• Community Preservation Act – 197 communities, representing over 70% of the population of Massachusetts – use CPA to fund open space preservation, affordable housing, historic preservation, and recreation infrastructure. It is a local tax option that comes with a significant state match. Joining CPA is not a new idea – in fact, it has been in our Master Plans since 2004. By not adopting CPA, we are leaving state money on the table and in fact are helping to fund the state match received by other communities. CPA is another potential tool for achieving the community goals that we must begin to discuss.
There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about. So, in the year ahead, we will be offering the Melrose community an opportunity to work together to develop a vision for the future.
I will be assembling a Melrose 2030 Task Force to begin the work of identifying the community’s long-term vision for the future of this City and how we can pay for them.
Melrose, tonight, I commit to you all that together:
• We WILL continue to responsibly balance our budget every year.
• We WILL continue to invest in our schools’ operating budget and capital needs.
• We WILL continue to invest in our critical infrastructure including and importantly rebuilding our Public Safety Buildings.
• We WILL continue to be a state leader in tackling climate change through local action and through partnerships with our state and federal partners.
• We WILL continue to do the hard work needed for us to be a more inclusive and welcoming community; and
• We WILL continue, perhaps most importantly, to do the fundamentals: educate our kids, plow the roads, build the sidewalks, and create an exceptional quality of life for people of all ages and abilities who call Melrose their home, not just today but in the future.
“In the spirit of the David Driscoll Learning Commons, I invite your creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking to chart the course of our future as a connected community.”