[Editor’s note: Sun columnist Ray Mariano asked Mayor Joe Petty a series of questions in advance of the upcoming municipal election. Petty’s answers appear below in full, unabridged and edited only for grammar.]
What is the single most important issue facing our city?
The most important issue facing our city is economic development and ensuring that everyone shares in our success. Currently we have the lowest unemployment rate in our area in over 15 years, since 2001. So the question is not jobs but good-paying jobs. How we move forward together and make sure that everyone is sharing in our renaissance. There are a lot of issues that affect our city. Some of them cut across socioeconomic lines, like the opioid epidemic. But many issues, like homelessness, crime and poor health, are symptoms of poverty. We need to make sure that everyone is sharing in our prosperity.
What can you, as mayor or city councilor, do about it?
Like any of the problems our city faces, there is no silver bullet. The city of Worcester is fortunate to have a diverse economy. As mayor, it is my job to make sure that our city is friendly to businesses, welcoming to outside investors and outside voices who could bring the next new idea or new business to Worcester. This is about how our city looks and feels, how clean our streets are and how we treat new businesses.
Please rate the overall performance of City Manager Ed Augustus (excellent, good, fair, poor, unsatisfactory).
What is his greatest strength?
Ed Augustus has vision. He sees the whole picture. A great example is the Blackstone Gateway Park. When you see that plan, you realize that the person driving it wants it to be more than just a park. This park will be a destination. The artistic elements and the way the walkways and signage will enhance the experience, it’s all the vision of someone who knows that “good enough” is never enough. Ed has been advocating for this project, along with neighborhood activists, since his time in Congressman McGovern’s office.
Our city manager has presided over some impressive achievements in his first three and a half years. The highest bond rating in our city’s history, the lowest unemployment numbers since 2001, investments in our future like the solar array that will save taxpayers millions over the coming decades, and a real dedication to making our city safer. But beyond that he understands that a summer youth employment program or a free summer camp is not just about keeping our kids busy during the summer. He knows it will be a positive impact on public safety and public health and ultimately our students’ performance in class.
What is his biggest weakness and area for improvement?
The city manager is incredibly hard working, cares greatly for the city of Worcester, and takes everything to heart. He needs to learn to not take personally the unfounded criticism that comes from people with their own agendas.
Overall, how would you rate Worcester in terms of public safety? Would you say that we are a Very Safe city, a Safe city, Not a Very Safe city or a Dangerous city?
I believe Worcester is a very safe city. I trust my experts like the chief of police and the fire chief when they tell me that we are a very safe city. By most every metric available Worcester is a safe city, and in many ways getting safer. But safety is not just an absence of crime; it’s also about fire safety, emergency preparedness and public health as well. It’s about how our streets look and how well we maintain our parks. We need to understand that there is more to public safety than crime alone.
What two things can you do, as mayor or city councilor, to make Worcester safer?
As mayor and city councilor it is my responsibility to ensure that our public safety departments are fully staffed and funded. We have added over 100 police officers and over 100 firefighters, and opened up the Emergency Communications Center over the course of my time in office. We have funded updated equipment and vehicles like new firetrucks and cruisers.
Beyond that I’ve worked with the city manager to form the Mayor and Manager’s Youth Violence Task Force. This is an interdepartmental task force that is taking on youth violence and diversion, along with District Attorney Joe Early, our juvenile justice system, our schools and many smaller organizations. We need to make sure that we are providing options for our youth, like the summer youth employment program or Recreation Worcester. These and other programs are critical to crime prevention.
Regarding business development, do you support tax increment financing deals?
Yes. As I have discussed at length, the state government does not give us many tools in the toolbox when it comes to economic development. The TIF is one option that we have but it is not perfect. We have used them judiciously and they have been overwhelmingly successful at retaining and attracting hundreds of jobs, while developing buildings and parcels that would otherwise go unimproved, such as Imperial Distributors at 150 Blackstone River Road or Table Talk Pies in the South Worcester Industrial Park.
What should happen if a business, who has received a TIF, does not meet the requirements of the TIF (e.g. job creation)?
There should be some form of recourse for the city if the terms of the TIF are not met. This is a complex issue that deserves some attention, however I will say that any punitive actions against a business who was not able to live up to its obligations may result in job loss. Accordingly we need to take a long, hard look at the situation before taking that sort of action.
Do you support the current dual tax rate?
I support a dual tax rate because a business property is generating income while a residential property is not. They are two very different things. However, I’ve worked to close the gap between the residential and commercial rate. That said, there are some disparities in what we qualify as a business property and what is considered residential property. As I discussed in the Tax Policy Report last year, moving multi-unit residential developments to a commercial rate would lower the taxes on both sides of the equation. But that is a decision that needs to be made on the state level.
What is the single most important issue facing the Worcester Public Schools?
Increasing the state foundation budget for the city of Worcester is the most important issue facing the Worcester Public Schools. The Foundation Budget was put in place in 1993 and dictates the per-pupil funding model that the entire state uses. But over the last 25 years the limitations of this formula have started to disproportionately impact urban and rural school districts negatively.
By the state Legislature’s estimates, the state is underfunding the Worcester Public Schools by approximately $90 million a year. Bear in mind that is not a one time loss; it is a deficit that is compounding year after year. If the recommendations from the state Legislature were followed, it would allow the city to hire 700 additional teachers. I know that not every problem can be solved by money, but 700 teachers is a game changer for any district of any size.
What would you, as mayor, do about it?
I will continue to advocate with the state delegation and state officials about this disparity. If necessary, I would participate in a lawsuit with other cities, similar to the McDuffy case in the early 1990s, to ensure that our schools are properly funded.
Please rate the performance of Superintendent Maureen Binienda (excellent, good, fair, poor, unsatisfactory).
What is her greatest strength?
Maureen’s greatest strength is her leadership skills. She has brought back a sense of pride and enthusiasm, and has formed partnerships throughout the community to improve the Worcester Public Schools. Maureen has been in the trenches at the Worcester Public Schools for over 40 years. She’s always been known as a teacher’s principal. And now as superintendent she has taken that same level of understanding that she showed at South High School, and brought that to a district level.
Further, she knows that if our schools are going to educate our students, they need to care about that student’s parents, how well the students are being fed, and the neighborhood where they live. All of this goes into the school’s ability to educate our students.
What is her biggest weakness and area for improvement?
As the superintendent of the second largest school district in Massachusetts, I would like to see our superintendent become a voice for change not only here in Worcester but on a statewide level as well. While advocating for the Worcester Public Schools, she can be working with our legislators on a host of issues like increased civics education, MSBA funding, funding for universal pre-K programs and many others.
Do you support bringing Triple-A baseball to Worcester if it involves financing along the lines proposed by the Red Sox in Pawtucket?
Yes, in principle and broadly speaking, I would support a similar deal. However, the financing options are different in Massachusetts than in Rhode Island. We can offer DIFs (District Improvement Financing), TIFs (Tax Increment Financing), and infrastructure improvements. It should be noted that the Canal District site is different and more complex than the one being considered in Pawtucket.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment since taking office?
Bringing in city leadership such as our City Manager Edward Augustus and Superintendent Maureen Binienda has set up our city to continue to succeed, and I’m proud to be part of both of those appointments. Beyond that we’ve improved the quality of life for our city residents through economic development in our downtown, increased funding to our parks and the building of new schools like Nelson Place Elementary.
But I’ve also helped make sure that both South High School and Doherty High School have started along the path to replacement. Those are two new high schools that we should see open in the next several years. We are not done yet. I want more police officers and firefighters, and would like to see Burncoat High and Worcester East Middle start along the rebuilding process.
If you are elected, in order of importance, what are your top three priorities for the next term?
1.) Economic development initiatives including a clean street program.
2.) Improved programming and understanding of public health in our city and our public schools.
3.) Advocating for a new Burncoat Senior High School and new East Middle School, as well as advocating for additional funding for the state’s foundation budget
Year you were born?
City where you were born?
Heard Street Elementary. Worcester East Middle. Holy Name Central Catholic High School. Nichols College. New England School of Law.
Executive secretary to the Employee’s Retirement System of the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency.
Ray Mariano and Joe Petty served two terms together on City Council (Mariano as mayor) from 1998-2001.