“In the spirit of transparency”
Plus, a "new guy" emerges during the tax rate debate
Short one today I promise! Tonight, I should say. I very rarely put up a post this late but let’s see if it matters at all.
Sleepy week so far. Just a few things to get to: the worsening situation between City Manager Eric Batista and the Human Rights Commission on whether they should be holding the police accountable, the strange coalition of councilors keeping the residential tax rate as low as they’re allowed to and some other odds and ends.
First, some crazy personal news...
That’s right folks my Roky Erickson cover band THE EVIL ONES will be opening for WITCH on Dec. 20. Tickets are sure to go fast. In fact as of writing this I’m hearing there are only 40 left. Available here.
This is a very cool surprise show that came together just a few days ago. Witch, for those who don’t know, is a very sick side project of Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis. They kick ass. For fans of stoner/doom metal and riffs more generally.
“In the spirit of transparency”
City Manager Eric Batista and his press guy Tom Matthews recently debuted a new online video series titled The Buzz, in an effort to go over “information that doesn’t get out,” as Batista put it. Over coffee at Brew on the Grid, Batista told Matthews about the Christmas tree lighting on the Worcester Common, the new emergency shelter (without mentioning the remaining shortfall of shelter beds) and encouraged people to shop local for their Christmas needs! News you can use baby.
But there’s something else the city has been buzzing about that didn’t make it into the program: the ongoing sticky situation between Batista and the Human Rights Commission! He’s denying (and then partially un-denying) the HRC access to internal Worcester Police Department records while attempting to steer them away from digging into police abuses, saying it’s not their job (it is). The HRC is insisting on providing police oversight and Batista is bailing on HRC meetings. For some reason, that did not make it into The Buzz. Maybe next time!
On Monday, the Telegram released a story by Brad Petrishen headlined “After city manager a no-show, Human Rights Commission votes to continue police oversight.”
The city Human Rights Commission voted Monday to continue its police oversight work — work the city manager had asked them to pause — after a meeting in which the manager did not appear as commissioners had requested.
Oversight of the police was the highest collective priority for commissioners following a roll call vote, followed by addressing other priorities City Manager Eric D. Batista listed in recent correspondence.
The vote signaled that commissioners intended to continue to make police oversight their top priority, while also looking to help Batista with his stated goal of restructuring the city’s Executive Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
The vote comes days after a statement Batista had put out last Thursday “clarifying” his decision to deny the HRC access to WPD records. While he maintains that he wants the commission to move away from investigating the police department toward other matters, he’s providing them the records they asked for—”in the spirit of transparency.”
“In the spirit of transparency, the municipality will publish the Bureau of Professional Standards public records requested on the municipal website. Further, we will provide the HRC statistics and demographics from the hate crime reports requested so that they may deliberate solely on that matter, while they also address my other listed priorities.”
But really, he’s only providing some of the records, and with major strings! When you take a closer look at what he’s providing versus what they’re asking for, it doesn’t seem to be in the “spirit of transparency” at all. Quite the opposite.
The HRC initially asked for three sets of records: those related to 12 sustained cases of officer misconduct in 2022, those related to the 17 hate crime incidents that took place July 1, 2022 and June 30, 2023, and records related to the 13 civil rights lawsuits against the department settled between 2019 and 2023.
The manager in that statement promised the first two, but not the third. The civil rights lawsuit angle he just chose to ignore. On the matter of hate crimes, Batista was careful to say he would be releasing “statistics and demographics from the hate crime reports.” The HRC asked for the reports themselves, not information pulled from the reports. Sneaky wording, Eric. Very sneaky.
At the meeting Monday, HRC Chairwoman Ellen Shemitz made note of this.
Shemitz said that the commission is entitled to receive more information than must be released publicly — some of which it might have to discuss behind closed doors — but that wouldn’t be happening given the manager’s public release plan.
In his statement Thursday, Batista also made the claim that the HRC’s authority “does not include investigations on City employees or departments.”
In context, that means the HRC has no authority to investigate the police. This is a shaky claim at best! In fact it’s contradicted by the city’s own ordinances.
The duties and responsibilities of the HRC, per its governing documents, include “review departmental policies” and “review departmental disciplinary actions.” It’s on page 126 of the city’s ordinance document. What’s more, the duties specifically mention the police department.
That’s pretty unambiguous, and it’s in direct contradiction to the language in Batista’s statement.
The HRC’s vote on Monday signals their intention to disregard the manager and continue police oversight. The fact that Batista did not show up to the meeting or send a representative shows that the situation “on the ground” may not be as rosy ashe depicted in his statement!
It’s clear Batista is trying to tell the HRC what it can’t do, but all he’s really doing is telling them what he doesn’t want them to do. And that’s just a carrot, but it does come with an attendant stick! Per the Telegram’s last story on the matter:
Its members also are appointed and can be removed by the manager, Batista pointed out in recent correspondence in which he encouraged commissioners to adopt his vision.
If he kicks off the disobedient HRC members for trying to hold the police accountable? Well, that would surely generate some buzz.
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An odd alignment
There were two worthwhile decisions on hand for the City Council Tuesday—allow for accessory dwelling units and reduce the speed limit to 25 mph citywide. Both of them were delayed a week, by Councilors Moe Bergman and Donna Colorio respectively. Coincidentally, Bergman opposes accessory dwelling units and Colorio opposes a lower speed limit. So I guess we’ll talk about those things sometime in the future when they’ve run out of the ability to delay it.
These “holds” left the Council with one decision of note: setting the dual tax rate between residential and commercial property. This should be a mundane process—in fact it really shouldn’t be a matter that’s voted on, at least by itself—but because we’re so far from being normal here in Worcester, it’s a “big deal,” often talked about in dire terms.
A small business owner who took the stand Tuesday night during public comment exemplified this. Robin Rhodes, president of NitroFreeze, a small business off Shrewsbury Street, centered himself in this engrossing story of grave injustice—how the city taxes businesses at a higher rate than residences.
“I seek to make a difference in Worcester... but I see the policies of the government the City Council authors are actually forcing me out of the city of Worcester to more tax-friendly climates like Auburn, Sutton, Shrewsbury. I don’t want to leave Worcester. But I’m going to leave Worcester most likely.”
Oh no! What would we do without NitroFreeze! He continued:
“I urge the Council to do away with this insanity, this house of cards, which is going to collapse under its own weight. Because we can’t keep subsidizing low income housing.”
He then, after talking about how we can’t “subsidize low income housing,” held up two large sign cards: one of a screenshot of the Wikipedia page for gentrification and another of the screenshot of a Google definition. Surreal.
“We all know what gentrification means but the reality is if you’re a homeowner and your property value has gone up then everyone is for it.”
Saying the split tax rate is the cause of gentrification is 1. extremely dramatic, 2. very wrong. But in that it’s extremely dramatic and very wrong, it’s par for the course when it comes to the split tax rate discourse here in Worcester.
If you’re wondering who the hell even is this guy, the answer isn’t great. I googled Rhodes and this article from 2017 popped up: “NitroFreeze page removes mention of president Robin Rhodes, man accused of attacking Muslim airport worker”
According to a statement from the DA's office, Robin Rhodes, 57, of Worcester, was returning from a trip to Aruba, waiting for a connecting flight, when he spotted Rabeeya Khan, a contracted employee of the airport, sitting in her office.
Rhodes allegedly starting banging on her office door, yelling obscenities at her and kicking her leg. The DA's office report said that when Khan tried to escape, Rhodes got down on his knees and began imitating Muslim prayers.
He then began shouting at Khan, "(obscenity) Islam, (obscenity) ISIS, Trump is here now. He will get rid of all of you. You can ask Germany, Belgium and France about these kind of people. You will see what happens," according to the statement.
Yikes! This is the company the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce keeps in its continued advocacy to lower the commercial tax rate by raising the residential tax rate.
Alex Guardiola, the Chamber’s policy director and new School Committee member-elect (woof), took the stand shortly after Rhodes.
“Our businesses are leaving for communities with fairer tax rates,” he said.
The Chamber of Commerce’s quarterly newspaper, the Chamber Exchange, recently ran a long story about the dire consequences of a split tax rate, also written by Guardiola. In it, they attempted to demonstrate why, they think, Market Baskets and Wegmans open in “the towns” and not Worcester. It’s because of the property tax rate, they allege.
It’s a stretch. Maybe not as big as Rhodes’ goofy “gentrification” signs, but a stretch nevertheless. You have to imagine there are many, many more considerations than the municipal commercial property tax rate when supermarket corporations decide on new locations. To be so reductive about it makes clear the intent is to threaten the Council into lowering the tax rate on businesses by introducing the idea that “this is why we don’t have a Market Basket” to the councilors’ constituents.
Against all this, there’s an unlikely coalition of councilors maintaining the widest split possible in the city’s dual tax rate in favor of the lowest rate. The cranks and progressives are for the most part aligned on this issue.
On Tuesday night, Councilors Donna Colorio, Moe Bergman, Candy Mero-Carlson (cranks) and Khrystian King, Etel Haxhiaj and Thu Nguyen (progressives), as well as George Russell (center-ish) voted against the wishes of Rhodes and the Chamber and set the dual tax rate at the lowest available level for residential properties. This was also the case last year. Center councilors like Joe Petty, Sean Rose, and Sarai Rivera, as well as Kate Toomey (crank), tried to “close the gap” marginally between the commercial and residential rates both this year and last year and they failed both times.
Historically, the tax rate vote is something of a “big deal” for councilors—one of their key decisions, hotly debated. In reality, it’s not a very big deal. Understanding that is important for understanding the reality that the Worcester City Council is pretty useless. The most important mechanisms of property tax assessments and collection are performed within City Hall without Council oversight. Property value is assessed and the overall tax levee is determined before anything gets to the Council floor. The Council is then asked to pick from a hat more or less on one small component of this process: the ratio of the split between commercial and residential tax rates. It doesn’t change the amount of property tax money raised overall, nor does it change the assessed value of anyone’s property, it just slightly shifts where that money comes from. For individual property owners, it adds or subtracts pennies on the overall dollar they owe the city.
But, because it’s the only publicly debated part of this process, it takes on the appearance of significance. The Chamber of Commerce and other groups weigh in. There are public comments and speeches from councilors. It reliably gets a newspaper article, framing the decision as a significant one. But in reality, it’s only a minor adjustment.
In that way, it’s a lot like the budget process. The City Manager’s Office writes a budget, and then the Council is tasked with approving or denying it, but they only have the power to “veto” certain specific line items and they very rarely use that power.
The net effect is the Council takes on the public attention for a process they really have little control over. It’s not so much a public process as the appearance of one. That appearance is aided in the way it’s written about.
The Telegram’s headline on the Council’s tax rate vote Tuesday reads “With millions extra in new growth, City Council lowers residential taxes by nearly 2%.”
And that two percent decrease was also articulated in city reports provided to the Council. But it isn’t? Like at all? In reality, the average tax bill for a single family home increased marginally, from $4,908 in FY23 to $5,103 in FY24. I cross referenced the documents from last year versus this year. I’m not sure what fuzzy math is behind the explanation that it decreased two percent, nor am I particularly interested in sussing whether it went down by two percentage points or up by $200. In any case we’re talking about small sums of money here. Hundreds if not dozens of dollars. Single digit percentage points on overall tax bills, for both residential and commercial property owners.
On the flip side, commercial property taxpayers like Rhodes are facing a whopping 0.49 percent increase. The horror. Last year, the average commercial property tax bill was $33,662. This year, it’s $36,067. (Again, I do not understand this math.) The Council voted to support the absolute worst deal for commercial property holders—the epitome of what Rhodes called “insanity”—and now guys like him are looking at a 0.5 percent increase in property taxes.
That’s sort of a good way to think of this whole charade. It is made to seem a bigger deal than it is. Councilors are put in the position of appearing as if they raised taxes for their voters or lowered them via this vote, and so the majority of the councilors choose to go with the option that gives the most perceived benefit to their voters. In this position, the cranks and the progressives are in alignment. They are not going to vote to raise taxes on homeowners. Who would do that! They will always pick the lowest option for their constituents, which necessarily increases the burden on businesses. The political reality of the situation puts them in the position of having to do so. And it’s mostly a product of the way we’re made to talk about it.
It’s property value and assessments that actually raise or lower people’s taxes. The whole engine of City Hall—the growth machine—is oriented around juicing property values. The Council doesn’t get to vote on the growth machine. They vote on a simple ratio that’s loosely associated with how the growth is harvested, and from who, on a given year. But the harvest is the same.
In that the split tax rate is the only public vote taken on the matter, the Council takes on the appearance of responsibility for increasing or decreasing property tax burdens. For the growth machine, this is useful!
Odds and ends
Thank you for reading everyone! Hope the pre-holiday period isn’t too stressful on you. Please consider signing up to sustain this enterprise!
Had a fun time at the Dirty Gerund on Monday! Maybe I’ll get around to uploading a video of my performance but for now thank you to all who came!
Uh oh! Looks like one of the housing developers involved in the scheme to make Polar Park “pay for itself” is backing out of the deal. Quarterra Multifamily Communities proposed a 375-unit housing project in January for 139 Green St., which used to be Smokestack BBQ. It was the “third phase” of redevelopment plans for the old Table Talk Pies factory. Now, though, per the WBJ:
The property has been re-listed for sale at $795,000, according to a listing posted on the website Worcester real estate brokerage firm Kelleher & Sadowsky Associates shared with WBJ on Monday.
In other development news, the Menkiti group has shared a vision for what they plan to do with the Denholm Building.
In Menkiti’s plans, the living spaces are broken down into 89 studios, 108 one-bedroom units and 36 two-bedroom units.
The proposal also includes an outdoor promenade connecting Main Street to Chase Court, a 5,000-square-foot exterior courtyard and an observation deck for its residents, as well as about 200 underground and surface parking spaces.
I have some very exciting news about Rewind Video Store that’s almost ready for sharing! But not quite yet. So that’s all for now. Talk soon!