Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Will ISIS pick our next President?

It occurs to me that the timing of terrorist attacks - whether successful or unsuccessful -- could easily have a significant influence on the election of our next President.

Take, for example, the anti-Islam sentiment stirred up by Donald Trump and other GOP candidates over the past few days.  If ISIS timed an attack (or an attempted attack) two weeks before the 2016 election, do any one of us think that would not have an effect on the outcome? 

Sure, we'd like to be able to say that we are smarter than that and above being so easily manipulated, but take a look at the numerous voter polls conducted in the past few days which overwhelmingly show that Americans do not want to accept Syrian refugees.  How would that polling have looked just a week or two earlier?  Recent events have an outsized influence on elections.  What happened this week carries far more weight than what happened last month or last year.

One, single well-timed event, successful or not, could significantly alter the course of the next election and the future course of this country.  It did after 9-11, and look how that turned out.

Does anyone really think that ISIS hasn't already thought about this?

Are we, ourselves, even thinking about it?

And what can we do to prevent the almost inevitable public reaction, should it occur?

How do we prevent our enemy -- one who has sworn to destroy us and our way of life -- from determining or our future? 

I don't have the answers or the solutions, but I'm sure interested in hearing yours.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

What You May Not Know About Holyoke's 5 Ballot Questions

There are 5 questions on Tuesday's ballot, 4 of which are binding. 
In one way or another, every question is about representation and accountability.  Following is how we are voting on each question, and why.

The backers of this ballot question are asking voters to reduce the number of At-Large Councilors from 8 to 6, touting a savings of $20,000 as one of their primary reasons to shrink the Council.  On the surface that may sound reasonable, but what they don't say is that $20,000 is only a savings of 50 cents per resident.  
The backers' attempt to misdirect voters into focusing on savings instead of focusing on the effect of the proposed reduction, is troubling.  There is a reason our forefathers structured the City Council the way they did.  Fewer At-Large Councilors means less ability for voters in all Wards to be able to hold the Council accountable for their actions.  To cite 2 recent examples of how changing the balance (8 At-Large vs. 7 Ward councilors) affects residents in different parts of the city, imagine what the outcome might have been in Ward 5 and Ward 7, with Walmart and a casino, if voters in those Wards didn't have the ability to hold 8 At-Large Councilors accountable for their actions?
This is a question of representation and accountability.  Not one of cost.  If backers want to reduce the size of the Council by 2, they should reduce the Ward representation by 1 seat, and the At-Large representation by 1 seat, in order to keep the balance as it was meant to be, maintaining accountability citywide. 
Preserve your ability to hold the City Council accountable for their actions.
Vote NO on Question 1.

The backers of this question want to extend the Mayor's term to 4 years, beginning in 2017.  The problem with this proposal is that citizens need to have a mechanism by which they can hold their elected representatives accountable for their actions, especially on a local level where decisions have a far greater, and more immediate, impact on our daily lives.  4 Years is too long a window to go without the checks and balances an election brings.  Responsive and accountable Mayors will be re-elected.  Bad ones won't.  As it should be.

Vote NO on Question 2.


The backers of this question want to extend the City Council's term to 4 years, beginning in 2017.  The problem with this proposal, as with question 2 above, is that citizens need to have a mechanism by which they can hold their elected representatives accountable for their actions, especially on a local level where decisions have a far greater, and more immediate, impact on our daily lives.  4 Years is too long a window to go without the checks and balances an election brings.  Responsive and accountable Councilors will be re-elected.  Bad ones won't.  As it should be.
Vote NO on Question 3.


The backers of this question want to merge the City Treasurer position with the Tax Collector position and change the City Treasurer from an elected position, to one which is appointed by the City Council.  Our opinion is that the City Treasurer should be chosen based on his/her qualifications, experience and proven ability to do the job well -- not on his/her popularity or ability to raise campaign money.
To get the most qualified Treasurer, change it from an elected to an appointed position.
Vote YES on Question 4.

QUESTION #5:  NO  (non-binding)

The backers of this question want to replace the elected position of Mayor with a City Council-appointed position of City Manager.  In this case, the City Manager would be accountable only to the Councilors, not to the voters.  The major problem with this proposal is that it removes the ability of the voters to directly hold Holyoke's highest ranking official accountable for his/her actions by placing a buffer (the City Council) between the voters and the Mayor/Manager. 
Vote NO on Question 5.


Friday, October 30, 2015

Why I'm Voting For Alex Morse, Again

October 30, 2015

I can't imagine that there is a single one of us who hasn't looked at the transformation of downtown Northampton and, more recently, downtown Easthampton and said "wouldn't it be great if this could happen in Holyoke?"

Well, I never thought I'd be able to say this, but it's actually beginning to happen.  For the first time in decades, significant investment is starting to funnel into our downtown district.  Infrastructure improvements like the Canal Walk are now leading to private investment in the old mill buildings adjoining our downtown canals.  They're getting snapped up by savvy investors who believe in Alex Morse's plan for Holyoke's future.  Apartments, condominiums, retail, office, restaurants -- are all in the works.  Holyoke's revitalization is upon us and people are noticing:  across the region . . . across the state . . . and across the country -- and almost everyone is rooting for us.  Rooting for Holyoke!

Yet, instead of being excited by these long hoped-for developments, some residents aren't happy.  I ask myself how could anyone be unhappy about the biggest acceleration in private downtown investment Holyoke has seen in decades?  The only answer I can come up with, is that some people just don't like Alex. 
I get that Alex has alienated some people and I'm not invalidating their reasons for feeling that way.  But if I had the opportunity to look each of them in the eye I would say to them:  "You don't have to like Alex, to love what he's doing for our city."  

Because, in the end, that's what this election should be about.  Is Holyoke better or worse for having Alex as our mayor these past 4 years?
When is the last time you saw this much new investment in the heart of downtown Holyoke?  Do any of us truly believe that, without Alex and the team he has put in place, that we would be on the cusp of a major downtown revitalization today?  Isn't this exactly the kind of progress we've waited 40 years to see?

If Holyoke's progress is more important to you than Holyoke's politics, please join me in voting to re-elect Alex Morse as Holyoke's mayor next Tuesday. 
Holyoke is on the verge of a major revitalization.  Please don't stop it dead in its tracks.

John Epstein

The following was published October 2013:

Why I'm Voting For Alex Morse

I remember growing up in Holyoke in an era when you never thought twice about leaving the doors to your home unlocked or your keys in your car's ignition.

I remember going downtown to shop, as a child with my parents, and later as a young adult.  The streets were crowded with shoppers and every store was bustling and busy.  There was Steiger's, Neisner's, McCauslin Wakelin, Childs, Moriarty's, Bail's, Dorothy Dodd's, Casual Corner, D'Addario's, Del Padre, Shirl's Record Whirl, Stein's Kiddies World, Lesser's, Ryback's and dozens more.  Most of their owners were our Holyoke neighbors, or lived in nearby towns. And every one of them advertised their businesses in the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram.

I remember the locally owned pharmacies that populated every neighborhood, where I'd ride my bike every week to buy the latest baseball cards or Batman and Superman comics.  I remember  family dinners at Gleason's Townhouse, Kelly's Lobster House, Edna Williams' Log Cabin, The Yankee Pedlar and, in later years, at The Golden Lemon.

And I remember the thrill of seeing the latest movies on the giant screens at The Strand, The Suffolk and in the splendor of the Victory theater.  These and other wonderful Holyoke businesses are fondly burned into my memory all these years later.

But by the time I graduated from Holyoke High School in 1974, things were already beginning to change.  Within the decade which followed, crime and drugs and fires and poverty all ran rampant through our hometown.  Businesses began their rapid exodus from downtown as the Mall drove the final nail in the coffin of locally owned stores.  I watched as an influx of absentee landlords purchased some of Holyoke's grandest apartment buildings; turned them into Section 8 cash cows; milked them for every penny; ran them into the ground; and then abandoned them, leaving their decaying remains as a blight upon our city. 

It didn't take long for Holyoke to become the butt of everyone's jokes.  But is wasn't a joke to those of us who grew up, raised our families, and built our lives here.  By the late 70's, most of my classmates had fled town.  Some moved to other areas of the country.  Others relocated to nearby towns.  I'm one of the very few of my classmates who never left Holyoke.

Over the subsequent 40 years, friends, classmates, and even complete strangers would ask me why I hadn't left town.  My answer has consistently been that "there are still good things going on in Holyoke", though it saddened me that virtually none of these people seemed to be able to see it.  Yet, I can understand their reaction because, for decades, the news which was reported about Holyoke was mostly about it having the reputation of being an unsavory place to live or to spend time. 

For years -- and as a Holyoke resident you surely know this -- wherever we went, outsiders ranked on our hometown, describing it variously as either the "armpit" or the "dumping ground" of Western Mass.  They would repeatedly ask "why would anyone choose to live in Holyoke?"  As residents, we knew there were problems, but we also knew it was seldom as bad as its reputation.

And this is why I'm voting for Alex Morse.  Not because of what's happened during the past 40 years, but because of the dramatic change in how outsiders have come to view Holyoke since Alex was elected two years ago. 

Nowadays, wherever Ruth and I go and whenever we mention that we're from Holyoke, people comment to us about "your new mayor" and how "something really exciting is happening in Holyoke" or that "Holyoke is a really exciting place to live right now".  Whether we're in Turners Falls, Greenfield, Northampton or Springfield, the reaction we've gotten is markedly different from what it had been just a few years ago.  Several people we've met have told us that their next move was going to be to Holyoke.  One former resident who fled Holyoke over 2 dozen years ago said that she and her husband had recently made the decision to move back home to Holyoke.  What struck me most about her comment wasn't just that they were coming back, it was her use of the word "home".  Here it was, dozens of years later, and they still looked upon Holyoke as their home. 

For 40 years I've suffered the slings and arrows of outsiders and former residents asking me why I would stay in a "dump" like Holyoke.  But now I'm hearing complete strangers say that it's an exciting place to be.  I never thought I'd hear people talking that way about Holyoke again in my lifetime.  And it's not just coming from here.  People all over the Pioneer Valley, all over the State -- and even across the country -- have been viewing Holyoke in a significantly more positive light since Alex was elected.  How many decades or generations do we have to look back to find a comparable change in public reaction?  Seemingly overnight, Alex's election has changed the perception outsiders have of Holyoke -- in an extraordinarily positive way. 

Still, some argue that the only remaining chance for Holyoke is to sell her out to the highest bidder -- be it a Wal-Mart, a casino, or even a nuclear waste dump.  They argue that turning more residential neighborhoods into business neighborhoods is the magical answer.  I don't believe that.  Neither does Alex. 

That's why I'm voting for Alex Morse. 

I may not have agreed with every single thing Alex has done, but I can't ignore the fact that Alex is transforming Holyoke into a place that outsiders want to come to play; to live; to work; to invest; and to establish their business.  Those are the fundamental building blocks that are absolutely mandatory for an older industrial city, like Holyoke, to renew itself.  Alex understands that.  And over the past 2 years it has become clear to me that Alex's vision for Holyoke is what's driving that renewed interest. 

Of all the things Holyoke could possibly do to improve its standing, probably the single most significant thing that can happen is that people want to come here.   No Mayor in my entire adult lifetime has done more to improve the perception that others have of Holyoke, than Alex Morse.

For the first time in 40 years, outsiders are viewing Holyoke in an extremely positive light.  I, for one, am not willing to wait another 40 years for an opportunity like this to come again.

That's why I'm voting for Alex Morse.

John P. Epstein


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Special Message for Everyone Who Hates Alex Morse . . .


.  .  .  but can't stomach the idea of voting for Fran O'Connell because of his misogynistic attitude towards women.*

"Blank Vote"

Blank voting means to not vote for either mayoral candidate.  
In essence, "neither of the above".


*I get that some voters don't like Alex, but how can anyone reconcile voting for Fran O'Connell when he still thinks it's okay to belittle and sexually objectify women? 

Fran O'Connell not only made inexcusably misogynistic comments about a respected city employee (Google 'Fran O'Connell misogyny'), he then blamed and tried to discredit the woman who reported the incident.  And, to this day, he still refuses to apologize.

Given his unrepentant attitude toward women, how can he seriously be considered to lead ANY community, let alone a city of 40,000 people, half of whom are women?   

It's okay to be unhappy with Alex, but please think twice about the message it would send to every resident of Holyoke -- and to every resident in the State - to elect a man who shows complete disregard for women.  That's not moving forward.  That's moving back to the dark ages.

If you can't justify voting for Alex, please consider "blank voting" for mayor.  Let's not make Holyoke the laughingstock of the Commonwealth. 

NOTE:  before the conspiracy theorists start buzzing - NO, the Morse campaign did not put me up to this.  They are reading this at the same time you are.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Holyoke's $34 Million Dollar Boondoggle

Why spending $34 million dollars to renovate the Lyman Terrace housing project is bad for Holyoke; bad for homeowners; and bad for businesses


The City of Holyoke is about to embark on a $34 million dollar, taxpayer-funded renovation of 156 apartments at Lyman Terrace – a subsidized, low-income housing project in the heart of Holyoke's downtown revitalization district.  This excessively lavish expenditure of taxpayer money is bad for Holyoke, bad for Holyoke's homeowners and bad for Holyoke's businesses.  Here's why:

1. It's Way Too Expensive 

$34 million dollars comes down to paying $218,000 to renovate (not build) each tiny, 800 square foot apartment.  To put that into perspective, that would be the equivalent of you spending over $650,000 to renovate your existing 2,400 square foot home.  Furthermore, $34 million dollars could buy 156 median-priced Holyoke homes outright, and still leave an additional $50,000 to renovate each one of them.  

BOTTOM LINE:  This is an extravagant use of taxpayer money which only government bureaucrats would celebrate.

2. It's the Wrong Location, and it Undermines Nearby Revitalization Efforts

Given Lyman Terrace's key location in the middle of nearby revitalization efforts, replacing the existing low-income housing project with a "newly improved" low-income housing project is damaging and counterproductive.  Not only does it concentrate poverty in the heart of Holyoke's revitalization district, but low income housing projects notoriously attract higher rates of crime making it incompatible with the significant improvements and investments which have already been made nearby.

Instead, establishing market rate housing at Lyman Terrace would be a far more compatible use for that location and would complement, rather than hinder, other recent investments. 

BOTTOM LINE:  Placing a low-income housing project in the heart of revitalization does more harm in the long-term and becomes one more obstacle toward the goal of successful downtown revitalization.

3. Holyoke's 31.7% Poverty Rate is Unsustainable and Significantly Reduces Property Values 

At nearly 3 times the State average, Holyoke's 31.7% poverty rate is not only the highest in Massachusetts, it's amongst the highest in the entire U.S.  And it is simply not sustainable.

This massive concentration of poverty in Holyoke places a disproportionate burden on every homeowner and business owner.  It has depressed our housing prices, costing Holyoke homeowners tens of thousands of dollars in their home's value.  It's resulted in higher crime rates.  It's overburdened our schools.  And it's kept businesses from coming here. 

Holyoke didn't create poverty and it's not Holyoke's sole responsibility to solve it for the region or the State.  After spending hundreds of millions of dollars, and after decades of trying, it should be clear that we can't "social service" our way out of poverty.  Fairness says this burden needs to be shared or equalized with other nearby communities.   

Though perhaps unpopular in some circles, we need to consider transitioning some of Holyoke's poverty-based housing into tax-contributing, market rate housing.  If we ever hope to see Holyoke revitalized we, as a community, must be willing to wean ourselves off our poverty industry.  And we need to begin now. 

BOTTOM LINE:  We must end Holyoke's addiction to its poverty economy before it ends us.

4. Holyoke's Highest-in-the-State Commercial Tax Rate Chokes off Business Development

At an eye-popping $39.93 per thousand, Holyoke has the highest commercial property tax rate in the entire State – more than double the State's median rate.  Needless to say, this exorbitant tax rate scares off all but the bravest developers and investors, the effects of which can be seen in the painfully slow rate of commercial development here.  But the underlying problem isn't just one of a high tax rate.  It's one of low property values.

It's been shown that concentrated areas of high poverty result in decreased property values.  That, in turn, raises property tax rates.  To illustrate the effect of property values on tax rates, consider this example: 

Let's say your home is currently appraised at $200,000 and the tax rate is $20 per thousand, meaning your share of property taxes is $4,000 a year (200 x $20).  Now, let's imagine that tomorrow your home is suddenly worth $400,000.  Same home.  Same city.  Higher value.  In order for the city to net the same $4,000 tax revenue, they only need to tax your (more valuable) home at a rate of $10 per thousand (400 x $10).  In this example, you can see how the doubling of your home VALUE (from $200,000 to $400,000) results in a halving of the tax RATE (from $20 to $10) while netting the city the exact same amount of revenue. 

The importance of this example is to show that, if Holyoke's property values weren't so depressed from the extreme poverty here, our homes and businesses would be worth more and our tax RATE would be lower – making Holyoke far more competitive and attractive to business investment.  Higher values help everyone, but Holyoke's high rate of poverty depresses property values making it virtually impossible to lower tax rates and attract new business. 

BOTTOM LINE:  As long as Holyoke keeps welcoming more and more poverty to the city, Holyoke property values will remain depressed and tax rates will remain too high to attract meaningful commercial investment.

5. Lyman Terrace's Owners Pay Few Taxes, Shifting the Burden onto Homeowners and Businesses

At current assessments, the Holyoke Housing Authority, owner of Lyman Terrace, has yearly tax liabilities of approximately $600,000, yet pays just $11,000 in taxes.  The remaining $589,000 gets shifted onto homeowners and businesses.

And it's not that HHA and its residents don't utilize and depend upon city services – they do.  But the costs of providing those services currently gets shifted onto other taxpayers.  This is despite the fact that areas of concentrated poverty, like Lyman Terrace, place a disproportionately heavy burden on city services such as police, fire, ambulance and our school system. 

BOTTOM LINE:  This shifting of tax responsibility isn't fair and the Holyoke Housing Authority needs to help the City by paying its fair share of taxes to support the services its tenants use, just like other landlords. 

Holyoke's inability to attract significant commercial development is due, in part, to our astronomically high tax rates . . . which are the result of our low property values . . . which are caused by our extremely high poverty rates.  This is an interconnected problem and we will never be able to solve one, unless we are willing to solve the others, too.

So, the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about is the fact that we have way more poverty than we can assimilate and policies that seem to revolve around retaining or attracting more of it.  Spending $34 million of taxpayer dollars on Lyman Terrace doesn't help solve Holyoke's poverty problem.  It perpetuates it.  And it does so at the expense of every Holyoke homeowner and business owner for decades to come.

While we have an absolute moral obligation to help others who are less fortunate, no city can absorb the extended costs associated with a 31.7% poverty rate and expect to make a recovery – not even Holyoke.  This burden needs to be shared with other local communities.  Holyoke must wean itself off its addiction to its poverty-based economy, and the Lyman Terrace property – for all the reasons mentioned – is the logical starting point for this transition to begin.  If we really want to be able to help Holyoke's poor, we must help Holyoke first.  There is no other way.

John Epstein