Bills would limit commercial pet sales

Published in The Lowell Sun and the Sentinel & Enterprise April 1, 2017

BOSTON — New restrictions on the commercial sale of dogs and cats under consideration by the Massachusetts Legislature are designed to improve animal welfare and consumer protection.

Several bills call for banning commercial dog and cat sales, prohibiting the sale of dogs and cats less than eight weeks old and requiring pet stores to work with licensed breeders that have not violated the Animal Welfare Act.

State Rep. Colleen Garry said she supports the legislation because it would provide more oversight for stores and breeders.

“(People) absolutely love their pets and they are buying them because they want to have an animal in their life,” said Garry, a Dracut Democrat. “To just have someone breeding them and not caring for them is a real issue and just making money off of another living thing.”

Garry joined more than 50 legislators to co-sponsor bills filed by Rep. Jennifer Benson, D-Lunenburg, and Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, that would help improve conditions for puppies and kittens and give owners options if they were not aware the animal they purchased was sick.

“As an animal lover, pet owner and occasional small-scale breeder, I am deeply aware of the emotional challenges for families when a pet falls ill, as well as the need to protect the health and safety of young animals,” Spilka, the Senate Ways and Means Chair, said in a statement.

Reps. Jim Miceli, D-Wilmington, and James Arciero, D-Westford, and Sens. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, and Michael Barrett, D-Lexington, also co-sponsored the bills. They were not available for comment.

Mike Keiley manages adoptions at Nevins Farm in Methuen, which is one of three MSPCA adoption centers in the state.

In addition to horses, potbelly pigs and hissing cockroaches, the center often takes in pets purchased from stores or breeders, Kelley said.

“One of the most common issues that we see is that impulse purchase of a dog,” said Keiley, who has worked at Nevins Farm for more than 20 years.

Some people who pick up a puppy at the mall or buy one online and ship them in from out of state may not anticipate what is needed to take care of a dog.

“Your expectations may totally change over time as that dog grows,” he said. “I think people pay a lot of money for those animals and then it’s surprising to see that they don’t put the other resources in to have them be successful with their family.”

About 14 bills have been filed that aim to protect pets and improve conditions for them at stores or kennels.

Sen. Patrick O’Connor, R-Weymouth, said he filed the bill to end cat and dog sales at pet stores after learning about puppy mills and seeing some animals “confined in Plexiglass containers” at a local pet store.

“It’s not the way to operate a business,” said O’Connor, who serves as a minority whip. “We’re in the 21st century and there’s an overpopulation right now (of pets.) Let’s focus on that, focus on adoption, and focus on stopping the process, including at commercial pet shops, of puppy mill breeding going on in the country.”

O’Connor’s bill would affect nine stores across the state, including Just Pups in Tyngsboro, whose owner was charged with animal cruelty for selling a sick Yorkie puppy last year.

The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office said the case has been disposed. A call to Just Pups led to a disconnected number.

The largest of the stores, Pet Express, has three stores that sell nearly 60 breeds of puppies in Eastern Massachusetts

Breeders as well as pet stores that work with animals for adoption would be exempt.

O’Connor’s bill has garnered 20 co-sponsors, including Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster. She was not did not respond to requests for comment.

The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Virginia, does not support the legislation, saying it would harm small businesses.

“Frequently independent, small business retailers that sell pets have designed their business model around the sale of the animals, the purchases that are made in conjunction with that sale, and creating a relationship that will encourage customers to continue to shop with them,” wrote Robert Likins, vice president of governmental affairs, in an email.

Banning dog and cat sales at pet stores could also harm veterinarians, groomers and pet food manufacturers, Likins said.

Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy at the MSPCA, said the nonprofit has worked with legislators including Spilka to put standards in place and reduce the number of sick animals.

The state has been a leader for animal protection, Holmquist said, and will continue its efforts.

“Massachusetts does have strong animal-protection laws,” she said, “but from answering my phone and talking to people and learning from different departments here what is happening in the state, that is certainly clear there is a lot more work to be done.”

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Nangle tax bill targets largest nonprofits

Published in The Lowell Sun March 23, 2017

BOSTON — Large nonprofit organizations with top-earning employees could be required to pay their share of property taxes to the communities where they operate under terms of proposed new legislation.

State Rep. David Nangle, a Lowell Democrat, filed a bill expected to reach the clerk’s office Thursday to get nonprofits that are generally tax-exempt to help ease a burden on cities and towns.

“Cities and towns are always looking for additional assistance to help them meet their budgetary needs,” said Nangle, who serves as assistant majority leader in the House. “The largest nonprofits could and should be the perfect partner to accomplish this.”

There are thousands of nonprofit organizations in the state, including hospitals, higher-education and cultural organizations and churches. Under Nangle’s proposal, a nonprofit would need to pay property taxes if the combined compensation of its top five highest-paid employees surpasses $2.5 million. Nangle said his bill would affect a few hundred nonprofits.

Cities and towns can decide whether they want to participate.

The property tax payments could generate up to $1 billion, he said. That money could go to education and infrastructure and help keep property taxes down for residents.

Nonprofits would pay property taxes on a scale within four years. In the first year, they would pay 100 percent of property tax, 75 percent the next year, 50 percent the third year and 25 percent in the years after.

Jim Klocke, CEO of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, expressed concern over the proposal, saying it is important to preserve tax-exempt status for nonprofits because of their contribution to communities.

“It’s a position this whole sector holds,” he said. “It’s a fundamental part of the nonprofit world that they have these charitable missions and part of supporting those missions is tax-exemption status and doing whatever we can do enable nonprofits to do as much as they can — large, medium, or small — to deliver services is really critical.”

Nangle emphasized that smaller organizations such as the YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs and shelters would not have to pay unless they meet the compensation requirements. Places of worship and religious organizations would also exempt.

In his last push to get nonprofits to pay property taxes, Nangle said some legislators worried that these groups would be hurt.

“It is not the case,” he said. “I wouldn’t do that to my local Y club, sober houses or other small nonprofits.”

Organizations can set up agreements with cities or towns to make an alternative payment, a program known as payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT.

Nangle credited UMass Lowell and the city for working together on a tax agreement after the university purchased the Perkins Park residential development last year.

Last session Nangle offered a bill focusing on getting nonprofit hospitals to pay property taxes. The legislation had a hearing, but it did not make out of committee.

The Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, which includes nonprofits like Massachusetts General Hospital and Lowell General Hospital, said they do not support the legislation.

“Massachusetts has a vibrant not-for-profit sector that offers innumerable services and benefits to the citizens and communities of the state,” the association said in a statement. “MHA and our non-profit member facilities are working collaboratively with other not-for-profit organizations to educate policy makers about the benefits offered by tax-exempt organizations and the expectations and requirements that accompany nonprofit status.”

Nangle said the bill will help start conversation with the nonprofit community that he says is long overdue.

“If some of these nonprofits have compensation like Fortune 500 companies, they should have tax obligations of Fortune 500 companies,” he said. “It’s about participating in and helping the communities they’re a part of.”

Tewksbury civic leader wants fanfare for first responders

Published in The Lowell Sun March 8, 2017

BOSTON — A Tewksbury official is expressing disappointment that Gov. Charlie Baker has failed to visit the town after nearly a year since promising a formal signing ceremony for a bill to honor first responders that originated there.

First Responders Day, which falls on the third Sunday of April preceding Patriots Day, was the idea of former selectman and outgoing Town Moderator Jerry Selissen. State Rep. Jim Miceli, D-Wilmington, filed a bill on Selissen’s behalf to establish the day in 2015. Rep. James Arciero, D-Westford, Rep. Rady Mom, D-Lowell, and Sen. Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover, were among co-sponsors.

Although the original date Miceli proposed was changed, Baker signed the bill into law on April 15, 2016, two days before the inaugural First Responders Day.

The quick signing was “the biggest disappointment” because it didn’t allow for enough time to prepare “anything of significance,” Selissen said.

“I’m in hopes that now almost a whole year has gone by that we can do something a little bit what would be more appropriate to recognize local police and fire,” he said.

“First responders put their own lives on the line to save others in danger, and we have a responsibility to ensure they receive strong leadership, representation and recognition on Beacon Hill,” Baker said in a statement after he signed the legislation.

“Every day, these brave men and women and their families provide extraordinary service to the commonwealth. We strive to follow their example and will use this occasion every year to recommit ourselves to doing so.”

But, a spokeswoman acknowledged, “the governor has not participated in a ceremonial signing in Tewksbury as of today.”

Selissen said he has worked with first responders, has respect for veterans, like his father who served in the Coast Guard and his father-in-law who served in World War II and later the Boston Fire Department.

Miceli said a day of thanks for first responders was long overdue.

“For many years, we have rightfully honored the veterans and service-members, and we rightfully honor our presidents and other public servants, but we had forgotten about the men and women who put on fire, police, and EMT uniforms to serve us every day in our communities,” Miceli said in a statement.

Especially after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Selissen and Miceli felt more of a need to honor first responders and “correct that situation.”

“I hope that for many years to come that this day will honor all those who have fallen in the line of duty, such as Wilmington’s own son Sean Collier, who choose to take a tremendous risk each day so that we may live in a peaceful, stable community without fear,” Miceli said.

Collier, a 26-year-old MIT police officer, died a few days later after a confrontation with the Tsarnaev brothers.

His family has pushed for a National First Responder’s Day. U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano introduced the legislation in 2013, but it did not make it out of committee.

Several departments said they have heard about First Responders Day, but they don’t currently have plans to celebrate it.

Lowell Fire Chief Jeffrey Winward said the department has other “special days” throughout the year to honor firefighters.

An awards ceremony for those who have gone above and beyond in the line of duty and a memorial march for retired firefighters who have lost their lives are some ways the department honors its members, Winward said.

Chelmsford Fire Chief Gary Ryan also said his department doesn’t have anything planned and that the day “snuck up on us.”

In lieu of a formal celebration, Ryan said the department will be honoring former chief Fred Reid who served in the department 31 years and died last week.

“We’ll take First Responders Day as a day to honor some of the other firefighters who have come before us and try to carry Chief Reid’s legacy and commitment to public safety forward,” Ryan said.

Miceli’s office said there are plans to have a large event for First Responders Day around the time of the Marathon and is working on details with the governor’s office.

In the month leading up to the next First Responders Day, Selissen said he would like to see the state put together guidelines for how cities and towns should recognize first responders.

Selissen also said he is still hoping to hear from Baker’s office.

“If someone from the governor’s office wants to reach out to me,” he said, “I would be more than happy to talk to them about what we can do to make this a memorable day going forward.”

Lowell philanthropist Nancy Donahue honored by state arts group

Published in The Lowell Sun February 15, 2017

BOSTON — Nancy Donahue found a lifelong passion for the arts at a young age. She took that love and blended it with a mission to give back to the Lowell-area community.

Donahue, 87, said she wants to continue her work for as long as she can.

“I do what I can for everyone,” she said. “As I’ve told my children, all we can do is to make our part of the world a better place.”

The Massachusetts Cultural Council recognized Donahue for her lasting contributions to the arts in the Greater Lowell area during a Wednesday ceremony at the Statehouse.

Donahue has played a role in developing the Lowell arts community for the past few decades. She helped found cultural hubs, including the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in 1987 and the New England Quilt Museum. She now leads the Lowell Arts Associations and serves on several boards.

As state Sen. Eileen Donoghue of Lowell presented Donahue with the award, the two women hugged and Donahue’s family and friends clapped as Donahue made her way on stage.

“The truth is, the cultural renaissance in Lowell that happened many years ago would not have been possible without the leadership, the support, the example and tenacity (of Nancy Donahue),” Donoghue said during her introduction.

More than 200 guests attended the ceremony in the flag-lined Great Hall.

The Springfield SciTech High School band performed near the Grand Staircase and a world-renowned Syrian artist, Kenan Adnawi, played folk tunes on his Oud, a lute-like instrument.

Donahue’s philanthropy also includes donations at UMass Lowell to establish an arts professorship and a fund in her name at the Greater Lowell Community Foundation to help nonprofit organizations.

She and her late husband, Richard, an aide to President John F. Kennedy, who died in September 2015, raised 11 children and were both involved in charitable giving in the community.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, spoke briefly about the impact of the work by the award recipients and how arts play a vital role in communities.

Donahue said she looks forward to giving back in Lowell and encouraging others.

“I hope what I’ve given to the community keeps on going, getting better and inspires others to contribute,” she said.

Mass. bills seek to lift criminal justice age for juveniles

Published in The Lowell Sun and the Sentinel & Enterprise February 13, 2017

BOSTON — Jeff Alvarez remembers how he often got into trouble as a teenager in Lawrence. He spent three months on the streets and later two years in an Essex County lockup.

Alvarez, now 23, is a member of Lowell-based nonprofit UTEC that helps young adults through education and employment. He has joined the effort to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 18 to 21 to help others get the support they need.

“If you go to a juvenile jail you’ll get the support that you need like education (and) help with life in general,” he said. “When you’re in an adult jail, they just send you there and you just wait until you’re done doing your time.”

Bills offered by Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, and others aim to raise the juvenile criminal justice age to 21, making Massachusetts the first in the country to do so.

“Young people have unique developmental needs, and our juvenile justice system plays a critical role in helping them get back on track,” Spilka, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement. “Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction will increase public safety and provide young people with the age-appropriate rehabilitation and support services they need to lead successful adult lives and positively contribute to their communities.”

Spilka previously sponsored legislation signed into law by former Gov. Deval Patrick in 2013 that made 17-year-olds part of the juvenile court system.

Rep. Stephan Hay, D-Fitchburg, said he supports raising the juvenile court age because it would help young adults from all backgrounds.

“Treating an 18-year-old the same as you’re treating a 28- or 38-year-old is inappropriate,” he said. “Although we can say at 18 you’re old enough to do certain things, I don’t think that jail time and criminal records are necessarily the appropriate measures to take for that idea.”

In his district, Hay said, police and local activist groups have worked together for community outreach to help keep young people out of jail.

“It’s encouraging that people aren’t just talking about it or complaining about it,” he said. “They’re saying let’s actually step forward and put together an action plan and let’s work together to try and make this better from both sides.”

Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian said his office supports efforts to work with young offenders.

“Evidence clearly shows we have to reevaluate how the justice system deals with young adults,” Koutoujian said in a statement. “We believe this will help these individuals return to the community more prepared to be engaged, productive citizens.”

The Middlesex Sheriff’s Office works with UTEC through its Streetworker Program and is preparing to open a Young Adult Unit.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan was not available for an interview. However, her spokesman, Meghan Kelly, said in an email: “It is important that juveniles are treated appropriately in the criminal justice system. The rights of juveniles must be balanced with the rights of victims and the protection of the general public. Several bills relating to the treatment of juveniles are presently pending in the legislature. The MDAA is in the process of carefully reviewing these bills to make sure that they are consistent with these goals.”

The Worcester County Sheriff’s Office currently doesn’t work with anyone under the age of 18, said Superintendent David Tuttle.

Some young adults could be diverted from the sheriff’s office if the legislation were to pass, Tuttle said, but it is too early to know how many people this would affect.

Police departments in Lowell declined comment as did the Worcester and Middlesex district attorney’s offices. Fitchburg Police Chief Ernest Martineau was not available for comment.

Several organizations, including UTEC and Citizens for Juvenile Justice, support the legislation.

UTEC Executive Director Gregg Croteau, said the proposals can help reduce recidivism rates for young adults. About 11 percent of young adults in UTEC are re-arrested within a year, Croteau said, compared to 52 percent statewide.

“It’s one of the better paths for allowing young people a true clean slate,” he said.

Naoka Carey, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, said she hoped that the effort will gain bipartisan support and affirm the state’s role as a leader for juvenile justice reform.

“Massachusetts has a history, especially in juvenile justice, of being a national leader,” she said. “We have a lot to teach other places about how to do this well and how to do it a way that protects public safety, but you’re getting much better outcomes for kids.”

Bills aimed to empower schools get backing

Published in The Lowell Sun February 1, 2017

BOSTON — Lowell officials expressed support for two bills in the Massachusetts Legislature that aim to create “empowerment zones” to give public school districts more freedom and the tools to fend off state takeover.

The companion measures, offered by Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, and Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, would help schools among the lowest 20 percent statewide by offering more freedom to change curriculum, encourage creative teaching, and use resources in a way that best fits their needs.

The bills are “revenue neutral,” according to the legislators, although schools could face additional costs depending on how they choose to proceed.

“The idea is to keep this focused, directed attention at schools that are most in need of this kind of help,” Lesser said. “The idea is to help them get caught up so that they don’t fall off into the threshold of requiring state takeover.”

Gov. Charlie Baker expressed support for empowerment zones partnerships in his State of the Commonwealth address and promised to work with legislators to create a statewide model.

“These zones create more flexibility in schools, and allow educators to make the changes necessary to provide a better learning environment for our kids,” Baker said in his address.

Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell, said having flexibility and creativity for district schools is a thoughtful approach.

“I’m interested in anything that we can do to provide that type of innovative aspect and innovative approach to education,” she said. “It’s certainly worth exploring.”

Lowell Mayor Ed Kennedy, who also chairs the School Committee, said the district’s schools have seen “unprecedented improvement” in the past two years.

Roughly two-thirds of Lowell schools are considered high performing by the state, Kennedy said. Many of the district’s Level 3 schools are on the cusp of moving up a level, he added.

The state ranks schools on a scale of 1 to 5, with Level 1 as the highest performing and Level 5 as the lowest based on state test scores and other factors.

“Lowell doesn’t need (empowerment zones) now,” he said, “but if we find ourselves in a situation similar to Springfield, or Holyoke, or Lawrence, it could be a tool for us.”

Peisch said her bill builds on past legislation, including the 2010 achievement gap law signed by former Gov. Deval Patrick.

“We’ve seen what has worked with the receiverships … that having more flexibility and autonomy is one element that seems to be common in schools improving themselves,” she said.

Lesser said his bill draws on ideas from both sides of the charter-school expansion debate. Ballot Question 2 was defeated in November.

The bills would expand a program that started in Springfield.

The Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership, which began during the 2015-16 school year, is the first in the state, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Within one year of the partnership, a majority of students attending nine middle schools in the zone had modest improvement on state tests, said Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for DESE.

If everything goes right, empowerment zone partnerships could be ready for the next school year, Lesser said.