SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 24, 2014

City billboard proposal paves way to sharp debate

By Alan Burke
Staff Writer

---- — PEABODY — A proposal from Mayor Ted Bettencourt to supplement city revenue by leasing land for two billboards led to an unusually sharp exchange with City Councilor Anne Manning Martin last night.

Billboards are a sore subject in Peabody, with some feeling the city is being forested with massive signs up to 90 feet tall. Nonetheless, Bettencourt told the council that leasing two new billboards on city property along Route 128, out of the sight lines of any residences, could give a significant boost to city revenues. That boost, he indicated, was made more vital following the recent release of Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed budget.

It includes “a 2.78 percent decrease in aid to Peabody,” with the cuts hitting Chapter 70, the section of the budget devoted to education, Bettencourt said. “The governor’s proposal makes it important for us to pursue revenue.”

To do so, the city has already sent word out to billboard companies that they could bid on leasing land near the Route 1 exit and near the Fisheries International Building. All responses are expected to be in by the end of January. He predicted that the leases could generate up to $700,000 per year. Moreover, he stressed that the city would have access to the boards to alert drivers to things like flu clinics and other public services.

The mayor asked the board to approve the leases, “so we can continue to make investments on important projects.”

“We would be making a huge error,” Manning Martin said. She cited the widespread dissatisfaction with billboards, including a massive one built on Lowell Street, which is now the subject of a court action. “I have heard nobody tell me they like these billboards. ... People don’t want them. They don’t want them near their houses. They don’t want to drive by them.”

She faulted the process, as well, saying, “The deadline is a week away and this leaves no time for public input. ... It was dropped on us at this meeting tonight.” Should the mayor’s proposal be adopted, she said, “People are going to be furious with us. I suggest that the council could do the mayor a favor and reject this.”

At that, Bettencourt said, “I am not here as a mayor to ask for favors. ... I resent the fact that Councilor Manning Martin is implying we are rushing this.” He stressed that the process was completely regular. He received some support from Councilor Tom Gould, who consulted with City Clerk Tim Spanos in determining that a public hearing is expected to happen later in the process.

Bettencourt pointed out that “Councilor Manning Martin has voted for five billboards.”

She countered that she had little choice in the matter, as rejections in some cases have led to lawsuits. In addition, she suggested that the mayor had misunderstood her reference to doing him a favor and that she hadn’t suggested he was asking for one. Finally, noting strong winds at the landfill, she asked why the city doesn’t seek revenue through alternative-energy programs.

“I have great respect for Councilor Manning Martin,” the mayor said, citing her support for education and projects requiring much revenue, like the regional vocational school. He stressed that the leases have not been a secret, yet he’s heard few objections to the plan. “People are not going to be furious. They’ll be furious if we’re laying off police officers.”

While her colleagues expressed sympathy with Manning Martin’s frustration regarding billboards, none was willing to reject the mayor’s plan.

“Generating a half-million dollars in revenue, that’s a pretty easy decision to make. ... I have no qualms supporting the mayor,” said member Mike Garabedian.

“All of us have struggled with this,” said Councilor Tom Walsh. “One of the things that struck me — the couple of billboards the mayor has asked for are less intrusive. ... I’m willing to support it.”

The mayor’s proposal was approved on a 9 to 1 vote, with Manning Martin opposed and Dave Gravel absent. Later, the council agreed to discuss the possibility of imposing a moratorium on all billboards.

Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@salemnews.com.