City's heroin fight gains strength
When Matt Rodger's brother overdosed on heroin and died, he took to social media to vent his grief and frustrations.
"I kept writing on Facebook a lot,'' he said. "I just needed to express myself.''
People responded to his posts and shared them.
"They got shared and liked more than average," he said of his social media messages. "I had so many people asking me to start a group."
That's how the Facebook group #TakingHaverhillBack started.
Rodger and fellow Haverhill residents Kristen Carbone and Chris Shine are leaders of the group.
The organization is a diverse group of people. Some have lost loved ones to addiction, others are recovering addicts and some are still struggling. People post information about meetings or advice on detox locations.
The group formed as Haverhill struggles with being the epicenter of the region's heroin epidemic. Last year, the city had more heroin-related overdoses and deaths than any other community in the county.
Shine is a recovering addict. He received a dose of life-saving Narcan from rescue workers a few months ago when he overdosed on heroin. He said the experience changed his perspective on life.
"I woke up in the hospital around my mom and sister,'' he said. "I had a psychic change then. I was done with everything (drugs).''
Shine regularly posts with the group about his addiction, recovery and the struggles he faces.
"I am not ashamed to talk about it,'' he said. "I want people to know it's OK if you're suffering, and you need to express yourself.''
Rodgers participated in a vigil at the end of last year for people who died because of heroin use. He spoke about his brother and what it was like to lose him. It was recorded on a video that soon became viral.
Shine saw that video and it made an impact on him. He knew Rodgers and his brother and was deeply affected by the death. Shine said that's when he knew he had to join the anti-drug group.
"I drove by the vigil that night and remember feeling a strong pull to it for some reason,'' Shine said. "I wanted to turn around and go to it. Then I saw the video and I knew I had to be an administrator to the group.''
One of the first things the group did was have members take pledges recorded on video, saying they will abstain from heroin and other drugs.
Shine was the first one to take the pledge.
Members have also been handing out free bracelets across the community that bear the words "Haverhill hates heroin."
"I see them everywhere now,'' Rodgers said. "Even kids are wearing them.''
The group's members said they have handed out about 1,200 bracelets. They have also hosted events that have no alcohol or drugs. Recently, they had a sober bowling event attended by about 50 people.
"It was a great night,'' Shine said. "We had so much fun.''
Shine said he has developed a whole new support system by being part of the group.
"I talk to so many people now that I never knew before,'' he said. "We are just supporting each other.''
Rodgers said he is optimistic the group will help people who are struggling with drugs.
"I have so many people thanking me for starting this group," he said. "If it saves one or a million lives, we accomplished our goal."
Fire victims 'lost everything,' relative says
The community is rallying to help the family forced from its home by last week's fire at 11 Lincolnshire Drive.
The four people who were left homeless have found temporary shelter at a motel.
They have also received vouchers for food and clothing, according to Jessica Emond, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts.
The Red Cross arranged for the family to stay at the motel, she said.
The heavily damaged wood frame house is owned by Virginia Madore. Her daughter, Rena, and son-in-law, Thomas Bowden, have been living with her along with their 15-year-old son, T.J., a student at Whittier Regional High School.
The fire happened last Wednesday. Fire officials were investigating the cause.
"They have lost everything," said Linda Bowden, Thomas Bowden's sister. "There was nothing to be salvaged."
She has set up a fund at TD Bank to help the family. She said she made the arrangements for the fund at the Bradford branch of TD Bank, 860 S. Main St., but donations can be made to The Madore-Bowden Family Fund at any TD Bank location.
Thomas Bowden discovered the fire just after 3 p.m. Wednesday. He immediately called 911 and got everyone out of the house. T.J. grabbed the family's two dogs, a Chihuahua and a poodle, and took them to safety, according to Linda Bowden.
The family's cat has not been found, she said.
Neighbors watched in shock as the home burned. Lincolnshire Drive is off Kingsbury Avenue in Bradford.
Madore moved into the house at 11 Lincolnshire Drive eight years ago. She and her daughter previously lived in Wilmington, according to Linda Bowden.
Mayor talks of new housing, businesses, jobs
Vacant buildings are being torn down or rehabilitated into homes or businesses, restaurants are flourishing in the downtown and more industrial jobs are expected to come to Haverhill.
Those are among the topics Mayor James Fiorentini focused on during his State of the City address last week.
Fiorentini said his administration worked with the Southwick company and, as a result, the clothing manufacturing firm will stay in Haverhill. Not only will 490 jobs stay in the city, but the company will add another 75, he said.
"In the Haverhill of tomorrow, like the Haverhill of today, we will be able to proudly say for years to come that nearly every Brooks Brothers suit made in America is made right here in Haverhill," he said.
Fiorentini proposed a way of reducing crime in inner-city neighborhoods and unveiled a new rehabilitation plan for the long-vacant, eight-story Chen building at 98-108 Essex St. in the heart of downtown.
He praised the city's educators for bringing four schools to Level 1 MCAS status, the top rank possible, and said he wants every other Haverhill school to achieve that distinction. Extended learning time, possibly in the form of longer school days, is needed to accomplish this, he said.
"Haverhill must be the leader in providing good schools to every resident in every section of the city," the mayor said.
Fiorentini introduced Michael Mattos of Peabody Construction, who is leading the rehabilitation of the Chen building. Plans call for building homes and retail space in the long-vacant structure.
The project requires approval from the City Council and tax credits from the state, Fiorentini said. The building will be the latest in a series of vacant downtown structures to be renovated into housing and businesses.
With the demolition of another long-vacant structure, the Woolworth building, only a few days ago, Fiorentini spoke enthusiastically about the Harbor Place project that will bring a UMass Lowell satellite campus as well as homes and retail space to the site where the Woolworth stood vacant for more than 40 years.
The mayor gave much of the credit for Harbor Place to state Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Dempsey attended the address along with state Sen. Kathleen O'Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, and state Reps. Diana DiZoglio and Linda Dean Campbell, both D-Methuen.
"We have the best delegation in the state," Fiorentini said.
The mayor also praised Public Works Director Michael Stankovich and his crew for keeping the streets clear, despite 8 feet of snow that fell on the city this winter.
"When the MBTA shut down, Haverhill kept going," Fiorentini said.
He noted that the city has had to deal with "rising gang activity," but eight new officers have been added to the Police Department during the past few years, he said. Again, thanks to state money obtained by Dempsey, added patrols have helped reduce crime in the city overall by 10 percent, the mayor said.
Haverhill has dealt with more than its share of heroin addiction, Fiorentini said. Police have saved 11 lives since they were issued Narcan, an anti-overdose drug, he said.
Fiorentini paid tribute to the parent volunteers who knocked on doors and secured the passage of the debt exclusion that will pay for a new Hunking Middle School. He said he expects the ground to be broken for the new Hunking in the next two months.
Fiorentini introduced a couple of "urban pioneers.'' With help from the city's first-time home-buyer program, Pedro Alvarado and Sandra Ramos were able to buy a house on Hancock Street in 2013.
Five homes in inner-city neighborhoods have been purchased in this manner and Fiorentini said he wants to add 10 more. The money will come from the city's annual federal block grant, he said.
Increasing the number of owner-occupied homes in the Acre and Mount Washington areas will help reduce crime in those neighborhoods, he said.
"The best is yet to come," Fiorentini said.
"Our vision is that in the Haverhill of tomorrow, Water Street will be a linear park where residents can ride a bike, walk or picnic along a beautiful view overlooking the waterfront," he said. "In Bradford, we break ground this spring on completing the first phase of the new rail trail. The Haverhill of tomorrow will include a rail trail as part of a beautiful series of parks and playgrounds, an emerald necklace, all along the waterfront."
Fiorentini's State of the City address got a standing ovation from city councilors as well as residents and visitors who filled the City Council chambers.
Schools hurry to find new busing director
With City Councilor Robert Scatamacchia quitting the job of School Department bus coordinator, the department wants to have a new director in place by the end of April.
Superintendent James Scully said the department will advertise the job and strive to hire Scatamacchia's replacement within five weeks because planning the bus routes for the next school year is a long, involved process that must begin soon.
"Spring is a huge time for us. I'd like to get someone in by the end of April,'' Scully said, adding he wants to allow the new director time to get familiar with the job. "Planning the routes for the next year takes place in June.''
Scully said the job carries an annual salary in the range of $65,000.
He said in the meantime, managing the program that buses 5,800 students to and from school will fall to a combination of other School Department administrators and officials from Coppola Bus company. The company has done Haverhill's school busing for many years.
"We have a very capable staff ... who will pick up whatever needs to be dealt with for the time being,'' Scully said.
After last week's City Council meeting, Scatamacchia told The Eagle-Tribune he had resigned the school transportation job because “it wasn’t working out.'' He did not elaborate. Scatamacchia said he will turn 65 in a couple of months and doesn’t need the position.
Scully said Scatmacchia visited the superintendent's office on Tuesday before the council meeting and resigned from the job.
"He gave me a letter of resignation,'' Scully said. "He said it isn't working out and he's going to resign.''
Scatamacchia, former longtime owner of the Scatamacchia Funeral Home, was hired for the $60,000-a-year job in November.
After Scully hired him for the school job, Scatamacchia gave up his $12,400 a year salary as a councilor. He has the most seniority of the nine councilors, having served from 1980 through 1988 and then again from 2004 to the present.
Scully said in November that Tim Rooney, personnel director for the School Department, interviewed six to eight candidates for the job, then narrowed the list to two or three. He and Rooney agreed Scatamacchia was the best qualified, he said at that time.
Kevin Eldridge had the job for several years but stopped working last May. He died in August.
Lawyer's opinion: Board must avoid class rank issue
The School Committee should not get involved in how high school students' class ranks are determined, according to a legal opinion issued by an attorney.
Three weeks ago, some angry parents of Haverhill High School students objected to a decision by school officials to give Advanced Placement and Early College courses the same weight. The parents said that decision altered their children's class ranks, possibly affecting their ability to get accepted into colleges they wish to attend.
School Committee member Paul Magliocchetti joined the parents in bringing their argument before the committee.
"No matter whether the administration was right or wrong (in changing the course weighting rules), they've affected the lives of all the students who this applies to," Magliocchetti said at the March 12 School Committee meeting. "Whether they moved up or down (in class ranking), this has affected them."
After the discussion, School Committee President Scott decided to seek a legal opinion about whether the committee should get involved in such matters.
Catherine Lyons, a member of the law firm Lyons and Rogers LLC, wrote in her opinion that the School Committee should not get involved in the day-to-day operations of schools. The Education Reform Act of 1993, she wrote, significantly changed the committee's responsibilities.
"The role and function of school committees are statutorily limited to specific duties and responsibilities which would not encompass the management of academic courses in the sense of determining the amount of weight certain courses are assigned,'' Lyons' written opinion reads. "Such determinations are legally and customarily within the purview of school administrators, namely the superintendent and principal.''
Wood said he agrees with the legal opinion.
"I think the situation could have been handled better," he said of the debate over weight given to particular courses.
The controversy "pitted groups against each other," he said.
Wood said the issue should have been raised first with Haverhill High Principal Kitsos, then with Superintendent James Scully. Bringing the matter before the School Committee should have been the last resort, he said.
"It has hurt the system," Wood said.
The School Committee should rely on administrators to handle issues such as how much weight to give certain courses, Wood said.
"That's what we hire them for," he said.
Kitsos has said she and administrators followed state guidelines that recommend Advanced Placement and Early College courses be given the same status. Some students taking AP courses and their parents, however, insisted that AP courses are more challenging than the Early College offerings.
AP courses are taught by high school teachers and have been offered at the high school for years.
Early College courses, on the other hand, are taught at the high school by Northern Essex Community College instructors. Those courses are a relatively new opportunity for high school students to earn college credit before entering college.
Council rejects used car lot for East Broadway
City Council rejected Joseph and Devon Tucker's request to sell up to 10 used cars at 7-9 East Broadway, where they already operate an auto repair shop.
Last week's council vote was 7-1 against the request, with Council President John Michitson, William Macek, Melinda Barrett, Thomas Sullivan, Mary Ellen Daly O'Brien, Michael McGonagle and Colin LePage voting against and only Robert Scatamacchia supporting the bid for a special permit.
William Ryan abstained.
Attorney William Early, who represented the Tuckers, explained that they had operated a repair shop and used car business at White and Winter streets for several years. Then the building was sold last November, he said.
Early noted that neighbors opposed allowing the sale of used cars on the property at a Board of Appeals meeting. He said the used cars will not result in lots of traffic – like Auto Mile.
"It's a mom-and-pop operation," he said.
Attorney Michael Hart, a former City Council president, said the Tuckers' repair shop is a non-conforming use. Hart was speaking on behalf of some of the neighbors, he said.
Hart said the Board of Appeals did not grant a variance for the repair shop. The board merely determined that the business was "not more detrimental" than a previous entity, he said.
The repair shop, he said, appears to be "a very, very busy business."
"There's no place to park," Hart added, and this will result in more cars being parked on the street.
"I don't believe the neighbors deserve a second non-conforming use," he said.
McGonagle proposed a compromise by offering an amendment to allow four used cars. He and Scatamacchia supported the amendment, but the other councilors opposed it, with Ryan abstaining.
Macek proposed another compromise: Let the Tuckers sell four used cars, but with the provision that they be kept in a fenced-in area at the rear of the property.
Scatamacchia, Daly O'Brien, McGonagle and Michitson joined Macek, while Barrett, LePage and Daly O'Brien were opposed, again with Ryan abstaining. Michitson later explained that a motion or amendment in support of a special permit must have six votes to pass.
Solar power comes to buildings in city
Generating electricity from sunlight is a growing trend in the city.
It started a few years ago with the installation of a large solar farm on lower Hilldale Avenue, then a smaller array on the roof of the Citizens Center, and then a large array on the roof of the Leewood Building in the Newark Street industrial park.
Last month, the owner of a large piece of land on Upper Hilldale Avenue asked the city's permission to set up a solar farm there. Then Mayor James Fiorentini announced the city is looking to lease a section of its old landfill on Groveland Road to a solar company.
Now a former city councilor is bringing solar power to the downtown, where panels have been installed on the roof of one building with more such projects to come.
Sven Amirian, who gave up his seat on the council to become president of the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce and then left that job to work for MassAmerican Energy LLC, said his company's first commercial solar energy system in the downtown has been installed on the roof of the Landmark Building, 76 Merrimack St.
"We are under contract with Haverhill Bank to install on their Merrimack Street branch and the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center to do several of their buildings in the Mount Washington district," Amirian said, referring to plans for more solar arrays.
Amirian, vice president of business development for MassAmerican Energy, a Massachusetts company, said the solar system on the Landmark Building is visible to drivers crossing the Basiliere Bridge from Bradford to Haverhill. It consists of more than 400 solar panels with a total system size of 113 kilowatts, he said.
It will produce 125,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year on average, he said.
"Just in Haverhill, there are 30 ... commercial roofs where solar systems could be installed," Amirian said, noting that several buildings downtown could be candidates, but generally larger buildings, such as those in Haverhill's business parks, would generate the largest returns on investment.
Amirian said commercial solar installations are popular, partly because it's a technology understood by financiers and also because of state and federal incentives that make it an attractive investment.
For nonprofit groups such as the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center, financing packages are available that allow for the installation of solar panels with no money down. The systems are cash-flow positive as soon as they are installed, he said.
The Landmark Building and its solar array are managed by City North Development LLC, a commercial real estate management firm with holdings in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
"While City North is certainly committed to the environment, the decision to install solar at our facility was driven by the lucrative underlying economics," said Gerry McSweeney, City North's chief operating officer. "This solar system not only saves us money by generating electricity, but because of state and federal incentives, it actually produces a recurring revenue stream."
McSweeney said the solar array will offset more than half of the common electric meter use in the building.
MassAmerican Energy officials said that some of the unique benefits of a solar system come from a Federal 30 percent investment tax credit and the state’s Solar Renewable Energy Certificate program. With these incentives and the value of the electricity produced by the solar panels, internal rates of return on investment of 35 percent and higher are common, the officials said. This particular solar system will pay for itself in less than four years, they said.
Amirian said that on average, these kinds of commercial solar arrays pay for themselves in 2 1/2 to four years.
"At that point, you have a power plant on your roof that is making you money every day," he said. "There's also a 30 percent federal tax credit on the entire cost of the system. So if you buy a $1 million commercial solar system, you'll get a $300,000 tax credit. That credit can be used to offset your previous year's taxes, and can also be carried forward for 19 years."
The addition of a solar system to the downtown Landmark Building further underscores an already high-profile building which is home to a several prominent local businesses including Career Resources and the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber President Stacey Bruzzese said the partnership that made the solar project possible consists entirely of chamber members.
"Not only are MassAmerican Energy and City North active members of our Chamber,'' she said, "but so too is the finance partner, Bank of New England.''