Police seek driver after pursuit, crashes

Police said they are looking for an "extremely aggressive" driver of a Chrysler who led them on a wild chase to Harvard and back last week, ending on Interstate 93 when they gave up the pursuit "in the interest of public safety."

The chase began just before 1 p.m. on New Year's Day when Haverhill police attempted to stop the car as part of an investigation into a prior crime. A press release issued by state police, who took over the chase when it reached Interstate 495 in Haverhill, did not describe the crime or include details about the car, driver or a passenger in the vehicle.

State police from Troop A in Andover pursued the car on I-495, then handed the chase off to Troop C when it reached Harvard, where the driver crossed the median and headed back north on I-495, the press release said. Troop A then rejoined the pursuit.

Troopers laid “tire-deflation devices at two locations,” but the press release did not say where. The driver apparently eluded them.

The driver hit two other vehicles during the chase, the press release said. No injuries were reported.

“The suspect vehicle soon entered (Interstate) 93 and was being operated in an extremely aggressive manner,” the press release said. “Shortly thereafter, we terminated the pursuit in the interest of public safety.”

— Keith Eddings


Minimum wage hike now in effect

Wages are rising for hundreds of thousands of workers in Massachusetts in the new year, with the first of five annual increases bumping up the state's minimum wage to $12 per hour.

The wage hikes will cost employers more than $817 million in 2019 but will benefit an estimated 662,000 workers, or about 20 percent of the state's workforce, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. The left-leaning research group says the additional money will help support local economies while putting more revenue into the pockets of working-class families.

"It means that people are going to be able to put food on the table more easily, support their families,” said Jeremy Thompson, a senior policy analyst at the center. "Low wage workers spend the majority of their earnings, and so they’ll spend the majority of their increased earnings on goods and services in their local economies."

This year's increase is the first of several annual hikes that will bring the state's minimum wage up to $15 per hour by 2023.

The minimum wage has increased nearly every year since 2014, when it was $8 an hour.

Meanwhile, the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers will increase from $3.75 to $4.35 per hour beginning Tuesday, and rise to $6.75 over the next five years.

The increases are mandated under the so-called "grand bargain" agreement signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in June. It hikes the minimum and sub-minimum wages, creates a paid leave program, requires an annual two-day sales tax holiday, and eliminates a law requiring retailers to pay workers time-and-a-half on Sundays and holidays.

The state's business community says the move will put the squeeze on employers, prompting belt-tightening, layoffs and ultimately higher prices for consumers.

Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said his members are preparing to dig deeper into their pockets to cover the increased cost of doing business.

"There's a lot of fear and anger among business owners right now," Hurst said. "All these additional costs have constrained job growth for small businesses."

Hurst said retailers want the state to consider a "teen wage" that’s lower than the minimum wage to alleviate the financial burden on struggling small-business owners.

"Most states allow a lower minimum wage for teenagers,” Hurst said. "We literally have 50 percent less teens employed versus 15 years ago in Massachusetts."

Still, some business groups say hiking the minimum wage is not only the right thing to do, but that it also makes economic sense.

"It leads to more spending at every level, from purchases of food and school supplies, to rent and car repairs, to the occasional meal out with the family," said Holly Sklar, CEO of Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, a national advocacy group. "Minimum wage increases also pay off for businesses in lower employee turnover, reduced hiring and training costs, lower error rates, increased productivity and better customer service.”

Baker and legislative leaders pitched the "grand bargain" agreement as a way to avoid a costly ballot challenge ahead of the November elections last year..

Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of labor unions, community and religious organizations, sponsored the proposed ballot questions for paid family leave and a $15 minimum wage.

The agreement, hammered out in closed-door meetings, followed a ruling by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court that knocked the "millionaires tax" question off the ballot.

Legislative leaders were looking to the 4 percent levy on the state's highest earners to offset the anticipated $1.2 billion hit to state coffers from cutting the sales tax.

The court’s ruling raised fears the state would face deep cuts in programs and services if a sales tax cut was approved by voters with no clear way to pay for it.

Retailers and the state's business community reluctantly signed onto the agreement in exchange for the August tax weekend and phasing out Sunday and holiday time-and-a-half pay, as well as agreeing to drop a proposed referendum that would have reduced the sales tax from the current 6.25 percent to 5 percent.

Massachusetts is one of 20 states and nearly a dozen cities where the minimum wage is set to increase in 2019, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The state wage increases range from an extra nickel per hour in Alaska to a $1-an-hour hike in California for employers with more than 25 workers.

Rhode Island's minimum wage will increase from the current $10.10 to $10.50 on Tuesday; while Maine will rise to $11 per hour from the current $10.

New Hampshire's minimum wage is pegged to the federal level, which has remained unchanged at $7.25 per hour since 2009.

In Seattle, the city's biggest employers will have to pay workers $16 an hour starting New Year's Day. In New York City, large businesses will have to pay at least $15 an hour.

— Christian M. Wade


Search is on for people claiming to be police during robbery

Police responded to a call for an armed robbery at a house at 120 Broadway recently 

The robbers claimed to be police, but Haverhill Capt. Stephen Doherty said the victims realized they were not.

Police said the robbers fled the scene prior to police arrival. The incident happened about 9 a.m. on Dec. 29 

Police said there were no suspects initially and no one was injured. The investigation is ongoing, they said.

Police asked that anyone with information related to the incident call Haverhill police Detective O'Connell at 978-373-1212.

— Jessica Valeriani


Baker extends unemployment benefits for National Grid workers

Gov. Charlie Baker has approved extending unemployment benefits to National Grid workers who remain locked out of their jobs during stalled contract talks.

Baker signed a bill that will create a temporary state-administered program, paid for by gas and electric companies, to cover unemployment benefits of workers who are temporarily off the job during contract talks for up to 26 weeks.

The measure was previously approved by the state Senate and House of Representatives.

Baker urged both sides to reach an agreement on the prolonged contract negotiations "so that utility customers can receive the level of service and safety they deserve."

More than 1,200 National Grid workers have been locked out of their jobs, with no salary or benefits, since June 25 after contract negotiations with union leaders broke down.

National Grid said it has redeployed about 700 contract workers and put 600 supervisors into the field to replace the locked-out union workers.

Many of the locked-out workers face the likelihood of losing unemployment benefits in January if the impasse isn't resolved before then, union leaders say.

Lawmakers have said they hope the bill will force both sides to reach an agreement to end the lockout, which is in its seventh month.

John Buonopane, president of United Steel Workers Local 12012 — one of two unions representing National Grid gas workers — said the measure "offers much needed protections and economic safeguards" for workers as labor negotiations lumber on.

"It's definitely a relief," he said after the governor approved the bill. "National Grid ripped away our members' paychecks and health insurance, and this bill preserves a crucial lifeline for workers and their families who are struggling during this lengthy lockout. This is going to make a big difference."

The bill establishes a new benefits program for gas and electric workers who are unemployed during collective bargaining negotiations because of an employer’s lockout.

Costs would be assessed on the employer who has locked out its workers.

The legislation also prevents utilities from passing on costs of the program to utility customers.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has called the lockout a "negotiation tactic" that is being subsidized by taxpayers and the state's unemployment insurance fund.

"The commonwealth cannot sit idly by while a large, international conglomerate volitionally locks out employees in a transparent effort to enhance its leverage in a negotiation, while passing on the cost for this misguided strategy to the taxpayers and ratepayers,” DeLeo recently told reporters.

The National Grid dispute has gotten added attention from state leaders following the Sept. 13 gas fires and explosions in the Merrimack Valley, which involved thousands of homes and businesses served by Columbia Gas.

Baker has also filed a bill that would require gas projects be reviewed by a certified professional engineer — a recommendation from federal regulators who are investigating the gas disaster that killed one person, injured two-dozen others, and damaged or destroyed more than a hundred buildings in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence.

That measure was recently approved by the state Senate as well.

Baker said the two proposals would "significantly increase accountability for all utility companies, and will help ensure that utilities use experienced crews with the proper supervision on all projects."

Another proposal, which hasn't been voted on by either the House or Senate, would require utilities to continue to pay health insurance premiums for locked-out workers.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Maura Healey has asked state regulators to look into whether National Grid is complying with the state's safety and quality standards.

— Christian M. Wade


Residents urged to call 911 for all gas issues

In an effort to increase public safety, the fire chiefs of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover have asked Columbia Gas to notify them of every call the company receives on its emergency lines for gas odors, gas leaks, or carbon monoxide reports.

Up until a few weeks ago, Columbia Gas was responding to calls for gas or carbon monoxide odors on its own, without informing the fire departments, said Andover Fire Chief Mike Mansfield. By law, the company is not obligated to call local first-responders for gas leaks.

Instead, residents were calling the Columbia Gas emergency line, and the company was responding autonomously, Mansfield said. The company's response times, however, were much longer than fire crews would have been, potentially endangering homes and businesses.

“We felt that given what has gone on since Sept. 13, we should all be responding,” Mansfield said. “We requested that they notify us about each and every call they get on their emergency lines.”

By notifying the fire departments of the emergency calls, the response time is drastically improved. Mansfield said it takes the fire department four to six minutes to respond to a call, while it might take Columbia Gas personnel 40 minutes to an hour to get on-scene.

Lawrence Fire Chief Brian Moriarty said during the gas emergency, people were unaware of who to call, so they were dialing 911.

On the day of the dozens of gas explosions and fires caused by an over-pressurized gas line, which killed one and injured others, 911 operators answered hundreds of calls from terrified residents.

After the emergency, Moriarty said it seemed everyone had a number for Columbia Gas stored in their phones, so the fire departments weren’t getting called. Instead, residents were reaching out to Columbia Gas for worries of gas odors, leaks or carbon monoxide issues.

“They were calling Columbia Gas instead of us and we didn’t feel it was the right thing to do,” said Moriarty. “We spoke up about it and told them we wanted that to change.”

Following a meeting held a few weeks ago with Columbia Gas and the three fire chiefs, as well as Methuen, Moriarty said the new policy is that Columbia Gas immediately informs them when they receive an emergency call.

In the past couple weeks, Mansfield and Moriarty said there has been a slight uptick in natural-gas related calls, but that is due to the few calls Columbia Gas was getting and not reporting to the fire departments.

North Andover Fire Chief Bill McCarthy said the agreement is working well for the fire departments and benefiting the public, as their emergency calls are being responded to much faster. He said this is something they have been looking to do even prior to the gas disaster.

McCarthy stressed that if residents smell an odor of gas inside or outside their homes, they should be calling 911 and the fire department will respond immediately. He said calls should be made to 911 before they are made to Columbia Gas.

“If we receive a call for an odor of gas, we will notify Columbia Gas that we are responding, and now they are doing that for us,” he said.

Throughout the year, McCarthy said his department gets calls for odors of gas and carbon monoxide activation, but he is also seeing an increase in those calls following the agreement with Columbia Gas. He said there is a noticeable increase in the number of calls this December over December of last year.

In a recent Eagle-Tribune article, Moriarty said he expects increased calls regarding gas odors, gas leaks, and carbon monoxide issues in Lawrence to continue in the new year.

— Jessica Valeriani


Gas customers shocked by new bills

Customers are receiving their first gas bills since the Sept. 13 explosions and fires — and for some, it's quite the sticker shock.

Paul Craney of North Andover discovered he would have to pay more than $800 by the end of January for his gas service.

His bill is for $820, due Jan. 22. It covers all service since his gas was restored after the initial incident in September.

On Sept. 13, over-pressurization in a gas line owned by Columbia Gas triggered explosions and fires across Lawrence, Andover and North Andover that damaged homes, killed one person and injured others and cut gas service to 8,600 homes and businesses.

While some affected customer had gas service restored within a few days, thousands of others went without gas for months, some into December.

Columbia Gas suspended its billing during the recovery from the gas disaster. The company recently began restarting its billing cycle.

Craney said he was never notified by the company that they would be doing retroactive billing this way, and was surprised to see the amount due.

On his bill, the company said it delayed his billing due to "the Greater Lawrence Area incident" and credited him for charges in "any billing cycle in which you did not receive gas service."

A restoration credit is listed as $70.69, which was deducted from his $891 bill due in January.

"I didn't receive anything since the explosions. Then I got today's bill," he said. "$820 for services since the explosion. There's a little credit there for $70, that's their way of saying sorry?"

Craney, who lives near North Andover's town common and was without gas service for just a few days after the initial incident, said his issue with Columbia Gas is more with the lack of communication than the billing.

"They should have sent out a notice in September, telling (customers) as you head into the winter months, when you use your service more, you will be billed for that," he said.

Columbia Gas issued a newsletter on Dec. 24 with information about when billing would resume, but it does not mention retroactive billing.

According to the newsletter, residents who had natural gas appliances repaired or replaced will not be charged for gas service from September through the end of December.

Customers who did not need to have appliances repaired or replaced, but had gas service turned off into October, will not be charged for gas service for September and October.

Customers whose gas service was turned off for at least one day in any billing cycle will be credited for all charges for that entire billing cycle, according to the company.

"For instance, if a customer was off for one day in the September billing cycle, that customer’s entire September bill will be credited. If a customer was off for the entire September billing cycle and one or more days of the October billing cycle, then the customer’s entire September and entire October billing cycles will be credited," according to a statement from Columbia Gas.

Residential customers are expected to pay existing balances on or before Sept. 13, but will not be billed late charges, according to the company. Commercial customers are also expected to pay pre-Sept. 13 balances, and will not be billed late charges unless they have not paid the past due balances by their next billing date, according to the company.

It is against Massachusetts law for utilities to shut heat off between Nov. 15 and March 15 due to financial hardship.

— Zoe Mathews



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