Last Thursday the City Council approved the amended $337.4 million budget for Fiscal Year 2024 that begins today. This capped off a hectic four-week period of budget review, including six evenings of departmental budget hearings. As the chair of the council's Finance Committee, I worked with the City's Budget Director beginning in March to plan these meetings, and I feel like that work paid off nicely this year.
Our goal going into this year's budget review process was to build on last year's innovation when we introduced the option for councilors to pre-submit questions that department heads then could answer via staff memo ahead of their departmental budget hearing. This allowed us to do as much of this work as possible offline and ahead of time, resulting in higher-quality answers. It helped us set what I believe to have been a modern record for the fewest hours spent in budget review meetings last year, at 31 hours and 22 minutes.
Well, I’m happy to report that in a year when we faced the earliest possible date of approval (the fourth Thursday fell on June 22 this year) we blew last year's record for meeting times out of the water. Thanks to staff memos answering a staggering total of 324 presubmitted questions -- and a commitment on everyone’s part to being disciplined about the amount of time we all were speaking -- we spent just 17 hours and 52 minutes in departmental budget hearings this year. That's a 43% reduction in meeting times. We were done by 9 or 9:30 almost every night, resulting in a much more humane budget review process for everyone and a higher quality of work as a result of fewer bleary-eyed, late-night meetings.
But that's the process. What about the actual budget?
First of all, I want to commend the Ballantyne administration for soliciting input from the City Council. Back in the winter we were asked by the Mayor to provide our FY 2024 budget priorities as individual councilors. (These were my individual budget priorities.) Once again, we went one step farther by meeting as a Committee of the Whole on March 29 to determine our top shared budget priorities as a body.
We approved resolutions expressing support for the following areas:
- Affordable housing: While I would've loved to have seen even more resources spent on our conjoined housing affordability and stability crises, I appreciated the $3,082,715 ($3 million plus an additional $82,715) transferred to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and the additional $135,067 allocated to the Office of Housing Stability's divisional budget -- an 11.3-percent increase from FY 2023. I'm hopeful of additional supplemental appropriations in this area, especially considering some of the large-scale affordable housing projects currently in the pipeline in our city.
- Out-of-school time programming: Back in January I introduced a resolution calling for the City to full meet the demand for out-of-school time programming by Somerville Public Schools families. I was thrilled that so many colleagues signed on to this resolution, and ecstatic to see the Mayor include $500,000 for this in the FY 2024 budget. This is a good start and a big win for SPS families -- and I hope to see this funding increase even more in future years as Somerville leads the way in re-shaping our school day to match the reality of today's families.
- Rodent control: After making Somerville's rodent problems a key campaign issue two years ago, I'm thrilled to be serving on the Rodent Issues Special Committee this year. I hear from constituents all the time about how their lives are impacted by our city-wide rodent infestation: from backyards that are no longer usable to safety fears when walking down the street to four-figure bills for battling infestations and damage to vehicle wiring. So I'm appreciative of the addition of the Environmental Health Manager position and the increase in spending on extermination and rodent mitigation services accounting for a large chunk of the 6.3-percent increase in the Inspectional Services Department's budget.
- Youth outreach: Councilor Clingan's proposal for the return of a mobile outreach program aimed at our city's youth attracted unanimous support at our March shared budget priorities meeting. It's not precisely what we asked for, but the Mayor did include new outreach positions in her proposed FY 2024 budget as part of her "Mobile City Hall" initiative. I understand there's a global supply chain issue resulting in great difficulty procuring the types of vans necessary to do the work the council wants to see done here, but I'm hopeful to see an funding for the purchase of a van in the near future.
- Alternative emergency response: Once again this year the entire council called for the creation of alternative emergency response (AER) program here in Somerville. There are (quite reasonable) arguments over the exact form this program should take, but I just want to see us do something. There are three new Community Health Workers in the Health and Human Services departmental budget for FY 2024, and we were told these could be the seed that grows into an AER program here. And I was heartened to hear the Director of Racial and Social Justice tell us last month that it's a matter of when -- not if -- we get AER in Somerville. I'll remain impatient until this actually happens, but I'll acknowledge these small steps forward.
An overarching theme of this budget was a clear focus on adding managers for many departments and divisions. Councilor Scott tabulated that 25 of the 40 new positions in the proposed FY 2024 budget were director, deputy director, manager, or coordinator positions. I spoke with the Mayor and many department and division heads about this, and what I heard loud and clear is that many department and division heads spent an inordinate amount of time managing, leaving insufficient time for important strategic planning work. I was told our new Chief Administrative Officer supports adding managerial capacity, so I'm inclined to give this approach a chance to see if it improves the quality of city services.
As I reviewed the proposed FY 2024 budget, the single biggest change I wanted to see made was the inclusion of an additional Planner position. While the City Council was divided on whether this position should sit within Planning, Preservation, and Zoning or under the City Council as a support position for the Land Use Committee, I just wanted to see this position added. I've seen firsthand the staff bandwidth issues in PPZ and the impacts on development, the public process, and the work of the Land Use Committee. So I'm deeply appreciative that the Mayor personally took the time to listen to me and other councilors who lobbied hard for this amendment to her proposed budget, and then made that change. This will make our city better.
Finally, the budget was amended after its release on May 26 to include a new Senior Project Manager within Capital Projects. This position will deal specifically with new school building construction after the catastrophic closure of the Winter Hill Community Innovation School last month. Between this addition and the funds transferred into stabilization funds to speed up the necessary planning work, this was a good outcome during Budget Season. I've urged our Director of Infrastructure and Asset Management to move quickly to hire a national firm to deliver a strategic plan for Somerville Public Schools, and I will advocate on the council for an appropriation for this purpose.
All in all, while this wasn't the exact budget I would've put forward were it up to me, there's enough in there to feel good about and some encouraging signs on a number of fronts. I'm left optimistic about the budget process and eager to see where we go from here with the FY 2025 budget next year.
And now some additional things I'd like to highlight:
Community Path Extension open
I attended the "soft opening" ceremony for the Community Path Extension (CPX) on June 10, and was hugely grateful for the nimble work by the Administration and City staff to get the CPX open as soon as the MBTA gave the green light. It was a joyous occasion as the community came out to celebrate the long-awaited arrival of this transformative piece of transportation infrastructure. Please note that while the CPX is open, there's a temporary detour in place on Central Hill and additional lighting still to be installed, as detailed here.
I also was in attendance for Wednesday's ribbon-cutting ceremony, as we officially marked the opening of the CPX with state and local officials in attendance. It was great to see Friends of the Community Path and all their work recognized. Time after time they pulled the project out of the fire with ingenuity and creative solutions when it looked like it was headed for the scrap heap. We owe these folks a huge debt of gratitude for making the CPX a reality.
Income-restricted housing opportunities
Somerville's Inclusionary Housing Program requires that 20 percent of units in developments of four or more units be income-restricted, affordable housing units. There are a number of current opportunities available to eligible households:
- 20-50 Prospect Street (90 units for rent)
- 395 Alewife Brook Parkway (four units for purchase)
- 373 Highland Avenue & 434 McGrath Highway (four units for rent)
- 300 Somerville Avenue & 124 College Avenue (two units for rent)
- 1252 Broadway (one unit for purchase)
And be on the lookout for the consolidated affordable housing waitlist coming soon!
Highland Ave detour
Work is paused this coming week, but the closure of Highland Avenue to eastbound traffic between School Street and Walnut Street -- and resulting detour of eastbound traffic down Central Street onto Medford Street -- will resume on July 10. The detour is estimated to remain in effect for around three months.
Winter Hill School update
Following the closure and displacement of the Winter Hill Community Innovation School on June 1, Somerville Public Schools has announced plans for the WHCIS community for the 2023/24 school year. This past week, the City hosted a meeting with the WHCIS community, where there were a lot of questions asked about the road ahead. I'll be following closely in the coming months as we get the report on the condition of the current WHCIS building and jump into the terribly-named "feasibility study" required to get started with building a new school.
The Mayor has promised simplified information on the process and a new project website for the Winter Hill community, and I believe both of these things will help on the communications side. I've urged the Administration to go above and beyond as far as being transparent and bringing the Winter Hill community into the room when important decisions are being made.
Free transit pass program
The City of Somerville and the Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS) have joined forces to offer 500 free, unlimited, 12-month MBTA passes to qualified residents. Anyone currently enrolled in a public benefits program like SNAP or MassHealth or earning up to twice the federal poverty level who does not currently qualify for an existing free or reduced-fare pass is eligible to apply.
You can apply here.
Hydrant flushing underway
The City's annual Water System Flushing Program will be happening through late October. This important maintenance work is done from 6 PM to midnight from Mondays to Thursdays. Signage will notify residents when their street's hydrants are being flushed. If you notice a decrease in water pressure or discoloration in your water, it is safe to drink but residents are advised to not do laundry until water returns to normal.
SomerMovie Fest 2023 schedule
Each of the next seven Thursday nights (weather permitting) the City of Somerville is offering free outdoor screenings of movies for the community. So bring the popcorn and come watch with your neighbors.
Here's the complete schedule (with links to the Common Sense Media reviews of each film):
- July 6 (8:58 PM): Footloose @ Lincoln Park
- July 13 (8:55 PM): Minions: The Rise of Gru @ Lincoln Park
- July 20 (8:49 PM): Vivo @ Lincoln Park
- July 27 (8:42 PM): Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory @ Seven Hills Park
- August 3 (8:33 PM): Top Gun: Maverick @ Seven Hills Park
- August 10 (8:24 PM): Strange World @ Seven Hills Park
- August 17 (8:13 PM): Clueless @ Seven Hills Park
Narcan distribution events
Somerville Prevention and the Repair the World non-profit have partnered to offer four Narcan distribution events this month. Free harm reduction materials such as Narcan, Fentanyl and Xylazine test strips, CPR face shields, and syringe disposal containers will be distributed, while supplies last. Be there for your neighbors to help reduce the approximately 15 overdose deaths per year in our city.
Each event will take place from 11 AM to PM (weather permitting) on the next four Saturdays:
- July 1: Union Square (90 Union Square)
- July 8: East Somerville (165 Broadway)
- July 15: Davis Square (Seven Hills Park)
- July 22: Assembly Square (Sylvester Baxter Riverfront Park)
Pools open & swim lessons
As of today, both the DCR-run Latta Brothers Memorial Pool & Spray Deck at Foss Park (free admission) and the City-run Dilboy Pool ($1 child & $2 adult day passes or seasonal passes) are open for the summer. Additionally the Ginny Smithers Sanders Pool at the Kennedy School will re-open for the summer on Monday, July 3, for those looking to swim indoors.
The DCR is offering free swim lessons at Foss Park, and you can register for those here. Registration for Somerville Parks & Rec swim lessons at the Smithers Pool goes live on Monday, July 3, at 8 AM. There should be a link added to the Parks & Rec programs page at that time.
The ballot for this year's elections has been finalized. There are five experienced at-large councilors running for the four at-large seats. I'd love to keep doing this, so I'll do my part to get the word out to voters. If you're interested in helping me get re-elected by knocking doors, hosting a gathering, or sharing your support on social media, please reply to this email.
If you'd like to donate to my re-election campaign fund, you can do that here.
If you or someone you know is interested in joining me in working for the City of Somerville, please take a look at the City of Somerville positions and Somerville Public Schools openings currently posted.
Did You Know...
The City Council's rules are similar to Robert's Rules of Order, but differ in some areas. For example there is no requirement that a motion be seconded.
Due to the long holiday weekend, my next office hours will be Sunday, July 9, from 10 AM to noon, in a location To Be Determined by weather.
If you'd prefer to meet individually, I'm also continuing to offer on-demand office hours to fit your schedule via my Calendly.
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