A first-rate city

On October 19, 2012, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

As Somerville discusses whether or not to adjust the compensation of its non-union employees (who have gone six years without a change), as we prepare to vote on the Community Preservation Act (Question 4 on the November 6 ballot), and as we press ahead with transit-oriented development projects at Assembly Square and Union Square, there seems to be an unexpected question emerging about our city’s identity:  In the family of Massachusetts cities and towns, is Somerville truly a first-tier community, or are we too constrained – by population, by physical area, by tax base, or by some other key indicator – to be considered on a par with Boston, Cambridge, Newton, Brookline, etc?

Somerville residents are, as a whole, intensely and justifiably proud of their community.  Yet in the debates about current city policy and community planning, we’re hearing concerns about Somerville’s ability to be a top-ranked municipal player. For example, there are some observers who think that Somerville should dial back, or even hold off, on Union Square revitalization because Assembly Square isn’t done yet, as if Somerville lacked the capacity to manage more than one major development initiative at a time.

Some critics apparently believe that Somerville shouldn’t worry about paying salaries for non-union employees that are competitive with Cambridge or Newton because we don’t have per capita tax revenues as high as those communities, as if Somerville just can’t afford (or isn’t entitled to) the best workers and should settle for something less.

I’ve heard opposition to the Community Preservation Act proposal on the November 6 ballot (Question 4) on the grounds that our commitment to compensate employees and invest in economic development somehow means that no further dollars should be invested anywhere else, and that therefore the city shouldn’t take advantage of an additional opportunity to raise funds specially dedicated to investments in historic buildings and open space. (The way this gets phrased is “They’ve got all the money they need.  They don’t need any more.”)

When you add up these concerns (or complaints) what you get is a theory that, as a community, Somerville has gotten ahead of itself. Our high expectations are unrealistic.  We should make do with what we have and scale back on our sense of the possible.

Now, it’s one thing to argue the need for fiscal prudence: There are real limits to how aggressive Somerville can and should be in spending taxpayer dollars, and we ignore those limits at our peril.  But, as I noted in this column just last week, Somerville currently spends fewer local tax dollars per capita than any community in Massachusetts with a population of 3,000 or more. Our bond rating is the highest in the city’s history not simply because we have established rain day and capital stabilization funds but because we have invested in growing our commercial tax base with sustainable, transit-oriented economic development.  Our budget is balanced.

We still have to be careful, no doubt about it.  But it ‘s wrong to say that we should settle for a second-rate workforce, or a second-rate development agenda because of some misguided notion that we’re just too puny and insignificant to play with the big kids.  That kind of inferiority complex is completely unwarranted given what our community has achieved over the past 25 years, and, what’s worse, it can be self-fulfilling.

Somerville has to live within its means, but our continued success as a community depends on a willingness to expand those means through investments in our municipal infrastructure (including our workforce), in our services, our schools, our libraries, our parks and our recreational facilities, our shared cultural resources and our community celebrations.

Somerville will not thrive if its goal is simply to do well enough to get by. Many of the things we love about our city – its diversity, its eclectic and engaging neighborhoods, its rich and varied urban lifestyle – are definitely worth protecting and preserving.  But we can’t just stand in place: we have to be going forward with confidence and energy or we will decline and fall back.

That’s why I would argue that we should commit ourselves to recruiting and retaining a capable, professional municipal workforce that can deliver the productivity we need on a budget we can afford.

That’s why I would argue that we can move ahead with the financing of a redevelopment plan for Union Square that will bring in more commercial tax revenue and generate local job opportunities for decades to come.

That’s why we need to vote Yes on Question 4, and endorse the 1.5 percent Community Preservation Act tax surcharge on our tax bills (the tax bills, not the tax rates) that will significantly boost the dollars available for parks, for repairs to historic school and library buildings and support the affordability of Somerville housing.

We will never be as big as Boston, but so what?  Our tax base may never be as big as those as those in Cambridge or Newton (but don’t bet on that just yet).  We will never have the generous open spaces of our more distant suburban neighbors.

But Somerville is a first-rate city, and has been for years. We are, and will remain, in the first rank of innovation, prosperity, opportunity and quality of life just as long as we believe in ourselves and act on that belief.


16 Responses to “A first-rate city”

  1. Meme says:

    “as if Somerville isn’t entitled to the best workers and should settle for something less.” Putting fake words in peoples mouths to justify you own position is lame.

    “Our budget is balanced….Somerville has to live within its means”

    Per Moody’s analysis (May ’12) Aa2 RATING AFFECTS APPROXIMATELY $97.4 MILLION IN OUTSTANDING GENERAL OBLIGATION DEBT,(http://www.somervillema.gov/sites/default/files/5-8-2012-SomervilleMoody-s%20Aa2re-$15-75M-GOBsdated5-17-2012.pdf)

    How can you lie to people with a strait face and say that minimum (more bond floats since may) $100 million debt is living within our means?

    Then you get to the heart of it. Vote to increase your neighbors, Seniors, those scraping to get by, tax bills so I can pose for more photo ops.

  2. MarketMan says:

    Meme: $100 million debt doesn’t necessarily mean that the city is operating outside its means. Investing borrowed money is a path to growth, assuming good investments obviously. Borrowing too much isn’t a good thing, but I don’t know how much is too much for Somerville.

    “Somerville currently spends fewer local tax dollars per capita than any community in Massachusetts with a population of 3,000 or more.”

    This doesn’t really say much with respect to spending within our means. It just says we spend less than others. I wonder if that’s because those other cities are richer.

    Mayor: it’s not an inferiority complex that causes our concern. The rate of progress on these large scale projects is concerning because the future is uncertain. So why spend resources and time on development that depends on the green line before we are 100% certain that it’s coming. We all want the green line, but until they start construction, I think everyone has their doubts about whether it will actually happen. In the meantime, we can use city resources to make Somerville as desirable a place to live as possible. This means improving the existing roads and sidewalks, enforcing property maintenance and cleanliness, providing incentives for renovating/restoring old properties, etc.

    Also, the library focus of Union’s new design doesn’t seem like a good idea for generating new revenue. Can you explain how that works? Why is Union sq a better location than where it is now? High school students are probably the biggest users of the library, and now you’re going to make it harder for them to get there??

  3. John Wilde says:

    I, for one don’t have any inferiority complex and also want to see improvements to the city. However…

    As for Question #4, the real issue here is the ethics of continuing to raise taxes on single-family home owners. Please remember that landlords will not be adversely affected by any strategy to raise property taxes, they will simply raise rents. This will harm renters and have the adverse effect of actually providing less affordable housing. Those of us, who do not receive rental income from our property, will have our property taxes raised yet again, with no clear plan for what projects these increased revenues will support. The city already has an extremely aggressive program to raise assessed property tax values. My own home’s assessed value has been more than doubled in 10 years, resulting in 30% higher taxes already with no change in city services.

    One requirement of question #4 is that this funding must support low-income housing. However, typically, low-income housing funding goes to big-time developers to offset development costs for providing some rental units at lower rents. I don’t know about others, but I do not care to have my taxes voluntarily raised to hand over to wealthy developers in the name of low-income housing.

    The median family income in Brookline is around $139,787. Newton’s median family income is around $136,843. Somerville’s is around $69,245. This is the real issue when it comes to who can afford to have their property taxes raised time and again.

    The state’s proposal to require voluntary tax hikes is prejudicial against lower income communities whose single-family condo or home owners can less afford their taxes raised. If the state has matching funds available, these should be given to all communities without any mandate to raise taxes.

    The policy for receiving this money from the state should be changed to not require any increase in taxes. Alternatively, Somerville should lower our property taxes by 1.5% if they must then impose a 1.5% increase for no change to our current tax. The city will have to tighten its belt further just like the rest of us who have seen real wages declining.

    I, frankly don’t care if Somerville is called first-rate. What I care about is my tax-rate. Raising property taxes simply furthers the terrible precedent, that Somerville already has, to continue to come back to single-family condo and home owners to supply a bigger share of city revenues.

  4. Jonah Petri says:


    A few things struck me about your comment:

    1) You say that it’s ethically wrong to raise taxes on single-family homeowners. To support this, you say that this won’t cost landlords at all, as they’ll pass all of the cost on to their renters. However, the landlords, mostly out-of-town folks, don’t get a vote here. The renters, however, can and will vote on this issue. So, where’s the ethical conflict?
    Also, we’re talking about $3/month here. Really, a cup of coffee and a donut.

    2) Landlords can’t simply pass on the cost to renters without consequence. The rental market is very competitive on price. If prices go up to an unreasonable degree, renters will move to Medford, or Charlestown, or Arlington, and rents will fall back down to whatever price the market can bear. There’s no magic in being a landlord — you’re still subject to market forces. Fortunately, at a whopping $3/month, I don’t think this will matter a whit to the market.

  5. Jackie Velos says:

    It is obvious that Mr. Curtatone should resign. People, don’t you see it? Somerville is headed for bankruptcy! When that happens, we’ll see how 1st rate the city really is!

  6. Meme says:

    I love the people that justify each and every tax increase by saying its just a cup of coffee. RGGI is just a cup of coffee, property tax increase is just a cup of coffee, sales tax increase, just a cup of coffee.

    Then Jonah even makes the connection that the rental market is competitive, but is to small minded to make the actual connection. Ever think about the dynamic results of those cups of coffee? You are putting us at a disadvantage, forcing those living on the margin out of town/state.

    If its just a cup of coffee to you, why don’t you offer to pay for others coffee? Go to the Sr Citizen Vet scraping by on a fixed income. Go to his/her house and request the $3 from him/her every month. Go to the single mother and tell her she now needs to give you $3 more a month. Instead you hide behind your friend at the mayors manor and have him force it on them.

    It does not ‘matter a whit’ to you, but to some it matters. Let them make their choice if they pour a cup of coffee out, dont force them to.

  7. John Wilde says:


    The ethics of continually coming back to home owners to provide a greater majority of tax revenues for the city is what is at question here.
    I am also questioning the requirement of lower-income communities to voluntarily have their taxes raised in order to receive this funding.

    The city will continue to raise our property taxes, unchecked, if voices do not speak out against what is already happening. This is not a question of a one-time proposal to ask home-owners to kick in a little more, but just another opportunity the city government sees to increase property taxes. Property taxes have been continually rising, far faster than inflation, and unchecked, for at least the last dozen years. I could buy far more than a cup of coffee and a donut for all the increased taxes I have paid to Somerville over the last decade. I now pay around $1200 more a year, than when I moved here, with no change in city services.

    As for renters, I merely want to make it clear that when they vote ‘yes’ on this measure, they are voting for higher rents in Somerville. Some have stated, in other posts, that the added cost will just be paid by landlords and property owners. However, it is the renters who will pay for it in the end. As for your statement of market forces, I am fully in agreement that the market should determine rents, which is why I do not support of the “affordable” housing component of this measure.

    If we knew specifically what plan this was to support, such as extending the bike path, (or anything else I happen to be in favor of), I would gladly fork over the money. However, since it is not clear how this money will be used, and since I am sick of having my taxes continually raised I will be voting ‘no’.

    As I stated, if the city wants this CPA funding, then they should lower my current property tax by 1.5% so we will see no change in the overall tax rate. This proposal I would support and is right for Somerville.

  8. Ray Spitzer says:

    Yup, if renters vote yes, they will definitely voting for higher rents. But they will be happy they contribute to this fine city with their astronomical rents.

  9. Oldgrrrl says:

    This is bad policy. John and others on this forum have done an excellent job of explaining why.

  10. MarketMan says:

    John Wilde said: “I am fully in agreement that the market should determine rents, which is why I do not support of the “affordable” housing component of this measure.

    If we knew specifically what plan this was to support, such as extending the bike path, (or anything else I happen to be in favor of), I would gladly fork over the money. However, since it is not clear how this money will be used, and since I am sick of having my taxes continually raised I will be voting ‘no’.”

    I agree 100% with these points. I want to know where my taxes are going, and this new tax is fuzzy. Don’t you think it’s a little strange to combine affordable housing and parks into a single fund?? Seems like one is to entice the tax payers, and the other is where the money will actually go.

  11. j. connelly says:

    “ John Wilde ” has nailed it, he is correct on this issue. “ Jonah Petri ” is wrong as landlords can pass it on in the “ housing market” of Somerville because Tufts students and/or their families will pay exorbitant rents just so they can live off campus. Then you have the “flippers” who are looking at anyway possible to enhance their chances of selling off their Somerville property investments, especially where the GLX fruition appears to be further and further into the next decade, if at all.

    We are lucky in that Alderman Bob Trane and the Somerville Police Dept. keeps a watchful eye out for student problem issues in the neighborhoods.

    The citizens cannot afford CPA, in this economy, the middle class is hurting and counting every cent just to survive. Whether it be the state or city governments, for decades the elected officials have and continue to spend, spend, spend. Monies saved over several decades from Proposition Two and one-half and other cuts, which should have been used to pay down debt, have just been used for the elected officials pet projects or to put “friends” on the payroll. Legitimate workers have been laid off while hacks have been hired at higher salaries.

    The mayor floats overpriced bonds for a specific item and then filters money away from that item for his other pet projects. The Assembly Crow Bond to bail out the developer, $25 million, yet $3 million was transferred from the bond for a playground and another $2 million was transferred for this bond for a park, etc. Now with Ikea pulling out the taxpayers will be hit with the financial burden. The economists are stating that the worldwide financial status may get worse in the next few years. There will be no bailouts to save us. All that “housing” at Assembly Crow could remain empty, but the developer need not have to worry as the mayor will probably work to give the developer a deal on the taxes.

    The taxpayers/renters are going to suffer into the next decade and then some as a result of this mayors greed and selfish personal goals. He’s in the development business while the citizens just want a community that they can afford to live in and enjoy and not be taxed/fee’d to death while the mayors Developer buddies “Profiteer and Disappear”. Shame on him! VOTE NO on CPA!

  12. Jackie says:

    Maybe Joey “tickets” Curtatone should be working to bring new and better businesses into Somerville and broaden the tax base? Nah… that’s too hard. He’ll just continue wacking those of us who own properties here before he moves on to Capuano’s seat. He’ll point and say “Look at that fine city I was the mayor of!” Never once giving a rat’s you-know-what about the burden and fiscal mess he’s leaving behind.

    If this passes I GUARANTEE I will raise the rents on ALL my tenants. I am not paying it alone and this gives me a great excuse to go higher with the rent. How stupid are people to ask for higher taxes? They must be very. It’s like they’re bending over and saying “Thank you, sir! May I have another!”

  13. yeah, meme says:

    meme hits it out of the park. I already can’t afford the cup of coffee/donut you refer to. i make coffee at home. you’re squeezing the homeowner to death here. and you cannot ignore the issue of the city spending endlessly to impress dog owners and artists with these ridiculous festivals and parties. This weekend, Joes Jazz, and All day close down 2 miles of road for a Halloween thing. and then just come back to me when the checkbook doesn’t balance.
    yeah, it’s just a cup of coffee/donut, but you can’t have 5 donuts in one day!

  14. Boston Kate says:

    “the city spending endlessly to impress dog owners and artists”

    And the bicycle commuters.

  15. Somerbreeze says:

    …but sure as hell not pedestrians (Ooooo, just not “sexy” enough, no “vibrancy” there)….

  16. teelesquaremayor says:

    I own and live in a multi family home in Teele Square. I will absolutely be raising my rents if this passes. The entire idea is absurd! I try and keep my rents below market value but they city has been making it more difficult to do with each passing year. It’s shameful really.

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