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.)
Budget season is upon us and in local papers across the state, we read about cities and towns touting spending plans that avoid layoffs or that maintain current services, as if the status quo should be a source of pride.
In Somerville, we are not satisfied with the status quo. The moment we are complacent is the moment when we will find ourselves falling behind. The budget I have recommended to the Board of Aldermen for the coming fiscal year does not contentedly rest upon our city’s great achievements. It strives for more. It is a plan to own our future by making a down payment today.
The $195.7 million operating budget recommendation is built around one purpose: listening to our residents and responding. The budget’s foundation is the values espoused by our community. Residents have told us they want more education funding. They want more efficient city services that reach every person in Somerville, residential property tax relief and a long-term sustainable fiscal strategy for this city. This is what they demand and this budget delivers what they deserve, both now and in the future.
It includes a $3.7 million increase for our schools. Last year we had one of the largest increases in funding for Somerville Public Schools in city history. We will surpass that increase in this year’s budget, but it is not blindly throwing money at the schools and hoping for the best. These are targeted investments based on analysis of hard data that tells us we need to phase in universal preschool and provide students with more hands-on experience with cutting-edge technology. We need to expand foreign language to the 6th grade, increase outreach and continue to support the arts, all while rejecting the premise too readily accepted by so many other communities that enrichment programs should cost parents extra.
Our Inspectional Services Division needs reorganization and reinvestment. The 2010 report requested by my office said as much, pointing to a streamlined permitting process and additional staff to handle the huge workload as solutions to the department’s problems. That is why this budget includes a new Superintendent of Inspectional Services who has a background in streamlining the permitting process for contractors and residents. It includes a new online permitting process that’s easier and more efficient. Two additional ISD clerks will make the process faster, organize administrative tasks and improve customer service. We will work harder and smarter in responding to the community, protecting our quality of life in every neighborhood in square and tackling issues around trash, overgrowth, rodents and dumpsters.
We will also realize cost savings in the future by investing now in preventive maintenance, protecting taxpayers from heftier bills down the line by maintaining the assets we have already invested millions of dollars in. The budget includes a new Department of Public Works fleet maintenance manager who will ensure upkeep of vehicles to prevent larger repair costs later. A buildings preventive maintenance manager will similarly shield taxpayers from incurring steep costs, while a GIS specialist will support the city’s pavement and sidewalk preventive maintenance work with high-level mapping. For every dollar spent on preventive maintenance and pavement preservation on roads, we save $6 to $8 dollars on later reconstructions and rehabilitations. We need to maintain these assets as we maintain our own homes.
Although the city has made great strides in reaching out to all residents, 95 percent of city communications are either not translated or translated only rarely or occasionally. Our residents want to access the huge amount of information coming out of City Hall, and the more people we reach and can bring to serve on boards, seek employment, ask for services and work with us to solve issues, the better the quality of life across the city. A pilot program with two language liaisons run since March will turn into three part-time liaisons reaching our residents who speak Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole – the three most common international languages in our diverse community. These are not mere translators, but true liaisons who will be out in the city, engaging and bringing in people who want to be part of the community.
Every one of these initiatives is a response to what the community has told us they want to see, while firmly rooted in the strategy that we must invest today with an eye on tomorrow. Playing the long-game has already yielded tangible positive outcomes for the city. The budget includes $3.1 million in new growth, one of the highest new growth numbers in years. Any debate over whether the city made the right decision in Assembly Square can see that we are reaping the benefits right now. The District Improvement Financing bond for Assembly Square brings back $1 million in new property tax revenue in this budget, easily ahead of schedule and paying down the $500,000 in debt owed on the bond this coming year, resulting in a net revenue of $500,000 for the city.
This is how Somerville will realize sustainable property tax relief, not through short-term gimmicks or cuts, but through investments that will fuel the urban renaissance throughout our city, unlocking more economic opportunities and broadening our tax base. We will rid ourselves of the Brickbottom waste transfer station, one part of a multi-prong approach to transform the front door of our city into a thriving neighborhood that further expands our commercial tax base. We must continue to play the long game and make sure we unlock other districts like those along the Green Line corridor, ridding ourselves of blight and knitting together vibrant, walkable and bikeable communities.
We still have the second lowest average residential property tax bill in the area, even with all the services we provide, with only Cambridge and its extensive commercial tax base lower than ours. Our per capita spending is fourth lowest in the state, another indication of our smart, strategic spending based on our community’s values. And we’ve done all this despite losing more than $23 million in state aid since the high water mark of 2000.
This budget invests in the next generation, continues our ongoing demand to deliver community services more efficiently and expands our commercial tax base in a smart, forward-looking way. This is a solid foundation for a sustainable fiscal future.