Budget of $524.4M adds library hours, starts look at plan for citywide Wi-Fi
More Sunday hours at the Cambridge Main Library, improvements in information technology and the start of a citywide Wi-Fi strategic plan are features of the city’s upcoming budget, along with the beginnings of an experiment in “participatory budgeting.”
The entire proposed budget, available here as a PDF, calls for an operating budget of $524.4 million, a 4.62 increase over the current adopted budget that will be examined before the June 12 adoption deadline in a series of May hearings open to the public: 9 a.m. meetings May 8 and May 15 on the city side and at 6 p.m. May 21 for a public schools budget estimated to rise 3.8 percent, to $157 million (at 30 percent of the total budget, the biggest single chunk of city money).
“I would call this a fiscally responsible budget … offering what I consider to a robust, expanded array of programs,” City Manager Richard C. Rossi said Monday while introducing the budget to the City Council. “Although we have been able to expand city programs, we are taking into consideration the plight of the taxpayer.”
That includes finding money to keep Cambridge’s bragging rights as having among the lowest property tax levies in the state.
In a city budgeting tradition, the levy is estimated early on to raise property owners’ taxes with a jump of 4.62 percent; but Rossi committed Monday to once again use $9 million of the city’s stratospheric $142 million free cash to lower the levy increase, and the levy is truly determined in the fall when all city revenue and state and federal levels are known. (Another $8.6 million from city parking revenue is expected to go toward supporting the operating budgets of various departments.) The rate invariably goes down.
“We keep incredible benefits with a low property tax rate,” said Marc McGovern, chairman of the council’s Finance Committee. “If people think it’s difficult for folks to stay in Cambridge now, imagine if our property taxes were what they were in other communities.”
Where the money goes
Among some of the growth areas in the budget are the hiring of new positions, including a domestic violence prevention and an assistant human resources director; more training for department heads in communicating with a diverse workforce – along with a new Citizen Committee on Civic Unity, likely a savings considering the city’s recent payouts in the millions for civil rights lawsuits – and “to develop bench strength in each department” to keep quality high when longtime managers retire; and the implementation of an Office of College Success and an Early Childhood Task Force.
Also coming along are various sustainability initiatives, including support for the Net Zero Task Force, a test curbside composting program, maintenance for the new Alewife Wetlands area, further LED conversion of streetlights and installation of solar cells at the net-zero emissions Martin Luther King Jr. elementary school, now under construction.
After a series of hearings leading to a yearlong reorganization plan, the city’s information technology department is getting a bump in funding to $5.2 million, including $167,280 for a second deputy director position and $143,995 to add a business analyst, not to mention money for capital projects that include planning for a citywide Wi-Fi utility; and real-time closed captioning for council meetings and and subcommittee meetings that are televised or streamed.
The reorganization, which invited citizen comment, was an “excellent process that allowed us to prioritize IT needs in a way that makes a lot of sense,” Rossi said. “It’s my belief now IT decisions are now made in a very, very intelligent way. Various committees that have been set up do an excellent job, they review things and prioritize and Louie [Depasquale, the city’s finance director] and myself really get to work closely with them. I feel really good about that process.”
Councillor Leland Cheung was happy to hear it.
“As you recall, in my first year I voted against the IT budget because I felt it was under-delivering. And it’s been a long way, but I feel we’re on track and on target and I’m very happy to see the commitment to investing in that,” he said, also acknowledging funding for improvements to the city-owned Foundry building and $35,000 to give a fresh look to the “use tables” section of zoning ordinance that define how different parts of the city are used – such as for homes, offices or restaurants.
Rossi acknowledged the use tables “really need a lot of work to try and put that in order.”
Cheung also asked for more information on the $50,000 participatory budgeting line item, which Depasquale gave, calling it a way to get a project started on outreach and figuring how out a process to “ask citizens to come up with ideas on where they think capital type of expenses can be made and what we should be looking at.”
“We feel $50,000 will get the process rolling to get closer to what the citizens feel. There may be something we don’t have in there,” he said, referring to future budgets. “We have a lot in there, but there’s always room for improvement … There’s probably five or six priorities, have a vote from residents to see where they feel the funds should go and come up with a recommendation .”
It would be a one-time expense, but could be continued after fiscal year 2016, Depasquale said.
“It’s a great move in the direction of open government and transparency,” Cheung said.
With the end of collective bargaining with library workers, the city found itself able to extend Sunday hours from Labor Day to the end of June at the Cambridge Main Library, including adding two staffers to deal with a surge in demand, Rossi said. Because Sunday is not a required work day for members of the CPLSA union, the day of work was optional – and the City Manager’s Office said at least 18 people were needed to staff it.
With Sunday hours previously running from the first Sunday after Columbus Day to the last Sunday in April, “This is a major increase in the amount of Sunday hours at the library,” Rossi said.