Monday, June 24, 2024

Auburn Court in Cambridgeport got Affordable Housing Trust funding in 1996, 2000 and 2017. (Photo: Affordable Housing Trust)

Cambridge passed an $884 million operating budget Monday with discussions focused on putting more money into affordable housing and, to a lesser degree, public health staffing and facilities. There was also a digression into the ShotSpotter gunshot surveillance system used by police.

The city entered the budget process last month with a proposed operating budget of $881.8 million for the 2024 fiscal year, which starts July 1. That’s a 7.1 percent increase from the current budget that appears to be a 10 percent increase because of a bookkeeping change.

What was approved by city councillors Monday was $883,773,885. With a series of loan orders, the city has total budget of a cool $1 billion.

Even so, “this doesn’t have everything we want,” Finance Committee co-chair Patty Nolan said. “This does take a huge step for universal pre-K. It does have a substantial funding increase for services for the unhoused. It has an enormous budget for the entire school department. And it does substantially increase a number of the initiatives that we’ve worked on over time and adds a lot of new positions. It’s certainly something that is quite impressive.”

A couple of things worked out on the floor Monday were signaled in May budget hearings: calls to add money to the Affordable Housing Trust to help ease a housing crisis by buying or building affordable units; and to keep public health staff after hearing rumors of several cut positions.

The Cambridge Health Alliance has agreed to preserve “at least” four positions at the Cambridge Public Health Department, which it runs, in return for the extra $416,000 approved Monday. The city’s total payment to the Alliance for running the department in the coming fiscal year will be $8.3 million. A call to address the run-down Windsor Street Clinic – one of three buildings the city leases to CHA, and which it is supposed to maintain – was “very favorably” received by city staff, City Manager Yi-An Huang said, but needed an assessment and a broader conversation.

Affordable housing

On affordable housing, there were two requests: to increase the trust’s budget by $1.6 million, proportionate with the 7.1 percent increase of the overall city budget; and to put in another $20 million from free cash “outside of the FY24 budget,” leading to a three-year plan to raise trust funding to 10 percent of the overall city budget.

Huang rolled with the first request, noting that the increase excluded funds directed by the Community Preservation Act Committee – though that body reliably gives the maximum 80 percent allowed to affordable housing and the minimum required to historic preservation and open space, or 10 percent each.

The second request for a one-time free cash appropriation and three-year plan brought hesitation. That 10 percent would total around $80 million, Huang said, and the city is now putting around $40 million annually into affordable housing – “a significant contribution, certainly compared to other communities that are neighboring us,” and up significantly from the recent past.

“Without really thinking about all the other competing priorities that we have as a city, it feels like we’re not ready to do that as part of the 2024 budget. I’d really recommend that we have the conversation over the summer or fall,” Huang said, “as part of overall goal setting.”

The $20 million wasn’t being asked for this budget cycle, councillor E. Denise Simmons reminded Huang, and wasn’t new – it was actually part of long-standing council requests that “says we are serious” about housing.

Approval on three motions

Some councillors argued that having the money ready to be spent in the trust made for easier decisions about buying property for affordable uses when opportunities arose; Huang noted that the trust already held some $150 million, of which about half was committed, and additional spending could outpace the ability of the city to get state and federal funds that can be leveraged for construction.

In the end, the $1.6 million and 7.1 percent budget increase was approved unanimously by the council. The $20 million increase from free cash, outside the 2024 fiscal year budget, passed 5-4, with the “yes” votes including Simmons, councillors Burhan Azeem, Marc McGovern and Quinton Zondervan and Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui. The “no” votes were Nolan and councillors Dennis Carlone and Paul Toner with vice mayor Alanna Mallon.

The three-year plan to increase the trust budget also passed, 6-3. The “yes” votes included Azeem, Mallon, McGovern, Simmons, Zondervan and Siddiqui. The “no” votes were by Carlone, Nolan and Toner.

ShotSpotter funding

The call to end ShotSpotter funding in the budget came from Zondervan, who encountered a problem: There was no ShotSpotter funding in the budget, Huang noted.

Zondervan said he was aware it was grant funded, and “the request is to discontinue using that funding to deploy this technology.”

Another problem: No such Urban Area Security Initiative grant money has been accepted this year or for several years, departing head of finance David Kale said, advising that the council could just reject the grant when it arrives.

“Somehow this program is being operated,” Zondervan said. “The request is simply to stop operating it however you’re paying for it.”

Opposition to the gunfire-detection software isn’t limited to Zondervan. During public comment, Alex Marthews of the Boston civil liberties organization Digital Fourth called it an “intrusive” program focused on poor or more diverse areas of the city that does not reduce violent gun crime “and rarely produced evidence helpful to uncovering or prosecuting it.” Alerts in Cambridge have been false positives two-thirds of the time, and only seven arrests can be attributed to the technology over 6.5 years costing $325,000, he said.

No to a budget decrease

Since it wasn’t a budget item, Huang too suggested having the conversation at another time – but Zondervan said he had a motion to reduce the police department budget to $73 million, roughly the spending in the current fiscal year, rather than give the requested $78.4 million. He could bring forward an order to discontinue ShotSpotter separately, he said.

Other councillors said they were happy to have a police-spending conversation, including the possibility that dollar amounts could decrease in coming years as unarmed responders took over some duties. But there were objections to this being the moment.

“This has now turned into a conversation essentially about defunding the police department,” Toner said.

When the vote came on the reduction, only Zondervan and Siddiqui voted yes.