Friday, July 19, 2024

A Somerville City Council meeting June 13. (Photo: Julia Levine)

A $342 million general fund operating budget for the 2025 fiscal year was approved 9-2 on Thursday by the Somerville City Council, delivering Mayor Katjana Ballantyne’s request in full with no reductions.

The city’s approved budget grew only 1.6 percent for the upcoming year from the current one, representing a $5 million increase from this year’s $337 million. Ballantyne blamed lowered revenue and the relative financial stagnation on “a range of external factors,” including changes to state taxes and a slowing in the city’s commercial real estate.

Almost a third of the budget will go to Somerville Public Schools, which will get a 7 percent increase of $7 million to the department’s previously $100 million budget. This funds 36.6 permanent full-time-equivalent positions – 25 of which were previously bankrolled by federal pandemic funding – to bolster educational needs since the Covid pandemic. With the latest increase, the city’s education budget has grown by 27 percent since 2022, a continued move by the mayor’s administration to absorb pandemic aid funding.

“We made those plans under sunnier economic forecasts,” a message accompanying the mayor’s proposal reads. “This year in a changed environment we chose not to waver from that course. Our youth deserve that of us. This means there is less available for new investments in the city budget, but we are using our investments wisely.”

During the approval meeting, several councilors expressed annoyance at the city’s apparent lack of growth and effective decision-making.

“I don’t see in this budget the kind of dramatic change, the kind of dramatic improvement – the course correction – that we need to make as a city,” Ward 2 councilor J.T. Scott said.

“We came into this budget season with a finance report … reminding us what the impact of the current economy is on this budget,” Ward 7 councilor Judy Pineda-Neufeld said. “We came into this budget season knowing we’re asking our taxpayers to pay more … We came into this budget season knowing we’re asking department heads to do more with less, that their hands are tied.”

The new budget provides additional support for the city’s workers, setting aside $18 million in compensation for non-unionized and unionized employees. The latter, who have been without a salary increase for the past three years, await the results of a city-funded wage compensation study to conclude contract bargaining with the city.

In a vote to fund the total budget, nine councilors reached the decision to fund the role of the mayor’s chief administrative officer for a second year, reversing the council’s decision just two days earlier to slash the position.

The frequent delegation of mayoral duties to the position – including bargaining at the table with unions – creates a “buffer” between the legislative and executive branches of Somerville’s government and prolongs negotiations, some councilors said.

“I would view this cut as literally forcing the mayor to the table, that she would have to actually attend these meetings herself and negotiate directly with the union,” Scott said in proposing the cut.

Ballantyne and the chief administrative officer, Lammis Vargas, spoke in favor of keeping the position, arguing that it alleviates duties from other executive positions and that cutting it would set a bad precedent.

“The chief administrative officer has become a central node in our internal organizational nervous system,” Ballantyne said before three hours of council debate. “Pulling it from the system will leave a destructive gap. It will only create delays, new inefficiencies in the services our community relies on and the progress this council has stated they wish to see.”

This post was made July 1, 2024, and backdated for archival purposes.