Above: Somerville High School with proposed design (left) and current design (right)
In this edition:
- Future of the Green Line Extension (GLX) and Community Path Extension (CPX); City asked to contribute $50 million
- New Somerville High School (SHS) proposed for current location, cost estimated at $255 million; Prop 2½ debt exclusion override likely to be on the ballot in November
- Mayor to present Fiscal Year 2017 City budget Tuesday night, June 7th, 7 PM, followed by BOA review; Public Hearing June 21st, 6 PM
Sticker shock, anyone?
If you are a Somerville homeowner or resident and you are feeling the pain of steadily rising property taxes or rent, and wondering how we are going to pay for the Green Line Extension (GLX), the new high school, a new police station and Fire Dept.HQ, renovated West Branch and Main Libraries, Union Square infrastructure, sewer repairs, and more green space and playing fields… you are not alone! This is the number one issue on many of our minds right now. I encourage you to share with me your questions, concerns, and ideas on these issues.
This update provides some information, but there is much I do not know. We are waiting for the Mayor to propose financing plans for these large projects. However, I can provide some reassurance, and share with you my confidence and optimism about Somerville’s financial future. The Board of Aldermen has been asking tough questions about the City’s finances. The BOA will need to approve funding for these projects. We are an independent Board that has already denied many funding requests from the Administration and will not hesitate to say no in the future.
That being said, I believe that Mayor Curtatone has been a superb fiscal & financial steward for the City. He steered the City through the Great Recession with relatively little damage, the City’s finances are in excellent shape, and its bond rating is at an all-time high. Mayor Curtatone has been willing to make unpopular decisions to protect the City’s financial strength. He’s made a lot of enemies doing this, and I haven’t always agreed with him. But he deserves credit for making these difficult decisions, and they have mostly worked out.
The Mayor is exploring creative financing mechanisms for all of these big projects. He has been successful in using such tools in the past. These financing tools could reduce the impact of these projects on property taxes. Somerville is expecting a huge amount of economic development which will dramatically increase City tax revenues. Interest rates and therefore borrowing costs are low. And while this may not ease the pain of steadily rising taxes, our property taxes are still lower than most of our neighboring cities and towns. These projects are important for our quality of life, for our health, and to bring more jobs to Somerville. They are worth paying for if the cost is reasonable.
Future of the Green Line Extension (GLX) and Community Path Extension (CPX); City asked to contribute $50 million
Following the revelation last fall that the project was $700 million to $1 billion over its $2 billion budget, the state agencies that control the GLX project (MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board and the Mass Dept. of Transportation) hired a new team to review the entire project.
In May, the team recommended going forward with a budget of $2.3 billion, with drastic cuts to the stations and the Community Path, which would now end at McGrath Highway. (The CPX plan is unacceptable and we’ll be fighting to have it fixed.) With a $1 billion grant from the federal government, and $1 billion ($700 million already spent!) allocated by the state, that leaves a budget gap of $300 million. To fill that gap, $150 million will be saved by not extending GLX to Route 16 in Medford. Mayor Curtatone and the Cambridge City Manager agreed to ask the Somerville Board of Aldermen (BOA) and Cambridge City Council for $50 and $25 million respectively. (The other $75 million is presently unaccounted for.)
I could go on for hours about how unjust, unfair and unprecedented it is for Somerville to have to contribute so much money for a project we have been promised for a generation and which is a legal, health and ethical obligation of the Commonwealth. But I will spare you. We have to play the hand we’ve been dealt, and the state has put a gun put to our head. But, the health, economic, transportation, and jobs gains from GLX will amount to far more than the $50 million that the state is extorting from us. The Mayor is pursuing creative “value capture” funding mechanisms with the state and private developers that could enable us to use tax revenues from development around the GLX stations to help pay the $50 million. He will be presenting a finance plan to the BOA for our consideration. The deadline for our vote on the funds for GLX is August 31.
There are still two major hurdles before construction of GLX can move forward. The Federal Transportation Authority must review the new budget. That should happen by this fall. And then the project needs to be bid out. With the building industry at full capacity and construction costs rising every month, I’ll be crossing my fingers and hoping the bids come in within the budget. We probably won’t be sure about this until sometime in early 2017. If all goes well, full-scale construction would start up again in the fall of 2017. Given all the delays that have already happened, I am not even going to guess at the likely completion date.
The best source of information on GLX and CPX issues is the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP) email list and website, www.SomervilleSTEP.org
New Somerville High School proposed for current location, cost estimated at $255 million
Somerville High School (SHS) needs major repairs and is no longer an adequate facility for the needs of today’s students. SHS is at risk of losing its accreditation if the building is not fixed. Just to repair it and bring up to code would cost an estimated $130 million. So it’s time for a new SHS. A couple of years ago, the Mayor appointed a top-notch High School Building Committee (HSBC), chaired by former Superintendent of Schools Tony Pierantozzi. I worked closely with Mr. Pierantozzi for the eight years I was on the School Committee and I know how knowledgeable and experienced he is with construction and building maintenance. He worked in the construction industry before he became an educator.
You can see the plan for the new SHS here: http://www.somervillema.gov/highschool/
The plan would keep the current Field House and construct the rest of the building/campus around it, toward the Public Library. It would maintain the oldest part of the building nearest to City Hall, but it would be used for another purpose, as yet to be determined. I’m hoping this would be for desperately needed additional workspace for City workers and to consolidate City offices, such as the City Hall Annex on Evergreen Avenue, the Traffic and Parking building near Teele Square, and the Recreation Dept. on Walnut Street, in one convenient location.
In late May, the HSBC approved these plans with a budget of $255 million. The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) will reimburse Somerville for close to 80% of eligible costs, but since some of the things we need are not reimbursable, the City’s share will probably be around $150 million.
The voters of Somerville will need to approve the project if it is to go forward. The MSBA reimburses the City after the money is spent, so the City will need to borrow (bond) a significant portion of the total. That would require a Proposition 2½ override, a ballot initiative and vote to override the Proposition 2½ debt limit, called a “debt exclusion.” For this debt exclusion to be on the ballot this November, a two-thirds vote of the BOA is necessary. The deadline for the BOA vote is August 3rd.
The Mayor will be presenting a financial plan to the BOA that “mitigates the cost to the taxpayers through value engineering, the sale of city assets and other identified funding sources.” I will be looking closely at the Mayor’s plan and at the budget for the proposed new SHS. One possible cut I’ve already identified is the $18 million proposed for an underground parking garage for 150 spaces behind the school. This is not a reimbursable expense so we will have to pay it all. With a Green Line station likely coming to Gilman Square a few minutes’ walk from SHS, I don’t see why we need a parking garage as part of this project. We can figure out a less expensive way to get our faculty and staff to school.
Mayor to present Fiscal Year 2017 City budget Tuesday night June 7th, 7 PM at City Hall, followed by BOA review; Public Hearing June 21st, 6 PM
Tomorrow, Tuesday, June 7th at 7 PM, the Mayor will present his proposed Fiscal Year 2017 budget to the Board of Aldermen in City Hall. This is always an interesting presentation that focuses on the big picture of the Administration’s goals for the City as well as the highlights of next year’s budget. You can attend the meeting, watch it on local cable TV, or stream it whenever you want from the City website, www.somervillema.gov. The budget will be posted on the City website, too, if you want to look through it.
The BOA has scheduled eight nights of meetings to scrutinize the budget, with City department heads presenting most nights. These meetings will also be carried live on local cable TV. If you are interested in a particular department’s presentation, let me know and I will email you the schedule. There will be a Public Hearing on Tuesday, June 21st at 6 PM in City Hall, at which anyone can speak for a few minutes. This is a good opportunity to share your concerns or ideas with the City’s leaders. If you can’t make the Public Hearing, or would rather write, you can email the entire Board of Aldermen at email@example.com.
I don’t know yet exactly what’s in the budget this year. Unfortunately, by virtue of the City Charter, Aldermen can only make cuts, we cannot propose any expenditures. I find this frustrating. It means if I think something should be in the budget, I must ask the Mayor to put it in. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. Some of the things I have asked to be put in this year are a full-time arborist, funds for planting trees, more funds for job training programs, and additional staff in key departments like Inspectional Services and Planning. Please share with me your questions, concerns, and suggestions on the budget and any of these financial issues.
Ward 5 Alderman