Budget Outcomes and Prop 2.5 Override Proposal Update
It’s been a trying two months for the City Council and the administration. I’d like to recap the FY2023 budget process, and then share an update on the Proposition 2.5 Override proposal that Vice President Bears and I put forth in July.
The FY2023 budget process made Medford’s structural deficit painfully apparent. Most departments were asked to make do with level-funding, even in a climate of 8.5% inflation. Our brand-new public library didn’t have the funding to be open on the weekends, rendering it so much less accessible and useful than it should be. The administration’s initial budget proposal included none of the Council’s five unanimously agreed-upon priorities.
Process-wise, this year’s budget hearings were more squeezed than anyone wanted. We couldn’t begin budget hearings until mid-June, and what budget hearings we were able to schedule featured only the incomplete information we had received from the administration. Budget books arrived just 10 days before the state deadline for passage of municipal budgets.
Budget hearings are for the benefit of the Council – the opportunity to study, review, discuss, and ask questions about each department’s budget and the city’s income/expenses overall. But they’re also a forum for the community to use to understand the city’s budget. That’s why it’s so important that the budget process be timely, transparent, and comprehensive. I know that the City lacking a Chief Finance Officer for most of 2021 made the budgeting process more difficult, and I know that no one in the administration wanted our budget process to play out this way. Still – and even though I anticipate nothing but good-faith efforts from the administration next year – it’s still our responsibility to hold the administration accountable to a timely, transparent, and comprehensive budget process for FY24. President Morell likes to say that a budget is a reflection of our values, and that’s exactly right. The constituency needs and deserves a window into how our values are being materially represented, implemented, prioritized – or not.
The budget vote meeting proved to be an unusual night, with some genuinely unexpected but gratifying last-minute developments. After midnight on Wednesday, June 29th, the Council was able to spur last-minute negotiations with the Mayor. We secured:
an additional $300K in ARPA funding for the schools;
$90K for the Medford Public Library;
$15K for our new Elections Department;
$50K for a zoning reform consultant;
and $85K for an assistant legal solicitor.
Funding for the zoning reform consultant will arm us with an expert’s perspective when we amend our zoning code of ordinances to address housing scarcity, green building policies, thoughtful development. The assistant legal solicitor position is so the Council can have closer to the amount of legal representation that we need to do our job effectively. And, as a great many constituents wrote to us about in June, it’s unacceptable that the Library doesn’t have the funding for staffing or maintenance to allow for Saturday hours in the summertime. The $90K would be used at the Director’s discretion to try and keep the Library open as much as possible.
With the budget passed with these amendments, my mood in the last couple days of June was mixed. Part of me felt jubilant and relieved because of what the Council and these other departments would be able to do because of this last-minute additions, that we wouldn’t have otherwise (give the library a better shot of opening on Saturdays this summer; hire some laid-off teachers back faster; do Phase 2 of zoning re-codification this fall). I also felt rueful about the hardball tactics I resorted to in order to try and bring about those final negotiations. There was a full measure of plain old exhaustion, too.
But there was no honeymoon period after the passage of the budget. Despite these short-term wins, the fundamental status quo that created these dire budgetary challenges, effective cuts in service, and austerity measures, remains unchanged.
The FY23 budget that we passed relied on $7.8M in one-time funding from ARPA to balance this budget. That funding will expire in December 2024. We don’t have a plan for how to make up for that budget shortfall once our ARPA money runs out. We are working hard to increase Medford’s commercial tax base – in fact, that’s a key goal of the zoning re-codification that the Council plans to take up this fall – but those chickens do not come home to roost in the short term. The people, programs, services and infrastructure going un- and under-funded needs a liferaft now. During this year’s budget hearings, the Mayor’s office said explicitly that we can expect the belt to be pulled even tighter next year, in the making of the FY2024 budget. That forecast begs the question: what is there left to cut?
One of the Council’s budget-related resolutions that we passed in June was to request from the Mayor a plan demonstrating we don’t need a property tax override in order to avoid further service cuts and further infrastructural deferred maintenance in FY24. We haven’t seen that plan. Until I do, how can I responsibly say to my constituents that I know it exists? How can I expect to see anything other than more level-funding (effectively equaling budget cuts, given inflation and escalating costs), plus more deferred maintenance, action and services next year?
With every week that goes by there’s new evidence for why we need more investment in public resources – from local public health resources, to housing and tenant supports, to constituent outreach, to climate change resiliency measures, to infrastructure improvements, and on and on. We simply cannot afford to do less right now; the community needs more.
Since I took office in January, I have been feeling uneasy about our city’s ability to make good on our goals, to fund our priorities, and to make our values more than a talking point. As I said in a budget hearing in June, we are rich in plans: the newly-minted Comprehensive Plan to serve as an updated vision for our whole community; the Social Justice Roadmap for making ours a more just and equitable community; a Climate Action & Adaptation Plan for preparing for a climate-changed future and mitigating our contributions to catastrophic global heating and weather events; a Pavement Management Study that takes a birds’-eye view of our miles of dilapidating public roadways and attempts to organize them according to the timeline on we can afford to address them; and more.
What we don’t have is a plan for securing sustainable funding to pay for the laudable, valuable, and necessary measures prescribed in these plans. I am grateful and glad that this administration values equity, security, sustainability and inclusion. I also know that values mean very little if we are not able to implement measures, programs, processes and people that help us actually make good on them. Raising revenue is complicated, controversial and difficult. It’s also too high-stakes not to tackle head-on.
I mentioned that in June, we (unanimously) passed a resolution requesting from the Mayor a demonstration that a Prop 2.5 override would not be required in order to avoid further budget shortfalls and service cuts in FY2024. We requested that this update be received by July 14th, so that if we got bad news (Prop 2.5 is required in order to fund necessary services and avoid budget cuts) or no news (which is what happened) we would have time to put an override measure on the agenda for our July 19th meeting of the City Council. Since we got no response, on July 19th, Vice President Bears and I co-sponsored a resolution to place on the November 2022 ballot the following question:
“Shall the City of Medford be allowed to assess an additional $12,000,000 in real estate and personal property taxes for the purposes of the general operation of Medford Public Schools for Additional Classroom Teachers and Staff, Classroom and Infrastructure Needs, and Classroom Teacher and Other District Staff Compensation ($6,000,000); the general operation of the Medford Public Library for Additional Staff, Staff Compensation, Books, and Materials Needs ($400,000), the general operation of the Department of Public Works for Additional Staff, Road and Sidewalk Infrastructure Needs, and Tree Planting and Maintenance ($2,600,000); and for operations of general government ($3,000,000), for which the monies from this assessment will be used for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2023.”
This language follows the template for override ballot questions, per Mass General Law Chapter 59, Section 21C. Vice President Bears has a concise but thorough explainer of this proposal on his website.
If this resolution were to pass the City Council, it would then go to the Mayor’s desk. She would have to approve it no later than August 2nd and send it to the Secretary of State for placement on the November ballots. Then, on Election Day in the fall, voters would vote “yes” or “no” on the question.
It was important that we take up this measure at our July meeting, if at all, because of those state deadlines around elections and the August deadline for the Mayor to send an approved referendum to the Secretary of State.
In the afternoon on July 19, the Mayor posted a public letter explaining her opposition to a $12M Prop 2.5 override and proposing an alternative $3M override. While I appreciate the Mayor’s concerns, and certainly know that they are shared by many in the community, I personally feel that $3M is very inadequate. After all, our structural deficit for FY23 alone was nearly $8M.
At the Council meeting, after a long discussion with a robust amount of disagreement on the virtues and timing of the override proposal, Councilor Caraviello invoked a Council rule that enforces that a financial paper may be tabled for one week, to allow for more time to consider the proposal. It was clear that our proposal did not enjoy universal support on the Council, nor did it enjoy universal support from residents. I find that both completely expected and also understandable!
The upsides of our Prop 2.5 proposal, to me, are twofold: (1) Council passage of the override, and Mayoral approval, would not make the override certainly happen. It would just mean that it goes to the voters in the fall, and the voters would decide by popular vote whether it should happen or not. (2) While I would never want to downplay the effects of increased tax burden on household finances, there are measures we could well take up to mitigate the effects of a tax increase on the populations that it would hit hardest. For example, on July 19, Vice President Bears also put forth a proposal to raise the Senior Tax Exemption to the maximum allowable limit for eligible seniors, so that those on fixed incomes would be insulated from a tax increase. I’d certainly support that, and I’d even be willing to seriously consider a residential tax exemption if we did an override. (I know that may be a shocking statement to many of my fellow renters. This update is already long enough, but I hope you’ll hear me out when the opportunity to discuss this comes up next.)
So the following day, in response to the Mayor's $3M override proposal, we proposed a compromise path forward. Rather than just voting yes/no on a $12M override, residents could vote yes/no on a $12M override AND yes/no on a $3M override. Both options would be on the ballot. (This is called a "tiered override," again per Massachusetts General Law Chapter 51, Section 21C.) But, in response, the Mayor restated that she would not sign off on an override choice of greater $3M going to the voters. This rendered our compromise proposal a non-starter for getting on the ballot this year, and closing the window of opportunity for an override that would improve revenue for FY24.
Thus ended our hope of putting a Prop 2.5 ballot question to the voters this year, in time for it to supplement the FY24 budget. But discussion of this measure must continue. We put forth the override proposal in the first place because we feel that improving revenue is urgent, and because we received no satisfying report or response from the administration on how else we would plug the hole and avoid further budget cuts and reductions in services. The schools, library, a backlog of infrastructure projects, a growing list of unattended-to constituent needs & resiliency projects – that and more is what's at stake.
I hope that moving forward, the Mayor and the Council can collaborate to craft a plan to sustainably invest in our city’s present and future needs. I know what I will be pushing for, and I have every expectation of a lot of collaboration from my fellow Councilors:
Zoning re-codification and updates that, in addition to other goals (climate resiliency, increasing our housing stock, affordable housing) also greases the wheels for lucrative, site-appropriate commercial development.
Continuing to push for local legislation that would get us closer to the community we all deserve to live in, and when a lack of resources proves to be the roadblock, calling attention to that as loudly as possible.
In addition, wherever possible, I’ll continue to advocate for state and regional policies that would improve life for Medford residents. A few examples of this from the term so far are the Council’s endorsement of the Fair Share Amendment; my February resolution to advocate for increased Unrestricted General Government Aid to municipalities in the governor's budget proposal; and my resolution at our July meeting to endorse House bill H.4795, which would provide state funding to support greater affordability, availability for childcare and early education. All year long, we hear about the programs and services that residents would like to see but we can’t offer, or the programs we do offer, but too many can’t access or afford. Given that our short-term municipal revenue growth is uncertain and that we have so many needs already going unmet, the least that I can do is try to lobby our state leaders to help communities out with critical resources. I wish that we could provide all of these funding and services through in-house revenues; but until we can, I will continue to advocate for state resources so that Medford residents and families might not be left in the lurch.
Myself, my fellow Councilors, the Mayor and her staff – we've disagreed on several points over the past couple months, but I know that our goal is the same: A thriving Medford community. I hope that we can collaborate to make the urgent progress that we need to see.