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November Highlights from the City Council

In early November, the r/medfordma community was talking about how hard it is to keep up with what's going on in City Hall and even just the City Council specifically. Most residents don't have the time to watch our meetings, and even if they did, they're often long and dry. We have no real local news outlets; meeting agendas aren't easy to find or easy to parse; Medford Community Media recordings usually take at least several days to post online.

I shared on the Reddit thread that when I first took office, I had grand aspirations of sharing in-depth blogs at least monthly/every other month to document what we talked about in our recent meetings, but pretty quickly I fell behind, and never figured out how to keep up with those updates at the level of depth and comprehensiveness I aspired to. Between campaign season ending and this conversation about news and transparency bubbling up, it seemed like the right time to renew efforts. I'm challenging myself to share relatively brief, imperfect summaries on Reddit after every regular meeting, and so far, I'm loving it. (I'm sure that my fellow Councilors and Councilors-elect will join in and add to these efforts over the next two years, in addition to the sharing they already do on their own channels.)

This goal schedule is based on clear feedback that most folks would prefer more frequent, more casual updates to infrequent, in-depth ones. Here's the highlights from our two regular meeting evenings in November. We met many other times in subcommittee and for Committee of the Whole meetings.

City Council Highlights 11/14/23

Standard disclaimer: This is by no means a comprehensive or detailed log of everything we talked about (in this particular case our meetings were over 5 hours long on 11/14). I've highlighted what I consider to be more consequential and interesting and added some editorializing from my perspective, but I may give more or less detail to one topic or another in the interest of getting this out sooner rather than later (or never).

Walking Court. We approved the zoning change brought forward by the MHA (Medford Housing Authority) to change Walkling Court from an APT-1 district to PDD-3, a planned zoning district, to enable the planned Walkling Court renovation. This zoning change comes after extensive public comment and expert guidance, including MHA meetings with Walkling Court resident meetings and neighbors/abutters, review and recommendations by Community Development Board, presentations and public comment during Council Committees of the Whole, etc.

  • The planned renovation will cause a net gain of 94 deeply affordable units here and improve living conditions (sound insulation, heating/cooling, building upgrades) as well as adding critical accessibility features so that these units can serve disabled people and families.

  • This project is an extremely rare opportunity to make double-digit strides towards our goals for adding public housing to our community, and it's an extremely rare opportunity to leverage local, state and federal funds to add truly high-quality, attractive, accessible public housing to our community.

  • I'm extremely proud to reach this stage in the project. It passed unanimously after extensive public comment.

  • The MHA will have to undergo Site Plan Review before starting construction which will provide more opportunity for public comment on the non-zoning parts of the project i.e. trees, traffic flow.

MBTA Communities Multi-families Overlay District.

  • All rapid transit communities in MA (like us) are required to adopt the MBTA Communities law by the end of the year to remain in compliance with the state. This means creating a zoning district within half a mile of an eligible transit station that allows multi-family housing as of right. Our Planning Department and consultants determined that for us, that had to be Wellington; it was infeasible in some other transit station areas due to exempted land (i.e. Tufts, Fells).

  • To pass this by years' end we had to refer it to the Community Development Board last night and they will make recommendations back to us by 12/6, then we will have another public hearing about it on 12/12. The CDB is meeting on this tonight, November 15.

  • The overlay district allowing multifamily housing as of right doesn't affect the underlying zoning, we still have the option to evaluate Wellington's zoning overall in the course of the Council's upcoming comprehensive rezoning project that we've been gearing up for.

Elections: We had a lengthy discussion and public comment period about the issues and procedural errors in the city election last week and covered ballot misprints, inaccurate mail ballot instructions, mis-trainings of poll wardens and workers re. not being allowed to bring voter guides into the ballot box, untimely counting of ballots and release of incomplete unofficial elections results.

The Council was unified in expressing strong disappointment with and condemnation of the mistakes and mishandlings last week, and in calling for a comprehensive report detailing what exactly went wrong and why, and what will change to make sure that voters can feel completely confident for our multiple very consequential 2024 elections.

  • We also unanimously called for a supplemental appropriation request to restore full time staffing levels to the Elections Dept. When the Administration first reduced Elections Dept staff from 5 full time employees to 2.5, the Council raised concerns about how this reduction in capacity would affect proper and smooth functioning. Unfortunately we again saw that bear out next week and it is unacceptable.

We unanimously supported a resolution to recognize Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20, 2023.

We resolved to have the subcommittee on Ordinances & Rules consider a wildlife feeding ordinance and puppy mill ordinance (both proposals brought forth by constituents).

Coach Murphy spoke about the upcoming Medford/Malden Thanksgiving game which ended the meeting on a distinctly positive note.

I make no claim of these notes being comprehensive nor reflecting the perspective of any other person or Councilor besides myself. As a reminder, the Council meetings don't get uploaded immediately but they do get uploaded here after processing (by Medford Community Media).

City Council Highlights 11/28/2023

At 6pm, we began with a Committee of the Whole on the draft Budget Ordinance, sponsored by Vice President Bears.

  • A recap: At our last subcommittee meeting on this topic (10/10/23), we had a long exchange with the Chief of Staff and Finance Director and reviewed the draft ordinance that VP Bears created after substantial research and discussion with some local experts close to budget processes in other cities. It lays out a new, structured, predictable schedule for financial reporting throughout the year and a calendar of preliminary budget hearings throughout the spring – a contrast with the mad dash and last-minute submissions that have marked budget season the past two years.

  • The CoS and Finance Director said that the proposed process looked fantastic but they had concerns about how much of the new reporting and schedule requirements they would be able to bring online and how quickly. It is true that the Finance Department is under-staffed and under-resourced. We had motioned for the CoS and Finance Dir. to come back to us at this meeting with some notes on what from the draft does feel achievable right now, and what doesn't, and what (resources, people, softwares) they would need to start doing the rest of it, on what timeline.

  • Immediately before our meeting last night, they submitted a memo that outlines a version of the ordinance that the Administration feels they could reasonably begin doing next year. In the meeting they ran through the document for us, and we motioned to have subcommittee members submit comment by next week, and to meet again in subcommittee on 12/13, once we've had a chance to review and formulate comments.

Okay, regular meeting time: The Human Rights Commission submitted a statement in recognition and celebration of International Human Rights Day (12/10/23), which we spoke on and unanimously passed.

We had the public hearing to hear from the Chief Assessor on the FY24 Property Tax allocation, which included a lengthy and helpful presentation which included stats on new growth in Medford over the past year, the positive impact of staffing increases in the Assessor's Office, recaps on how the tax levy is calculated and how property tax may be split between resident/commercial + industrial, and more.

  • We adopted the Minimum Residential Factor, meaning that we shifted the tax levy maximally to commercial + industrial property owners, and minimally to residential property owners. That "minimum" and "maximum" is determined by the state. We do have the option to tax residential + commercial and industrial property at the same flat rate; we usually don't. I don't know the last time we opted for a flat rate; I've only been on the Council 2 years, but it's probably been much longer than that. The Minimum Residential Factor this year will yield a rate of $8.52 per $1000 of assessed value for residential property owners, and a rate of $16.43 for commercial + industrial property owners.

  • This represents a $0.13/$1000 decrease in tax rate for residential owners and $0.13/$1000 decrease in tax rate for commercial/industrial owners, compared to last year's tax rates. But assessed values continue to rise, so most residents will still see their tax bills increase, as property in the greater Boston region continues to grow more and more valuable. (The Chief Assessor's graphs included an estimate of how property values have been changing year over year. In 2023 the average single family home value went up 9.79% from the previous year. This year it's estimated to increase but by a bit less, 7.01% up from 2023.)

  • We unanimously voted not to adopt a Residential Exemption. The Assessor made it clear that if we are ever to do this in the future, he would need at least 6 months' lead time to prepare for it, anyway. Currently the tax rate is split (different) for residential and commercial/industrial property owners; a residential exemption would create a split rate for property owners within the residential landowner category. Folks below a "breakeven" property valuation point would enjoy a lower tax rate on their assessed value; folks above that breakeven point would shoulder a higher tax rate to keep the average residential tax levy where it needs to be.

  • To be brief, I'll just say that there's a substantial debate to be had about the merits and consequences of residential exemptions. I have my own thoughts but I've heard good points from other viewpoints as well. If we were ever to consider this in the future, it would certainly be the topic of deep and considered study and deliberation; and the merits would certainly be affected by other hypothetical future circumstances, such as if a debt exclusion for a new HQ or MHS, or a Prop 2.5 override, is on the table and affecting tax bills.

  • We also unanimously voted not to adopt a Small Commercial Exemption – again, I don't know that we've ever done this in the past. SC exemptions typically benefit property owners, not small business tenants, and I don't believe we have many small businesses owners in Medford that would meet the eligibility requirements.

The Dell Avenue deed amendment restriction was again continued to our next City Council meeting at the request of the petitioner and their attorney, so that they could have more time to work with City Planning staff and discuss.

We enthusiastically approved the increases to Fire Department salaries, including retro adjustments going back to 2021.

Again, I make no claim of these notes being comprehensive nor reflecting the perspective of any other person or Councilor besides myself. The Council meetings don't get uploaded immediately but they do get uploaded here after processing (by Medford Community Media).

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