Sept 14, 2009 City Council Agenda Highlights
The big item on tonight’s agenda is the very first item on the City Manager’s Agenda – the vote on the Community Preservation Act allocations. When this item came around last year, there was actual discussion among councillors about the appropriateness of the 80%-10%-10% distribution respectively to subsidized housing, open space acquisition, and historic preservation. Regardless how one may feel about what the percentages should be, there is an important issue that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. When the CPA surcharge was approved by voters in 2001, the councillors at that time asked for and received assurance from the City Manager that his appointments to the CPA Committee would give the maximum allocation to subsidized housing, and this has been the case every year since, including this year’s recommendations. However, there is a general principle in government that an elected body cannot “bind” its successor, and there have been four municipal elections and four new councillors elected (Simmons, Kelley, Seidel, Ward) since that understanding between Manager and Councillors took place. To what degree is that initial understanding still binding? In principle – not at all.
The belief among many who have attended the CPA hearings over the last several years is that they are entirely pro forma and that all decisions have been made prior to the hearings. Typically, the nonprofit housing agencies Just A Start (JAS) and Homeowner’s Rehab (HRI) get the word out to people to pack the meetings in favor of giving 80% for housing, but in each of the last few years there has also been a solid presence from people from East Cambridge and the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood who have advocated for more open space acquisition in that part of the city. The stock answer from the CPA Committee and Rich Rossi, Chair of the committee, has been that the City allocates plenty of money from other sources for open space acquisition and related purposes and that it is not necessary that this money come from CPA funds.
A good argument can be made (and I’ve made this argument myself in public testimony) that as long as the City commits to appropriate allocations for these various competing interests, the decision of how the CPA portion of these funds should be allocated should be based primarily on how much additional money can be leveraged from the matching state funds that come with the CPA. In past years, the money allocated toward subsidized housing did leverage more additional funds than did the other allocations, so the total financial benefit for City-supported projects was optimized by the 80%-10%-10% split. I hope that at least one city councillor will ask the appropriate questions tonight to determine whether the recommended allocations will again be in the best interests of the City or whether the main priority is simply the continued public subsidy of JAS and HRI who, arguably, view CPA funding as an entitlement. The question of how much City-controlled funds should be dedicated toward subsidized housing is another matter, and its answer appears to be slowly evolving. Tonight’s discussion may prove enlightening.
Another item that caught my attention was this:
Manager’s Agenda #20. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the appropriation of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grant (Year 2) in the amount of $39,000 to the Grant Fund Library Other Ordinary Maintenance account and will support the purchase of approximately 15 computers which will expand public access to technology throughout the library system.
This translates into $2600 per computer. Has the City visited MicroCenter lately? I’m sitting right now in front of a dandy little PC that cost me $400. With an additional monitor and other goodies, I might have spent as much as $800. Perhaps some thrifty councillor can press the Manager on why it costs three times as much per computer when the money comes from the foundation of the PC Man Himself (Bill Gates). Is this to pay someone’s salary? The message from the City Manager only refers to the purchase of the machines.
There also these items that may see a vote tonight:
Committee Report #4. A communication was received from …. the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on June 30, 2009 for the purpose of considering a proposal to amend the Zoning Ordinance to allow wind turbines to be placed in the City of Cambridge. …. Petition expires Sept 28, 2009.
Committee Report #5. A communication was received from …. the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on June 30, 2009 for the purpose of considering a proposal to amend Chapter 8.24 of the Cambridge Municipal Code “Refuse and Litter” and to add a new proposed ordinance Chapter 8.25 “Dumpster Licenses.” …. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Aug 10, 2009.
Committee Report #6. Committee Report from …. the Ordinance Committee, for a meeting held on July 2, 2009 for the purpose of considering a petition filed by Jean Connor et al. to amend the Zoning Map of Cambridge …. The petition was passed to a Second Reading on July 27, 2009. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after Aug 10, 2009. Planning Board hearing held July 7, 2009. Petition expires Sept 30, 2009.
Manager’s Agenda #22. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to a recommendation from the Planning Board not to adopt the Connor, et al Petition to rezone an area on the Zoning Map of the City of Cambridge in the vicinity of Garden, Walden, Sherman and Winslow Streets from the current Residence C-1 designation to a Residence B designation.
There are 33 letters protesting the Connor Petition (none supporting it) in the Council materials. The primary point made by the Planning Board in its negative recommendation is that it would render far too many other properties nonconforming.
There are some noteworthy City Council Orders:
Order #2. That the Connor et al. zoning petition to amend the Zoning Map from its current designation as a Residence C-1 to a Residence B District encompassing all or portions of lots on Assessors Plats #205, #206 and #228 including but not limited to those abutting Garden, Winslow, Fenno, Stearns, Esten, Sherman Streets and Upland Road, be re-filed with the City Council upon the expiration of the current petition on Sept 30, 2009, that said re-filed petition be referred to the Planning Board and City Council Ordinance Committee; and that upon adoption of this order, the Ordinance Committee public hearing be advertised and scheduled promptly, with a report back to the City Council as soon as possible. Councillor Maher and Vice Mayor Seidel
One has to speculate whether the same petition is being re-filed (for what purpose?) or whether an alternative zoning petition is being contemplated for this area. Then again, the filing of Zoning Petitions is standard fare in every municipal election year.
Order #4. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the possibility of initiating curbside pickup of food waste. Councillor Davis
This is a good idea, but whether or not it’s viable depends on things like cost and the ability to obtain permits for sites for composting of food waste near enough to Cambridge that transportation costs don’t break the bank or have a net detrimental environmental effect. In any case, backyard composting remains a simple and effective option for many residents.
Order #19. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council on the City’s plans to help fund the Housing Authorities redevelopment projects, to include any land swaps, loan backing or direct financial assistance. Councillor Kelley
This item is noteworthy simply for the gargantuan scale of what is proposed.
O-19 Sept 14, 2009
WHEREAS: The Cambridge Housing Authority is embarking on a 10-year, $250 million dollar renovation project that will involve the demolition and rebuilding of various CHA developments; and
WHEREAS: The first of these demolition/renovation projects has tentatively been scheduled to start in late 2009; and
WHEREAS: It is not clear how the Cambridge Housing Authority is involving the public in any planning process for its renovation projects; and
WHEREAS: The City may be financially involved in these various renovation projects; now be it therefore
ORDERED: That the City Council’s Housing Committee is requested to hold a public hearing in the near future to review CHA’s plans and the City’s plans to help finance them; and be it further
ORDERED: That the City Manager be and hereby is requested to report back to the City Council on the City’s plans to help fund the Housing Authorities redevelopment projects, to include any land swaps, loan backing or direct financial assistance.
– Robert Winters