City Council Agenda Highlights (10/7/19)

The Cambridge City Council will meet on Monday, October 7, 2019, at 5:30pm. The full agenda is posted on the Open Meeting Portal.

FY20 Tax Rate Hearing

This week’s meeting also includes the City Manager’s recommendations for setting the FY20 property tax rate, which the Council must vote to adopt. The City Manager has created a graphic Executive Summary that explains the basis for his recommendations (click link to view the two-page pdf document). To read the detailed memos about the tax rate that are on the agenda, click here. The Tax Rate hearing is scheduled to begin at 6:30pm so we will suspend our regular meeting after an hour to discuss and vote on taxes, and then return to take up what’s left on this week’s agenda.

City Manager’s Agenda

#1 New Members of Commission for Persons With Disabilities. See list.

#2 Planning Board Opinion on Impact of Special Permit Projects on Utility and Infrastructure: The Planning Board did not support this council-proposed zoning amendment to require that large developments going through Special Permit process (Article 19) account for their energy needs and design their buildings so that there is no significant adverse impact. The Ordinance Committee met on the petition last week, and I and the majority wanted to continue pursuing an amendment to yield better energy planning. The hearing was continued to give the staff time to respond to our questions.

#3 Energy-Saving Programs and Discounts: It’s National Energy Efficiency Month and this memo details all the energy efficiency and GHG reduction programs that the city and affiliated non-profits offer to residents, especially those of low-income, to help them reduce their energy use and afford to switch to renewables. Please take a look at what’s offered.

#4 Pavement Markings for Devices Prohibited on Sidewalks: We are still waiting for the state to act on proposed legislation on electric stand-on scooters, and so the staff are reluctant to place stencils on sidewalks indicating that micro-mobility devices aren’t allowed until there is clarity. The Council has been quite clear that we do not think allowing electric scooters to operate on sidewalks is a good idea. Bikes are allowed on sidewalks outside designated business districts so long as they travel at pedestrian speed, yield to pedestrians and give an audible warning (by bell or voice) when passing.

#5 Central Sq Elevator Repair: The MBTA projects the elevator replacement work will be complete by early 2020 (a 10-month delay due to unexpected engineering complications), and the city solicitor opines that the delays have not put the agency out of compliance with ADA case law.

#6 Fiscal Year 20202 Tax Rate: See the Executive Summary or read the detailed memo. The FY20 Property Tax Levy is $438,128,694, which is a 6.9% increase over FY19 but is slightly less than projected when the FY20 Budget was approved in May. Assessments have been increased in line with the sales market, and the tax rates for both residential and commercial have been decreased accordingly. This year’s residential rate is $5.75 per thousand and the commercial rate is $12.68. In order to minimize the impact on homeowners, especially those who claim the 30% residential exemption, commercial owners continue to pay a greater share of taxes than their assessed value represents, carrying about 2/3 of the levy. To reduce the impact of tax increases, the City Manager is recommending as usual that a portion of the Free Cash balance be used to decrease the tax rate (about $14M of the $241M total Free Cash balance). The total assessed value of all taxable property in the city increased by $6 billion (+12.2% over FY19), with new construction representing an increase of about $1.27 billion. With the state’s Prop 2.5 it is this growth from new constructions (that is, additions to the total assessed value used to calculate the rates) that helps us afford to increase our Operating Budget (this year spending is by 5.7%) and stay below our allowed levy limit without unduly burdening property owners, especially homeowners.

Calendar and Charter-Righted Items

The Calendar section is unusually long this week because it includes nine Policy Orders (six of them my orders) that Councillor Toomey charter-righted in one fell swoop at our last meeting (which was back on 9/23 due to the intervening holiday). Rather than take up space here, I direct you to the Policy Order section of my summary of the 9/23 agenda.

Unfinished Business

#12 Alexandria Grand Junction Path Rezoning Petition: Alexandria informed us on Friday, 10/4 they are requesting the opportunity to re-file their petition, and asked us to leave it “on the table” so that it will expire on 10/9 without any action. Once the Eversource substation relocation has been resolved, Alexandria intends to resubmit the petition, and the process and clock can start again. Based on information we received from Eversource and the City Manager at a committee hearing I chaired last week, we expect to have word on an alternative site for the substation within 4-6 weeks. When the zoning petition does come back, I hope that the accompanying letter of commitment will set an aggressive schedule for the completion of the Grand Junction Multi-Use Pathway that Alexandria intends to convey to the City along with a $11.25M payment for its design and construction.

Applications & Petitions

#5 Harvard Square Zoning Petition: A citizen petition sponsored by Suzanne Blier of the Harvard Sq Neighborhood Association and Denise Jillson of the Harvard Sq Business Association and drafted with help from Patrick Barrett of Central Square will be referred to the Planning Board and the Ordinance Committee. Its goals are modest and include “gentle” increases to density, reductions in required parking, changes to the composition of the Harvard Sq Advisory Committee, and limits on chain stores.

Policy Orders

There are 21 new orders on top of the 9 charter-righted at the last meeting that are on the Calendar section above. The excessive and preemptory use of the charter right privilege at the last hearing has placed an unreasonable burden on the body and the public, since this meeting also includes the tax rate hearing. I will only highlight those that I feel are of the most interest for potential public comment.

#1 Harvard Sq Pedestrian Days: I joined Councillors Mallon and Siddiqui in suggesting that we pilot closing a portion of Harvard Sq to vehicles a few days next summer. This has been successful on Newberry St, and urban centers with pedestrianized areas have proven to be magnets for visitors and residents alike.

#6 Expanding the Free T Pass Program: I sponsored this order with the Mayor’s support to considering expanding the new free T pass program for income-eligible CRLS students to other qualifying Cambridge residents of high school age.

#7 Fuel Pump “Warming” Labels: I sponsored this order to require that gas pumps at filling stations in Cambridge place labels on the pumps that provide factual information about the connection between fossil fuel use and climate change. More information about why small reminders are important.

#8 Public Meetings on Utility Planning: At a recent Ordinance Committee hearing about the demands that upzonings and large developments (especially labs) are placing on our energy infrastructure, I suggested the idea of holding regular public meetings on utility planning. These could be similar to the annual Town Gown meetings the Planning Board holds to learn about and weigh in on institutional planning. Councillors Zondervan and Carlone co-sponsored the order.

#13 Directing PILOT Payments to Affordable Housing: Harvard and MIT are two of our largest taxpayers and they also make payments in lieu of taxes on their non-taxable property. I’m suggesting that we use a portion of the annual PILOT receipts (about $7M last year) to increase the total funding directed to the Affordable Housing Trust, since the universities also create more demand for housing than they can meet on their own campuses. Councillors Siddiqui, Carlone and Zondervan co-sponsored.

#14 ADA Suits Targeting Small Businesses: A single plaintiff has filed a series of ADA complaints against small businesses operating in older buildings in East Cambridge and Inman Square, seeking financial settlements that have posed hardships on the business owners. This order asks if the city’s existing grant program to assist with ADA improvements can be increased.

#16 Director of Arts and Culture Position: The idea for a staff liaison is one that grew out of the Mayor’s Task Force on the Arts. The announcement this week that a 165% rent increase will drive Green Street Studios out of its space in Central Square’s Cultural District is another example of how powerless we appear to be in preserving what’s left of the arts community. An arts liaison could be helpful, and I support the order, but without significant funding directed toward subsidizing rents or purchasing property to use for the arts, I fear the evictions and exodus will continue.

#17 Independent Analysis of Pro-Forma for Cambridgeside Rezoning: I joined Councillors Zondervan, Kelley and Carlone in asking CDD’s Economic Development Dept. to engage an independent financial analyst to review the developer’s pro-forma and share the results confidentially with the Council to help inform our decision on the zoning changes proposed.

#18 Tree Planting at Magazine Beach Park: Councillor Zondervan’s order suggests we seek DCR’s permission to plant some trees in their park. I co-sponsored with the Mayor and Councillor Mallon.

#19 Ordinance Preventing Gas Connections in New Construction: I signed onto Councillor Zondervan’s draft ordinance to prohibit gas connections to newly constructed buildings. The draft language is based on an ordinance that Berkeley, CA, passed recently. Councillors Siddiqui and Carlone also co-sponsored. Committee Report #1 on this agenda covers the discussion we had on banning fracked gas connections during a recent Health and Environment Committee meeting.

#20 Increasing Funding to HomeBridge: The HomeBridge program subsidizes limited equity home purchases for first-time home buyers earning between 60-100% of AMI, but increasing the funding could help expand it to households earning up to 120%. This order was sponsored by Councillors Siddiqui, Simmons, Mallon and Toomey.

Committee Reports

#1 Health & Environment on Banning Gas Connections in New Construction. We should do it!

#2 Neighborhood and Long Term Planning on Re-using Wood from Trees Cut in Inman Sq: We hope CRLS students in the carpentry program can work with the Arts Council to come up with an appropriate use for the wood saved after four honey locust trees were removed from Vellucci Plaza.

#3 Welcoming City Ordinance: Working with the ACLU, Councillor Carlone proposed an ordinance that would protect immigrants in encounters with local police from having their status shared with ICE. Though the language came from Somerville’s ordinance and had been reviewed by our police department, the city solicitor had not reviewed it in advance of the meeting. So we continued the meeting to allow more time for review. There is a policy order (#21) that asks for any ordinance submitted by the Council to be sent to the Law Department for review without requiring a separate formal order to do so.

Public Comment and Viewing Meetings

Public comment begins at 5:30 pm. Each person is allowed to speak for up to 3 minutes on any agenda item except for communications from other members of the public. There is an online system for signing up for public comment that goes live on the Friday morning before each Monday meeting. Here is the link. You also may call 617-349-4280 on the day of the meeting from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm to sign up to speak, or sign up when you arrive at City Hall by going to the City Council office after 5:00pm and using the public computer terminal on the desk by the door. Regardless of how you sign up you should do so before 6:00 pm on the day of the meeting. To submit written comments, please email council@cambridgema.gov and cc City Clerk Anthony Wilson at clerk@cambridgema.gov. If received after Thursday at 3pm, your comments will appear on the public record (under “Communications”) at the next subsequent Council meeting.

City Council meetings are televised on Channel 22-CityView and live-streamed on the City’s Open Meeting Portal and on the City’s YouTube site. Recorded versions of all Council meetings may be found on the Open Meeting Portal.

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Jan Devereux
City Councillor
Cambridge, MA