Somerville’s Budget Problem

If Somerville’s city council tries to make moderate cuts to the police budget this year, the Mayor will respond by defunding the crossing guards. He’ll blame the council for making him do it. It’s classic bullying and budgetary hostage taking and it sucks.

In order to make any significant change to the police budget, the council will need to wield their power more like a chainsaw than a scalpel.

I think that they should blow it up. Here’s why.

Our Budget Process

In a normal year, the budget happens like this:

  • The Mayor proposes a budget in early June. It comes out as a glossy 200+ page PDF filled with flowery language and slick graphics. Our budget PDFs regularly win awards from something called the “Government Finance Officers Association.”
  • The budget package also includes a spreadsheet with organization codes, line items, and dollar amounts. That spreadsheet is the only thing that matters.
  • The city council spends 40+ hours in public meetings talking to department heads, trying to understand how the numbers in the spreadsheet match up to the stories in the PDF. Sometimes a bit of dirty laundry gets aired, but mostly it’s just excruciating.
  • The council can only cut funds from the spreadsheet. They cannot shift or allocate funds. They certainly cannot cause or initiatives to happen — they can only defund particular line items.
  • When they make a significant cut, the councilors hold forth at length about what they are trying to achieve by cutting and where the money might be better spent.
  • At this point, the Mayor has the option to respond to these pleas by issuing a revised budget increasing other line items. Usually, he does not. The money is simply lost, and property taxes increase a tiny, tiny bit less.
  • If the council fails to approve a budget by July 1, then we don’t have a budget. We don’t have funds to pay for stuff. Trash stops being collected. Librarians stop getting paid. At that point, the Mayor blames all of it on the city council for failing to get their job done.
  • After the budget is passed, the Mayor does whatever he wants in terms of projects and moves money around to make it happen. No matter how specifically we say that these cuts are supposed to apply to police overtime— the crossing guards wind up getting the axe.

In Somerville, the mayor also has the exclusive use of a communications (AKA public relations and propaganda) department with a budget of $1M per year to spin all of this and crank out those shiny PDFs. Boston, home to eight times more people than Somerville, spends 75% of what we do on comms.

The city council, by contrast, doesn’t even get clerical or legal support. Our city councilors don’t have city issued laptops, which is why two of them do not appear on video on our online meetings. Somehow, this sort of support just never shows up in the budget.

2020 is even worse

As I write these words, it is June 13th and we still do not have a budget proposal. To be fair, things are pretty screwed up right now. Between Covid-19 and mass protests over racial injustice and police violence, 2020 is a mess. Everything is harder than it should be, and everything is late.

While there is an option available to avoid chaos without passing a budget, the Mayor is having none of it. We could approve a 1-month continuing resolution (just like the big kids in Washington!). That would keep things running and give breathing room to sort out the details. The city council has repeatedly requested this option. They have been turned down with a story about how a 1-month budget would make it impossible for businesses to plan.

It’s pretty hard to plan anything with the world on fire, but whatever.

So it’s a high-stakes game of chicken this year. The opening moves are not promising.

Transparency

From the “transparency portal” mentioned in the memo above, it looks like the Mayor is proposing a decrease of $200k in the PERSONAL SERVICES line of the police budget down to $15.9M from $16.1M last year — about 1%.

In the budget, POLICE PERSONAL SERVICES is an “organization code.” This is the practical level at which the city council can control Somerville’s budget. In last year’s budget there were 24 “object codes,” line-items, within this org code. There was $11.8M for salaries, $1.15M for overtime and $430k for crossing guards.

In my previous post, I wrote that transfers in and out of line items need to come before the city council for approval. It turns out that this is not strictly true. The Mayor and his department heads can shift money around within an org code without asking anybody. This makes it damn hard for the city council to exercise any sort of fine grained budgetary control.

The chart below shows what happened in FY19— we brought in $147,807 additional dollars for police overtime ($45k of it from civil asset forfeitures) and spent 99.5% of the total. The crossing guards, on the other hand were underspent by about 25%. We shifted $5,770 of those funds somewhere else.

Anyway, the above 1% cut to an unspecified part of the police budget was accompanied by a PR blast that declared police violence to be a “state of emergency” and committed to all sorts of action that — coincidentally — the city seems to already be taking.

When the city council met last Thursday, they asked the Mayor to attend and explain to the city what actions he was going to take under this new “emergency.” Neither the Mayor nor any senior members of his staff were available to take the question.

This is a pattern

Joe Curtatone has been Somerville’s Mayor for 20 years. We have plenty of examples of how he works. He knows what he’s doing here.

2019’s massive update to our city’s master plan, adorably named “SomerVision,” is not mentioned anywhere in the budget narrative for 2019. The 2020 budget proposal praises this un-budgeted boondoggle as accomplishments 1, 2, 3, and 4 for the planning department.

Last year, the city council tried to get rid of a particularly odious animal control officer who kept getting complaints for mistreatment of animals. On review, it turned out that this guy had been moved to animal control from parking enforcement after he punched a cyclist in the face while on the job.

The administration’s response to pressure to remove the guy was, in effect, “why are you hitting yourself?” Moves to reduce the animal control salary were specifically mocked for how they would lead to layoffs in unrelated job functions. My understanding is that the individual in question is still employed at city hall, though he was shuffled to a non-public-facing job.

The examples go on and on — the officer who was selling oxycodone on our streets. The officer who ought to be on the sex offender list for what he left on the school computer while pulling time and a half covering an elementary school sleepover. The woman in DPW whose supervisor’s response to a complaint was to move her office furniture into the restroom. The gay man who was driven out of the police force. The use of the reserve hiring list to guarantee jobs for relatives of the Mayor.

In every case, the city council has tried their best to work within the framework available to them — with limited success and sometimes at personal cost.

Blow it up

All of the above was an attempt to convince you that we’re dealing with a strongly entrenched administration who have massive structural advantage and experience in working this system. The city council can still seize the initiative here, but it will take bold action.

I think that we should defund the police.

In the business world we talk about “blowing up the negotiation.” When your counter-party is operating in bad faith, gaming the system, or just fucking with you — only a loser keeps trying to work from within that busted framework.

You get up and walk away. If you come back, and you don’t have to come back, you return to a different negotiation entirely.

If Somerville’s city council tries to treat the police budget with the nuance and introspection that it deserves, the Curtatone administration is going to run roughshod over them and take out any losses on the least powerful. This question of police and policing is an important conversation. We have desperately needed to have this talk for .

Curtatone is treating it as business as usual.

It was a big deal a couple of years back when we got -gloves- for the crossing guards. Some of our cops are making $300k per year from a cornucopia of overtime and “other” pay while city councillors have to log in to meetings from their phones.

We should, in the immortal words of Ripley, from the movie “Aliens”: Take off, and nuke it from orbit — it’s the only way to be sure. We should set the police budget to zero… or close enough to zero that the city would be forced to lay off officers and sell cruisers. That will force the Mayor back to the table with a one month budget and potentially an updated proposal that includes a bit of detail and starts the real negotiations.

Or else, you know, we would work out how to run the city without this heavily armed and basically unregulated $16M tax burden holding us hostage.

Anything else just costs us the crossing guards.

Hyper local in Somerville, MA. I show up to public meetings, make FOIA requests, and write about it. Focused on transparency and accountability. (he/him)

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store