The “other” in Somerville’s Budget

In support of our long-overdue public conversation about police and policing in the US, I’ve been digging through city data, making plots, and posting them on Twitter. Here’s one that got more attention than my stuff usually does (generally I live tweet city council meetings for a very small audience). It shows some of our police officers making wildly more money than other city employees.

Raw Salaries

The data I used to create that first plot is pretty straightforward. Somerville has a data portal. On that portal, there are reports titled “weekly payroll gross wages over 50k” for each of the last several years.

Somerville’s Budget

It’s almost impossible to make heads or tails of anything from the budget proposals on the city website. The 2020 edition was a 255 page PDF filled with flowery language, colors, pictures, and charts. It’s an interesting read, but it’s completely unusable from a data perspective. Take this example from page 169:

The Spreadsheet

My city councilor, JT Scott grappled with this frustrating situation for years, applying both public and private pressure. Early this year he had a breakthrough and received an export of the city’s budget vs. actuals for the last 8 years. Most important, he got it as data.

Consistently over, Consistently Under

Some budget items are consistently underspent, year over year. The police budget has a line item named CARE OF PRISONERS. It starts out at $7k, though we never ever spend that much. Each year we pull a bit of money out of that line and do something else with it.

Gun Money

Let’s talk about something more timely: The WEAPONS line in the police budget. This one is -consistent-. Every year since 2016, we’ve budgeted around $76k and spent about 90% of it.


One question that comes up frequently is “how much are we paying out annually to settle lawsuits?” The answer is that I can tell you for the whole city, but it’s super hard to find out for a single department.

The Overtime

But first, we really need to talk about the overtime.

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)

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