Jan 2019 Newsletter

Hello Ward 2! Welcome to the first “snow emergency” of the season. Remember, it’s a “park even” year… There’s a lot to cover here today, and my sidewalk won’t shovel itself, so let’s get started!

AFFORDABILITY
• Property Tax Assessment Deadline Jan 31
• Community Land Trust Report Released
• Condo Conversion Public Hearing Jan 31
• Sewer/Water Bills to Receive Residential Exemption

TRANSPARENCY
• B&E Crime Spree in Ward 2
• Office Hours Every Friday

ACCOUNTABILITY
• Reserve Lists and Civil Service Hiring Updates
• Wage Theft and Campaign Finance
• SRA Major Change Approved

GREEN SPACE
• Urban Forestry Committee Finally Established
• Tree Removal Ordinance Underway

LOCAL ISSUES
• Development Neighborhood Meetings Update
• Union Square Neighborhood Council Elections Feb 2 and 4
• Voting will be February 2 (Saturday 12-4pm) and February 4 (Monday 7am-8pm)

AFFORDABILITY

• Property Tax Assessment Deadline Jan 31

Property Taxes in Ward 2 are skyrocketing this year as property values climb thanks to the overwhelming number of home sales to condo developers in the past two years. The way Assessments work is an increase based on your property type indexed to average sale prices in the prior few years. What that means for you is that if your property has been assessed with a major price increase this year, we can fight that by requesting the City Assessor to come out and visit your home to give a proper assessment.

If you haven’t done any recent home improvement, there’s no reason for you to be seeing a 20%+ increase in your home value for tax assessment. I implore you to please file an abatement application – the City Assessor has committed to come out personally to every request in Ward 2 and revalue the properties appropriately.

The application can be downloaded HERE and must be emailed to the Assessor by Jan 31, so please fill it out and let your neighbors know as well.

One last point: if you’re a senior on fixed income, you may also qualify for a raft of other abatement options. Please check those out at THIS link. 

• Community Land Trust Report Released

I’m proud to announce that the Community Land Trust Working Group that Alderman Ewen-Campen and I have been working on since mid 2018 has finalized its recommendations on how to proceed in establishing a truly independent and democratic Community Land Trust here in Somerville. This was a major campaign platform item that I probably spoke with you about at your door, and I’m thrilled that we’re moving closer to its creation. The full report can be read here, if you’re interested in 12 pages of the details – but be assured that more announcements on this important affordability tool will be coming soon! And if you’d like to get involved, please send email to SomervilleCLT@gmail.com to join the mailing list and lend a hand in creating this exciting new organization. 

• Condo Conversion Public Hearing Jan 31

Coming soon on Jan 31 is the Public Hearing on our new proposed Condo Conversion Ordinance. This is an important step that will strengthen tenant protections in our outdated ordinance to match those I helped the residents of Millbrook Apartments negotiate back in early 2018. The hearing will be at City Hall at 6pm on Jan 31, and I invite you all to come out and hear about the ordinance, and give us your opinions. Details on the ordinance can be found on the city’s website at this link

• Sewer/Water Bills to Receive Residential Exemption

One final crucially important affordability improvement for homeowners is the extension of our Residential Exemption program to your sewer and water bills. Resident homeowners can now apply for a 35% reduction in their Sewer & Water bills, thanks to a Home Rule Petition put forward by Alderman White and backed by the entire Board. This is a big win for folks on fixed incomes!

TRANSPARENCY

• B&E Crime Spree in Ward 2

There have been 15 break-ins reported in Ward 2 in the past 6 weeks, in what constitutes a crime spree for our quiet neighborhood. Available here is a lot of information put together by the crime analysts at Somerville PD. I met with the chief and lead analyst on this Friday – following yet another break, this one reported Jan 17 on Harold St – and they are taking a lot of measures to work on this. 

There is one suspect whose photo has been distributed by the city (white male, heavyset, age 50s, white hair); there may be a second suspect active as well. To this point the break-ins have been mostly during the day and seem to be well-cased to take place when no one is at home.

From the flyer: “Over the past month, Ward 2 has experienced a small spike in residential house breaks. In response, the Somerville Police Department has taken measures to address prevention as well as conduct robust investigations
of each incident. The department has issued directed patrol to enhance police presence in the neighborhood based on timing of previous breaks. All sworn Officers have been provided information relating to geographical and temporal patterns of the breaks as well as investigative details that may aid in detection. SPD Detectives have made strides in investigations and have enlisted the help of the public to identify a possible suspect based on surveillance images.”

To this and their other tips, I’ll add a few things specifically that you can do to help:

1) Keep your eyes out for your neighbors. I know it’s hard in a world of AirBNB and dog-walkers to know who “belongs in the neighborhood”, but if you see a white man with a rolling suitcase, call SPD’s non-emergency line (617-625-1600) and report it so that they can follow up with you if a break-in is reported in the area. The general M.O. of the break-ins is entry through a front door or window, exit with a rolling suitcase from inside stuffed with valuables.

2) Register all of your electronic devices that have tracking mechanisms (like Apple devices) and record the serial numbers. If someone takes one of these, SPD can work with Apple via subpeona – or your own “where’s my iPhone” style tracking – to locate your device and possibly the suspects.

3) If possible, vary your daily routine. The suspects may be casing targets for some time before breaking in.

My house was broken into and burglarized back in 2015, and I understand how devastating this can be. I know the SPD is working hard on this, and hope that we’ll have some resolution. Regardless, please do get renters or homeowners insurance and do what you can to keep your neighborhood safe.

Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any concerns, and pass this information along to neighbors

• Office Hours Every Friday

Just as a reminder: there’s no more accessible Alderman in the city than yours truly. Every Friday morning I hang out my shingle at 269 Washington Street, and welcome all comers between 8-10am. Please come down and chat about what’s on your mind! It’s usually a lively group, and the conversations are wide-ranging.

ACCOUNTABILITY

• Reserve Lists and Civil Service Hiring Updates

For a decade, Somerville has used “Reserve Lists” to abuse and manipulate the civil service hiring process. I can say that with confidence, since the City has lost multiple cases before the Civil Service Commission indicating that nepotism and favoritism warped the supposedly fair process that Civil Service hiring for police and firefighters is supposed to guarantee.

Back in 2015 the CBS I-Team did an in-depth story on the problem that you can watch here. Local activist DJ Cronin has also written a great piece published recently in the Patch that summarizes a lot of the problems with this practice, which the City is looking to once again extend to police hiring.

While the mayor claims that these reserve lists are just ways to streamline the hiring process, reams of Civil Service decisions against this same administration say differently – and I am not convinced. I have been meeting with both the police chief and the Personnel Department and conducting my own investigation into these practices, and will be subjecting this move to scrutiny in my Confirmation of Appointments committee. The time for “business as usual” has passed, and I will not stand for abuses like those of the last decade to occur on my watch.

• Wage Theft Ordinance Rewrite in Progress

Another sore point for local activists is the Somerville Wage Theft Ordinance. Passed in 2015 to great fanfare, it has literally never been enforced. In late 2018 the Herb Chambers group – which has a location in Ward 2 – was found liable for a 6-figure wage theft settlement with its workers. Unfortunately, the mayor’s administration has taken the position that Somerville’s much-vaunted wage theft ordinance can not be enforced against them.

Interestingly, Herb Chambers executives donated over $7,000 to Mayor Curtatone’s campaign fund on 11/21/18 – and have donated over $51,000 to his campaign over the years.

I am working with a team of local activists rewriting our ordinance to leave no room for ambiguity and to compel this administration to enforce the ordinance against unscrupulous employers who abuse their employees – and extend it to also ensure that subcontractors on major projects such as Assembly Row and Union Square are held accountable as well. I’ll be pursuing this work in the Licenses and Permits Committee with Alderman Rossetti at the Chair, so stay tuned.

• SRA Major Change Approved

One final piece on Accountability: recently our Home Rule Petition was approved which expands the current 5-member Somerville Redevelopment Authority to 7 members, one of whom will be an Alderman appointed by the President of the Board. This step should bring some more visibility and attention to their process, and will help ensure that the people of Somerville have a voice in the room where it happens.

Since the SRA will be vital in the future on further development plans for Boynton Yards and Union Square East – as well as the proposed new Public Safety building just over the Ward 1 line in Cobble Hill – this change is critically important and I hope Alderman Ballantyne will appoint one of the stalwart hawks of the Board to SRA, like Alderman McLaughlin or Alderman Ewen-Campen.

GREEN SPACE

• Urban Forestry Committee Finally Established

I am pleased to announce that the nominations to the Urban Forestry Committee have finally been chosen by the administration and will be submitted to the BOA for approval on Jan 24. I will be expediting their processing and plan to take them up before the end of January in my Committee on Confirmation of Appointments. While we still don’t have the complete list of the selections, I am excited to see the full list and put this enormous pool of concerned and hard-working citizens on the task of ensuring that our city starts living up to the moment when it comes to tree preservation and planting in Somerville.

Relatedly, a petition was recently put online by Chris Dwan, a ward 2 resident and outspoken activist who was one of the people tapped for the UFC, calling for the Arbor Day Foundation to revoke Somerville’s “Tree City” award status. Given what we’ve seen over the past 2 years, I’m hard pressed to disagree. Hopefully, the input of an empowered Urban Forestry Committee will lead us to stop the bleeding and reverse the damage done. 

• Tree Removal Ordinance Improvements Underway

It hasn’t been yet announced, but coming soon is a new ordinance that, similar to Cambridge, Arlington, and Newton, will protect large trees on private land. This has long been a priority for Alderman Niedergang – and one which I’ve written about skeptically in this newsletter before. After all, if the city can’t control it’s own tree removal problem, why target private home owners?

I’ve been working with a team on resolving the concerns I had, ensuring that homeowners always have a reasonable path to removing trees if needed while also doing a strong job of incentivizing developers to retain existing giants that make a neighborhood feel like more than a flash in the pan. That legislation is ready, and I’m sure we’ll see a full announcement later this week.

At the same time, I have been beyond frustrated with the tree removal we’ve seen in Somerville over the past year. As we’ve seen, our current ordinances require little restraint on our governments worst impulses, and I have been working on a major revision to Somerville’s treatment of trees on public property. I hope to have that legislation in Committee by the end of Q1.

If you are passionate about Somerville’s trees – and their important role in mitigating climate change – then I encourage you to join one of the great organizations in Somerville that are fighting for them. Green and Open Somerville and Somerville Friends of the Urban Forest have both been leading this charge, along with the Somerville Climate Coalition.

LOCAL ISSUES

• Development Neighborhood Meetings Update

In the past month alone, I hosted 8 separate neighborhood meetings regarding developments proposed for Ward 2. I think it’s vitally important for neighbors to know about what’s being proposed for their block, and ideally want their input considered before bringing those applications to the ZBA.

While Ward 2 continues to be the single most active place for condo construction in the city, I’m pleased that the developers seem to be starting to take the hint – it is no longer “open season” on our ward. These meetings are causing productive changes in development plans to increase green space and trees, improve design and traffic impacts, and in some cases even pull back from projects that would significantly damage a neighborhood.

If you get a notice on your door for one of these neighborhood meetings – not the ZBA mailed postcard, but an actual flyer – I really encourage you to come! It’s a good place to find common ground with your neighbors and I promise that your input makes a huge impact at this early stage of the process. It’s a great way to get involved and it really makes a difference.

• Union Square Neighborhood Council Elections Feb 2 and 4

Voting will be February 2 (Saturday 12-4pm) and February 4 (Monday 7am-8pm) at the Police Station for a new year and the new Board of the Union Square Neighborhood Council. It’s wonderful that we’ve had this hard-working bunch negotiating with the Master Developer in Union Square for big changes in the plan. On that list are accelerated affordable housing, increased green space, moving all the parking underground, green building standards for energy efficiency, ensuring that living wages are paid during the construction, and guaranteeing management neutrality when it comes to union organizing in the businesses that will inhabit the new buildings.

Check out the USNC’s website for more information about the candidates – who are some of your most active and civic-minded neighbors – and if you’re concerned about the future of Union Square I encourage you to start attending these meetings! Next year, it might be you on the ballot for the elected Board! 

Thanks for reading and staying engaged! I hope to see you some Friday at my weekly office hours, or you can always reach out to me at (857) 615-1532 or via email. Now, where’d I leave my shovel?

-JTS

Ward 2 Alderman (for a few more days, until Ward 2 City Councilor)

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