City Manager Tom Ambrosino delivered his State of the City address on Monday night, Feb. 26, prior to the Council meeting, and he implored the Council that the time to fill the storehouses is not now.
Ambrosino once again – as in the previous two State of the Cities – praised the former City governments for putting the City in a firm and solid financial position with a lot of reserves and savings.
However, he said the City just received $34 million in Free Cash from the state, and having that kind of money to save doesn’t sit well with him.
“Now, I give full credit this Council and others that preceded you for that incredible financial stewardship,” he said. “But, having that level reserves has to give us a little pause. There’s always been something just a little unsettling to me about this City having that much money in reserve. Government is not intended to be a profit making enterprise. Our goal isn’t to make money year after year. As a local government, our goal, our mission is to provide services to our residents. So, it is my strong opinion that with this level of reserves, we have an obligation, a fiduciary duty, to start investing more in our City. And, that will be something you will see from me this year and beyond.”
One of the major examples he quickly turned to was the $11.4 million Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) that he proposed two weeks ago to the Council – a plan that calls for more than $4.5 million in Free Cash to get started. The CIP plan focuses on projects like water and sewer repairs, sidewalks, public parks, street repairs and public building improvements.
Beyond those nuts and bolts spending measures – which Chelsea has neglected for many years – he said he will present plans in the next few months for things like more youth programming, a local workforce training program to prepare for the coming casino jobs, standardized trash barrels to reduce rodents, and a pilot program for Senior Citizen transportation.
“All of these are ideas that cost money to implement, and, if they are approved, they will reduce our reserves,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, we’re not going to be judged by how much money we have in the bank. We are going to be judged by whether we improved the lives of our residents. That is my overriding motivation as City Manager.”
Another piece of investment he noted – and one that Ambrosino will likely focus on more than any previous City Manager – is investing in the School Department.
“We have to avoid the temptation, which often happens in Massachusetts Municipalities, of looking at it as just another department competing for limited resources,” he said. “Instead, we have to consider it as our co-equal partner in making our community better.”
He said he wants to do more to help the students in the school system from the City’s reserves, and he rolled out an idea that would use City funds to pay for Chelsea High students to achieve higher education.
The program, he said, would be a pilot program for any Chelsea High student already enrolled in the dual enrollment program with Bunker Hill Community College. Under the pilot, any student in that program could go on to complete an Associate’s Degree at Bunker Hill after high school at no additional cost. City funds would cover the cost of students to finish that degree they started in high school.
“Again, I don’t look, and we shouldn’t look, at funding for the School Department needs as a burden,” he said. “Instead, it is a pure investment.”
Another area he said he would like to think about spending more reserves is in the possible acquisition of properties in the Broadway business district in order to build mixed-use affordable housing. Such an acquisition was successful at the Salvation Army Store on Broadway last year, and the City hopes to find a developer to complete the job this year.
He said if the City buys property, they can control the affordable component. That, he said, could spur large amounts of affordable housing that will sit aside what is expected to be a lot of private market-rate development on Broadway in the coming years.
“Because we own it, we can dictate the level of affordability in any development,” he said. “Maybe we consider other similar acquisitions, particularly in the Downtown, using either Reserves, as we did in acquiring the Salvation Army site, or through a tool we now have for the first time, Community Preservation Funds. I don’t have anything specific in mind at this time, but if another opportunity presents itself, particularly on Broadway, a further acquisition is something I might advocate to the Council.”
When it comes to development, Ambrosino was upbeat as well, saying there is great interest in the City.
On the Chelsea Creek, he announced that in the next few months, he would announce a significant mixed-use development for the Forbes Plant site. Much of the development, he said, is expected to be as of right and would need no extra relief at the Zoning or Planning Boards.
“Our goal for that project there is to ensure that the public benefits, particularly the public access to the waterfront, are not just significant, which they will need to be, but are also early action items, so that our residents benefit from the very start of the project, not just when the project is completed years from now,” he said.
On the same front, that being the waterfront, Ambrosino said the long-awaited Municipal Harbor Plan effort has finally moved forward. He announced that a contract has been signed with Utile Design of Boston to conduct the plan, and they are waiting for the Notice to Proceed from the state. He expects the first public meeting on that plan to take place in the spring.
With the Silver Line starting full operations on April 21, he said there is and will be great interest for development along that new public transit corridor.
“Developers have already been in to see us for parcels on Cottage Street and Sixth Street, and there will inevitably be more,” he said.
In conclusion, he said that he has enjoyed the “unique cohesiveness” that continues to exist in Chelsea.
“It’s why I love my role here; it’s why I’m optimistic; and, it’s why I can say without reservation that the State of the City in 2018 is very, very solid,” he concluded.