Members of the Cambridge City Council discussed their plans for the city's budget for the 2023 fiscal year Wednesday afternoon in a virtual meeting.
In the nearly two-hour-long meeting, councilors questioned city manager Louis A. DePasquale and his staff on the budget’s alignment with their priorities, with multiple council members complaining about the lack of transparency in budget allocation.
As city manager, DePasquale is responsible for preparing the city budget according to goals laid out by the council. The council then votes on whether to authorize the final budget.
During the meeting, councilors told DePasquale and his staff about areas they felt deserved more attention and funding in the budget.
Councilor Dennis J. Carlone, a finance committee co-chair, read a list of priorities he said have been underfunded in previous years — including affordable housing, open space, and expanded pre-school access. He called for the council and the city manager to have a more productive dialogue than in past years about how the budget could be improved.
“If we don’t talk about where we’re lacking, we’re always going to lack there,” Carlone said.
Councilor Marc C. McGovern called for more transparency in the creation of the budget and said there should be more avenues for the Council and city staff to coordinate earlier in the process.
“We file lots of policy orders, and some may come to the point of getting into the budget, and some are still waiting on an ‘awaiting reports’ list,” McGovern said. “We never know what’s being considered or what’s not.”
“We have to figure out something where we’re just not getting the budget in May, and we’re as surprised as anybody else as to what’s in it and what’s not in it,” he added. “It sets up this conflict every year.”
In the meeting, DePasquale defended the budget staff and department heads, saying they worked to create a budget broadly aligned with council goals.
“They have gone out of their way to develop budgets to show how important we think it is to listen to the Council,” DePasquale said.
He argued that it was “unfair” to ask budget staff to implement changes so late in the budgeting process.
“The departments have been working on their budget for six months, and now they’re about ready to present it to the city manager,” DePasquale said. “So to think now, just because it hasn’t been presented, they can go about it and make all these changes, is unfair to them, and it’s unfair to the city.”
Vice Mayor Allana M. Mallon said in the meeting that she was “surprised” by the “defensive stance” of the city manager and his team when it came to working with the council on the budget.
“It makes it really hard to have a conversation about priorities when we’re just telling you what our priorities are, and we’re not necessarily feeling that reflected back by the team,” Mallon said.
As the city searches for a replacement for DePasquale, who plans to retire this summer, Carlone said that he hopes for an expanded council role in budget proceedings with the new manager.
“We’re getting ready for our new manager,” Carlone said in an interview, “and we’re going to be more proactive in establishing the budget.”