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Originally airing on WHCP 91.7fm on Wednesday 5/1/2024
By News Director Jim Brady

Listen to the interview:

Read the transcript:

WHCP: Two years ago, Tom Carroll arrived to serve as Cambridge city manager, and two years later, he’s bidding adieu, heading to his next job as manager of Lexington, Virginia. Tom, can you remember what you expected when you first reported for duty here in 2022?

TOM CARROLL: Sure. Everything was pretty much as I expected. There was a little bit more chaos within our organization than I was able to surmise from outside, but Cambridge is a challenging place to work as a city manager, but that’s what I signed up for and I'm extremely proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish and the people I’ve been able to hire and promote and the organization’s in much better shape. So I really believe that the city organization’s best days are before us.

WHCP: So looking over the last couple of years, what do you see as your hits for Cambridge?

TOM CARROLL: So our budget is in much better shape than when I arrived, and the budget, of course is a financial document, but it’s also sort of the city’s strategic plan and roadmap and it’s in great shape. As I leave, I’m submitting my draft budget city council, and it’s in really good shape. We’re doing a lot of important projects, setting aside money for the marina, building a sidewalk on Leonard’s Lane, addressing sanitary sewer issues. I think you know that the Cambridge Resiliency Project is funded, at least the design of it, and that’s moving forward. The police department’s basically rebuilding and that’s exciting. So those are some of the big hits.

WHCP: Now, how about some of the misses? Anything that you weren’t especially pleased with?

TOM CARROLL: My understanding is that this is a limited time slot for radio, so there’s not probably enough time to get into all the misses that we’ve had. There’s a lot of chaos and community engagement. I think what I would say is the level of trust in city government in Cambridge is lower than it should be, and I see where it comes from, but we’re never going to get out of the deficit of trust we have if we can’t invite the community to just take a breath, let us hit reset and let us get the organization open and transparent and be able to talk about things like what I call Watergate, the marina fence that was put in right around Christmas and New Year’s and turned out to be a much bigger controversy than I ever would’ve imagined.

WHCP: In your recent presentation of the city’s budget, there are surpluses of over $2 million in the general fund, plus you have millions more in special funds for water sewer, the marina special projects, and you wrote that this next year will be an inflection point for the city. How do you see that?

TOM CARROLL: So on the utility side, we are implementing an incredibly aggressive sanitary sewer set of upgrades that are absolutely essential. Over $8 million of sewer construction is about to start in our
community. In addition to that, we’re buying a bunch of equipment and hiring three new sanitary sewer maintenance workers to do a preventative maintenance. We have an aging sewer collection system and it overflows far too frequently, and so we need to really amp up our preventative maintenance asset management. In addition to that, we have the team in place to really start to do a lot of work on what’s called the How program in the Pine Street Neighborhood Home Ownership Works, and we’ll be building eight new single family homes that will be affordable to moderate income individuals. So you’re about to start to see a lot of housing programs get stood up by Eddie Crosby as our housing manager, and Gavin Wilford works with him in the Department of development. So we’re super excited about all the housing initiatives including the HOW program, but not limited to the HOW program. The police department is, like I said, they’re rebounding. We have two officers that will be graduating from the academy, a certified police officer that might be joining us. So the staffing levels are approaching what people would expect, and that’ a huge win for us.

WHCP: Now by your own account, in our previous conversations, the biggest concern has been the development of Cambridge Harbor. The dispute between the city and Cambridge Waterfront Development
Incorporated has grown more acute these last couple weeks with lawyers weighing in and Mayor Steve Rideout proposing changes to CWDI’s charter, you’ve set aside $500,000 for a potential court battle with them, and now state officials are stepping in to try to bring the sides together. What’s the latest with this, do you think?

TOM CARROLL: Well, the city is reserving half a million dollars in the upcoming fiscal year because CWDI has threatened us with litigation and we think they're just wrong, but if they’re going to threaten litigation, we’re going to be fully prepared to prevail. And so there’s a half a million dollars reserved in our budget for that litigation. I want to be clear, it’ll be up to the CWDI board if they want to pursue litigation or are unwilling to live up to the covenants of the agreements and that sort of thing, which will then force us to take legal action. Nobody wants this, nobody wants this, but you’ve seen their letter where they’re threatening all legal measures against us, and so we’re going to be fully prepared to prevail and protect the community’s interests if CWDI refuses to change the plan that we know won’t work. I do appreciate that delegate Tom Hutchinson and Secretary of DHCD, Jake Day are engaging in this. I’m not really party to those conversations. Again, everybody hopes that litigation can be avoided, but that’ll really rest with CWDI and their board and their executive director, and they’re the ones that are threatening litigation.

WHCP: What are the must haves for the city in any arrangement with CWDI that aren’t there now?

TOM CARROLL: The City Council issued a letter back in October and we labeled our four concerns that we have about the project. The first is they need to have an outside master site developer and they will not be the developer of the site themselves. That is just the fundamental problem from which all the other problems stem. The second problem is that there’s just not enough economic value generated in their project. We can get into the fine details of the third issue, which is a tax increment finance district. I’ve never really presented to the public all the concerns that I see in their latest TIF model. It’s the same concerns that I had in the previous ones that they begrudgingly shared with the city. It’s an overly speculative, overly leveraged back-ended repayment of debt that is based on a 2% continuous appreciation and valuation over 30 years, which just frankly won’t materialize if you think about the last 30 years, right? I mean, think about what’s occurred in the last 30 years. We didn’t have the internet 30 years ago. Really. We didn’t have smartphones. There’s been a dot-com bubble, the great recession, a pandemic, a couple of wars, nine 11 Beyonce came out with a country album. I mean, the world is unpredictable, so we just don’t know what’s going to happen, but 2% appreciation is not going to happen.

WHCP: Is there anything about the Cambridge Harbor conflict looking back that you regret or would do differently?

TOM CARROLL: I would only say that I think the city should have taken bold actions earlier. I don’t know C W’s budget, but I’m just going to speculate that they’re spending $10,000 a week or so on their organization and their advancing week after week, a plan that won’t work. And ultimately all of that money that they’re spending is coming from the taxpayers, whether it’s city, county, or state. And so the burn rate and the possible wastage is considerable. So I think if I could do anything over, I would’ve been more assertive earlier.

WHCP: Tell us about where you see Cambridge in the next five or 10 years.

TOM CARROLL: So Cambridge’s future is extremely bright. I really am bullish on the community. We as a city are starting to tackle a great number of the housing challenges that will rectify the tax base in the city and provide great housing conditions for the residents, particularly our disadvantaged residents. Cambridge Harbor is an exciting project. It’s an important project. If it’s done right, it can be transformative for this community. If it’s done wrong, it’ll be a real anchor around our neck. And so that’s why I think it’s so important that we get it right. There’s just so much that’s positive about the community that I think the city organization is poised to really do the work that the community expects us to do.

WHCP: So are there any tips you would give the next permanent city manager?

TOM CARROLL: No, I don’t have any tips for whoever that might be. I’ll be happy to talk to any candidates in the city management world. We’re all colleagues and somebody may call me and I will tell them that I think you should apply. This is a good job. It’s a challenging position, but this is a great community and it just needs to get its situation worked out with regard to the waterfront.

WHCP: So now it’s come to any parting thoughts or wishes for the people you’ve worked with or out in the community?

TOM CARROLL: My only parting thought, really, Jim, is that I really hope the city, the community, can come together around a racial divide. And it’s very serious continuing. And I think it’s incumbent, frankly, upon our white residents to reach out to the black residents and listen, reach out and invite the conversation and then listen with an open mind and understand that we have some restoration that we need to do to make things right. We didn’t get this way as a segregated community with deep divides in terms of poverty by race, by accident, and I think there’s atonement that we need to do. That would be my parting wish.

WHCP: Well, thanks for making time for us today, and best of luck in your new adventure.

TOM CARROLL: Thanks, Jim.