Menino says new budget offers city 'stability'

Mayor Thomas Menino unveiled last week a proposed $2.42 billion operating budget for Boston, a 5.1 percent increase that would be mitigated, in part, by increases in parking fines. A five-year capital budget of $1.5 billion was also highlighted, with expenditures expected to total $151 million in the coming fiscal year.

Some of the moves, particularly the increase in some parking fines, drew criticism from city councillors, who have 60 days to consider the budget and were still looking over it this week.

Menino said the budget provided "stability in a time of uncertainty."

"Even though our health and energy costs are going up, and state and federal aid is going down, we will continue to improve upon basic city services and expand programs which help our young people and improve the quality of life for everyone in Boston," he said in a statement.

Dorchester sees the most focus in the five-year capital plan, with $108.3 million slated for the city's largest neighborhood. Only Roxbury, at $99 million, comes close.

The Dorchester Avenue reconstruction project is still in the design phase, with a $7.8 million line item in the budget. Other projects in the design phase include several playgrounds, and the Great Hall in Codman Square, which would see its boiler replaced and access to the building for people with disabilities for $870,000.

The Strand Theatre is an ongoing project, with $7.5 million slated for its masonry repairs, sprinkler and security system work, and upgrades of seating, lighting and the boiler.

The Jeremiah Burke High School remains under construction, due to re-open in September. The price tag attached to the project is $49.5 million. The project includes a new library and gym, with the existing school building getting renovated to have a new cafeteria.

Projects still to be scheduled include replacing doors and windows at the Adams Branch library, a new Uphams Corner library ($13 million), and a roof replacement and cell-block renovation at the Area C-11 police station on Gibson Street.
For a full list of Dorchester-related projects in the budget, click here.

"Obviously, you'd like to do more," said Councillor-at-large Stephen Murphy of the operations budget. Murphy heads up the council's Ways and Means committee, which is scheduling hearings over the coming weeks on the budget proposal. The council cannot add, but only cut the budget. State aid is down to 21 percent from 30 percent a decade ago, and reliance on property taxes has risen to 57 percent from 51 percent.

"This is the seventh budget we've had with zero growth in it," aside from salary increases, Murphy said. "We're struggling as every municipality is."

Murphy also raised the possibility of upping the payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) that churches and universities voluntarily make for their land being tax-exempt, and the rental fees for city owned-buildings such as Faneuil Hall.

"It's a very basic budget," he said. "There's not a lot of room for increases in any department."

Indeed, several departments saw cuts, including the mayor's own office, with $28,655 cut from its last budget. The administration and finance office saw a 2.7 percent decline in its budget, and the Department of Voter Mobilization sees a 12 percent, or $442,000 decline, in its budget.

Councillor at-Large Sam Yoon, said the budget was one that was "just looking to get by for another year."

"I happen to believe we need to start a conversation about a long-term vision for the future of our city," he said.

The budget should provide an opportunity to showcase creative solutions and saving taxpayer money, Yoon said.

"I'm just not seeing evidence of that this year," he said.

Yoon criticized the increases in fees and fines, many of which will be increased for the first time since the 1990s.

"It's almost literally a drop in the bucket," he said, adding that fees and fines should be something reviewed on a more regular basis. "It's kind of a red herring."

Councillor-at-large Michael Flaherty, widely expected to challenge Menino in next year's mayoral election, said he will be looking at the budget for areas where new technology can be employed and wasteful spending can be cut. The new technology includes snow melting and pothole machines, along with CitiStat, which Flaherty has been pushing as a constituent complaint tracking service.

"The bad news is the city has yet to implement any of them," he said.

Menino aides have said the city is using the same technology and proceeding at the same pace as San Francisco, with a three-to-five year plan.