'Austerity' hallmark of mayor's budget

When Mayor Thomas Menino unwrapped last year’s city budget, he touted its stability and a host of reconstruction projects.

This year, not so much. If anything, this year’s city budget is highly unstable as state revenues continue to plunge and policymakers have yet to see a bottom. The state’s House of Representatives was set to unveil this week a fiscal 2010 budget even more austere than the governor’s version, with deeper cuts in services and none of the tax increases both Governor Deval Patrick and Menino have pushed for.

“It’s the year of local aid cuts,” said Sam Tyler, head of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, an independent watchdog group, in reference to the money the state sends the city for funding of local services.

The city’s $2.4 billion budget, an increase of $5 million from last year, includes 565 layoffs, including teachers and policemen. Because of the cuts, the budget is, unlike other years, a “work in progress,” Tyler said. “We don’t know what the final budget is going to be yet.”

City Councillor Maureen Feeney, who has represented Dorchester’s third district since 1993, called the budget the “most dire situation in my tenure.” Still, Feeney says she has been “impressed” with the Menino administration’s engagement of the City Council to date and the budget’s commitment to funding key priorities, such as the expansion of K-8 and pilot schools.

The budget showdown is exacerbated by a mayoral election that features two candidates from the council– Sam Yoon and Michael Flaherty. The other contender is Kevin McCrea, a South End businessman. Menino, while widely expected to run for another four-year term, has not made a formal announcement.

But Yoon says that Menino is the one holding the political football when it comes to the budget.
“The budget process is 100 percent political,” Yoon told the Reporter. “That’s entirely what the problem is. The mayor’s the one who makes it that way.”

Menino budget officials have also sat down with city councillors behind closed doors, Yoon added, to talk about their concerns about the budget.

“The mayor starts off with guaranteed passage of his budget every year,” Yoon said, adding that he has voted against the final passage of the budget.

Menino aides disputed the notion of a politicized budget, saying they’ve met at least three times in public with city councilors.

“It’s the city’s major policy statement,” said Meredith Weenick, associate director for administration and finance. “I think it stands for delivering services to people.”

Weenick noted that council hearings, which run through June – when the budget must be adopted by the council – start this week. “We deliver a plan, we welcome open discussion of what is in the plan,” she said.

Feeney agreed: “If anything, [the administration] has improved the process this year.”
For that reason — plus the realities of an election year— discussion of the budget will likely include a more active council than in years past.

Because of the deep cuts to local aid, “I think the council feels they need to come up with new thoughts and new initiatives,” Tyler said. He added: “They’re running for office, so that influences their thinking a little bit.”

Menino’s budget could get rejected more than once, and that’s not counting the largely ceremonial rejection in early June, when the council sends it back to the mayor for revisions.

“I think they’re going to have to go back and find other ways,” Tyler said. “I think this is going to be an evolving budget…until it’s finally approved.”

“I think the direness of the situation is spurring everybody to try to find new ways to raise revenue and save money,” said Councilor Stephen Murphy, a former chair of the Ways and Means Committee. “The fiscal crisis is so real and so severe that no matter who is running for mayor, we’re going to have to collectively deal with it.”

State Rep. Marty Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat, said he saw few options for those looking to score points through the budget.

“I don’t think there’s any political gain for going after someone on the budget,” he said. “It’s just a very bad economy all around.”

For his part, Flaherty has proposed that city employees who have not agreed to a wage freeze, agree to a one-day furlough every other month, totaling six days, in order to reduce the need for layoffs. Using the average salary, the savings could total $19.8 million a year, according to Flaherty’s campaign.
City Council President Michael Ross has also put forward a proposal for the city to sell some of its tax title debt to private companies. The city has about $30 million in uncollected taxes, which if grabbed, Ross said, could reduce the number of police officers and teachers cut.

“This was a policy debate,” Ross said. “The important thing is we’re having the conversation. We’re losing uniform police office officers, teachers, that’s a big deal.”

Outside of the council, McCrea has hit Menino on hiring 165 workers, saying that the fiscal 2010 budget shows the jobs were added in the last year. A hiring freeze of unnecessary personnel was instituted in October.

McCrea, who has emerged as a critic of the city’s finances, said in a statement, “These numbers show that the term ‘fiscal responsibility’ is not in the Mayor’s vocabulary. Especially when the Mayor has been threatening to fire teachers and police officers. Somehow he has found the resources to make these new hires while still claiming that we have to make huge cuts.”

Menino aide Weenick said the hires came before the freeze and that each department receives a certain amount of flexibility in hiring. Many of the hires were in the school department, along with hires in the emergency services department to improve response time and additional staffers for two new city libraries that just opened.

She said parking enforcement officers were also hired, since they help bring in revenue through the fees they collect. Lifeguards were also hired.

“You can’t have a pool open if you don’t have a lifeguard,” she said.

Feeney says that city government would do well to avoid election year pot-shots through the budget process.

“We’ve got to work together,” she said. There can’t be any divisiveness right now. No matter what office we’re running for, we need to stay focused on what people sent us here and not what’s politically expedient.”