At-large hopefuls talk taxes, BRA and busing in first forum

Candidates' forum in Back Bay: Incumbent councillor Steve Murphy, first-time candidates Hiep Nguyen and Ayanna Pressley are shown at a candidates' forum sponsored by the Ward 4 and Ward 5 Democratic committees on Tuesday, June 23, 2009. Photo by Mike DeehanCandidates' forum in Back Bay: Incumbent councillor Steve Murphy, first-time candidates Hiep Nguyen and Ayanna Pressley are shown at a candidates' forum sponsored by the Ward 4 and Ward 5 Democratic committees on Tuesday, June 23, 2009. Photo by Mike DeehanThe crowded field of candidates for Boston’s four at-large city council seats assembled for the first of what will likely be many times this summer for a candidates’ forum on Tuesday evening in the Back Bay. The 90 minute event, held in the hall of a Copley Square church, revealed contrasts in issues and personalities and ended in endorsements for two candidates from the Ward 5 Democratic Committee, which co-sponsored the forum with the Ward 4 committee.

Twenty-five members of the committee voted to endorse incumbent councilor John Connolly and newcomer Ayanna Pressley, a former aide to U.S. Sen. John Kerry who lives in Dorchester. In total, thirteen of the fifteen candidates attended the Tuesday night forum, with Felix G. Arroyo, son of the former city councillor, arriving late because of his official campaign kick-off being held earlier that night.

A number of the 13 candidates who attended called for universities and hospitals, which sit on tax-exempt land, to up their payments in lieu of taxes.

“We’re just asking for our fair share,” said John Connolly, an incumbent serving his first term.

Brandishing a white piece of paper with the word “GREED” written on it, candidate Bill Trabucco echoed Connolly and others, saying, “They want us to pay for them. I say they pay their fair share.”

Others who voiced support of increased payments from hospitals and universities included incumbent Stephen Murphy and former City Hall aide Andrew Kenneally.

Colleges and universities have come out against the increased payments, saying they’re suffering from a shrinking economy just as much as the city and already contribute millions of dollars in economic development.

The city received $31.4 million in payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) in fiscal 2008, with $15.6 million coming from Massport, which manages Logan International Airport, and $15.8 million from universities, hospitals and other nonprofits. Mayor Thomas Menino has convened a task force to look into the payments, with a report due later this year.

Asked about how they would handle the city’s $2.45 billion budget, others, such as former City Hall aide Tomas Gonzalez and Pressley, said they would support hikes in the meals tax, included in the state budget currently on Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk. Gonzalez and fellow candidate Doug Bennett said he supported taxing certain properties owned by telecommunications companies.

But others called for a leaner City Hall.

“People can’t afford to pay more taxes,” said Tito Jackson, who works in the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, adding he will look for waste to cut in the city budget. “I don’t think we should burden them with more.”

Hiep Nguyen, a certified public accountant, said he would call for a personnel audit and limit overtime to “essential services.
“This will ensure there is no waste, no duplication of effort,” he said.

Sean Ryan, a Fenway Park hot dog seller, said city workers should take a 10 percent pay cut, with a 14 percent reduction in the salaries of the mayor and the City Council. He said he would also phase out busing.

Bennett and Ryan said residents were paying too much in taxes. “We need to shake up City Hall,” Bennett said. “I’ll take City Hall, flip it upside down and shake the change out.”

Ego Ezedi, former executive director of the Roxbury YMCA, said he and his staff would do the same thing they did when at the YMCA: come up with solutions to the city’s budget problems. “My response is we have to be creative,” he said. “Together we can do it.”

Asked about city development plans and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which has drawn both controversy for allegedly politicizing development and derision from candidates running against, several City Council candidates said they were open to changing the agency’s functions or abolishing it all together.

Gonzalez said the city’s planning department “probably” needs to be separate from development dealings. Pressley and Jackson also said it should be considered.

Ryan, along with fellow candidate Scotland Willis, said the BRA was “outdated” and called for its abolition. Ryan said he would push for zoning allowing greater residential density, bringing down rents, and allowing for taller office buildings. Bennett said government should stay out of the city planning process.

But Murphy, who has been on the City Council for 13 years, said changes to the BRA are “probably not going to happen.” The agency was created under state law with development and planning functions, and changes would require a home rule petition signed off by the council, the mayor and the state Legislature.
“The people in office right now will not agree,” he said. “That’s just a fact of life.”

Candidates also tackled a third topic: education. Pressley, Willis and Jackson pressed for a mentoring program for city youth, while Bennett and Murphy urged an end to busing students to different areas of the city, away from where they live, and Ryan said more charter schools is the answer, along with ending busing.

“We have 700 buses doing a job that 400 buses could be doing,” Murphy said. “There is waste and efficiency in the school bus plan.”

Each candidate touted their own life experiences to differentiate themselves from one another. “I don't need a road map to figure out City Hall,” Gonzalez said, pointing to his time as an aide there.

Kenneally said he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor 10 months ago, and doctors have removed “100 percent” of it. “I’m not going to lie on my deathbed and say, gee I wish I did this,” he said of his At-Large City Council run.

“I’m running because I love this city,” said Pressley, pointing to when the Ella Baker House was struck by a fire, she looked to the U.S. Library of Congress, which had extra books to spare. “I know the importance of good government.” She also noted that the council has not had a woman in the at-large seat since 2003 and her ethnicity as an African-American.

Trabucco, an EMT worker who was born and raised in Dorchester, said he isn’t accepting donations for his campaign, unlike the other candidates.
“My credit card is financing my campaign,” he said. “So I’m putting my money where my mouth is.”

The forum was moderated by Boston Phoenix reporter David Bernstein. Questions were supplied in advance, but candidates were unaware of which ones would be picked.

Gintautas Dumcius is a contributing editor for the Reporter. For more coverage of the '09 city election, see the Reporter's political blog, The Lit Drop. Also, for more on this forum, see Universal Hub's coverage here.

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