In 'worst of times,' Menino ponders policy

During an hour-long interview in his Parkman House retreat on Beacon Street last week, Mayor Thomas Menino challenged state government to conceive of an "outside-the-box" solution to the state's fiscal problems, committed to spend political capital in pursuit of a long-delayed reform to the city's school transportation program, and doggedly refused to say whether he would run for reelection, even as he assembles a campaign team with the September preliminary seven months away.

Menino said his "entire focus" was on developing his budget, and called the financial straits "the worst of times for me, personally."

"I'm far from finished being mayor and I like my job and I'll continue to work at it," Menino said when pressed about whether he would run. "I'll make a decision, probably the time is spring."

Asked whether voters would be given the chance to make a studied decision about their next mayor, Menino replied, "That's seven months away. They will have that opportunity to be fully informed."

"Nice guys, young guys," Menino said of announced challenger Councillor Michael Flaherty and rival Councillor Sam Yoon, his most serious challengers since he beat former state Rep. James Brett in 1993. "They want to be mayor. They have to put their name on the ballot and describe their policies and practices, and what they've done as a city Councillor, and what they hope to do as mayor."

Flaherty labeled Menino's analysis of the slowdown's repercussions "extremely short-sighted."

"It's a classic example of management by crisis," Flaherty said in a telephone interview. "A lot of these difficult decisions should've been made several years ago."

Seated at a table in the back room of the storied Parkman House, lunching on a roast vegetables sandwich from Sam LaGrassa's, Menino said the municipal financing package Patrick has proposed does not do enough to boost revenues for municipalities.

"I believe they have to think outside the box," Menino said, recalling a meeting he had with then-Senate President William Bulger where Menino, then a city Councillor, pushed for an elevated meals tax. Bulger listened, then proposed a novelty tax on jet fuel that Menino recalled netting $18 million.

Menino said he was reluctant to back House Speaker Robert DeLeo's push for racetrack slot machines, preferring Gov. Deval Patrick's proposal for resort casinos, and hoping that East Boston's Suffolk Downs hosts one of those facilities.

"If I have to, I might support them," Menino said of slots.

The mayor's refusal to answer questions about his candidacy has frustrated some political observers, many of whom consider the campaign all but a certainty for launch. Flaherty announced his bid last month, and Yoon went public with his on Sunday.

Menino insisted he was consumed by the job of governing, and said active campaigning would hamstring his notably pedestrian day-to-day functions: civic meetings, ribbon-cuttings, etc.

Fresh from a press conference during which he backed School Superintendent Carol Johnson's layoff outline, Menino said that he was willing to "step up" and work for a redrawn school assignment system. Advocates say a new plan could save tens of millions annually, while skeptics worry about the city's history of school segregation. Menino said he had worked to move a reform forward in 2004, but ran into political hurdles.

"I tried to, but nobody wanted to move," Menino said.

Menino criticized Hill legislation that would tax university endowments above $1 billion, and said he wanted a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes task force to bring him recommendations that would help the city nourish its property tax revenues, now limited by a land designation policy under which more than half the city is exempt.

"You need to put uniformity into the agreements. That's what I want to have," Menino said.

Flaherty knocked Menino again over the trend toward tax-exempt properties, particularly those owned by higher education institutions.

"We've had no partner in the administration to leverage any political capital that he has with respect to the universities to get them to pay their fair share. For the last 16 years, we've watched colleges and universities gobble up land literally in our backyard," Flaherty said.

The mayor said he was frustrated by the pace of construction in a number of areas around the city, most notably the South Boston waterfront and Downtown Crossing. The citywide slump, coming on the heels of a construction boom, will likely lead to funding shortages, Menino said, for programs like summer jobs for teens, viewed as vital to tamping down crime during non-school months.

He conceded city planners could have done more to shape development along the waterfront, where a number of battles are still unfolding. "It's been slower than we expected. We could've done a better job of planning down there," he said.

Menino has refused to abandon his hopes of relocating City Hall to the waterfront, but acknowledged that the move, which would reverberate into other neighborhoods with some city departments shifted to Dudley Square, could happen in "five years, maybe."

"My biggest concern, he said, "is the Filene's building. I'm very concerned about that. We have to get that back. That means so much to our revitalization of Downtown Crossing. The financing has gone south, and we have to get the partnership back on line."