Menino lays out $2.5b plan

Mayor Thomas Menino yesterday laid out a $2.5 billion spending plan for fiscal 2011 that includes 250 fewer jobs, four fewer libraries, and eight fewer community centers, while expanding education funding and grappling with rising health care costs.

The plan, increasing by 2.5 percent from the fiscal 2010 budget, depends on using $45 million from the city’s reserves. The mayor also submitted a capital budget that includes funds for renovating several school libraries and media labs, playgrounds, courts in nine parks, a new branch library in East Boston, and resurfacing 21 miles of roadways. The revamping of four Dorchester Ave. intersections, which has become a fixture of the capital budget, also continues.

On the operating side of the ledger, the city is expecting to receive $20 million less in funding from the state, the city’s second largest revenue source after property taxes. That hole will be covered by revenue from the installation of last year’s meals tax and an increase in the hotel tax, city budget officials said.

The city also sees a $20 million increase, to nearly $300 million, or 12 percent of the budget, in the cost of providing health benefits to city employees and retirees. “It’s bigger than the police budget,” Menino told city councillors at a morning meeting yesterday where he laid out his budget proposals.

The Police Department’s budget clocks in at $271 million, down from $280 million in the fiscal 2008 budget and pegged at the same level as the appropriation for fiscal 2010.

Health insurance costs are expected to rise by more than $100 million in the next five years. “That’s a visual depiction of the city eating itself, cannibalizing its core services,” said City Council President Michael Ross. “Our unions need to come to the table. Their jobs are at risk from this cannibalization.”

Through consolidations, reorganizations and position eliminations, the budget is expected to save $50 million. Some of the cuts and consolidations include the deferral of equipment replacement in the school department, attempts to lower energy consumption, and the elimination of 250 jobs. Under the budget, the graphic arts department within the office of administration and finance is eliminated.

The budget also includes the closure of four libraries, including the Lower Mills branch in Dorchester. The process for school closures starts next year.

The Boston Centers for Youth and Families will pull out of eight facilities, including the Marshall community center in Dorchester and the Mattahunt community center in Mattapan. The other six facilities include the Agassiz and English in Jamaica Plain, the Johnson Community Center in Roxbury, the Walsh Center in South Boston, the West Roxbury Community Center, and the Stillman Tennis Center in Charlestown.

The budget includes $21 million for kindergarten programs for three to five-year-olds, increased by $11.7 million in programs and services for English language learners and a five percent increase in funding for students with disabilities.

“There’s going to be collective pain, I think, shared citywide,” said District 3 Councillor Maureen Feeney.

“It’s the start of what looks to be a painful process,” said City Councillor At-Large Stephen Murphy, a former chair of the Council’s Ways and Means Committee.

He said the mayor had done a “good job” laying out his priorities for the city. “Now it’s a question of whether or not the council collectively and individually agrees with those priorities,” he said.

Menino said that other cities are also facing tough budgets: New York has proposed cutting 1,300 police officers and Seattle is facing a $50 million budget shortfall, while having only $10 million left in reserves.

“A budget, above all, is an accounting of choices,” Menino wrote in a letter to the councillors. “In the context we face, with fewer resources and more obligations to meet, the choices this year are tough ones. As elected officials, we don’t have the option to muddle through or delay until another day. If we can make the difficult decisions, fortunately we can, even under limiting circumstances, provide for our neighbors this year and for our city’s future.”

For community centers, Dorchester and Mattapan will still have the Murphy, Holland, Gallivan, Cleveland, Mildred Ave., and the Perkins. BCYF, the city agency, operates 46 sites across the city, an increase from three community centers 40 years ago.

City officials say services will remain at the centers, though BCYF won’t be operating them. “The reality is that operating 46 sites within the city prevents us from achieving the level of quality, accountability, and consistency that our communities deserve,” Daphne Griffin, BCYF executive director, wrote in a letter to Council members. “Our staffing remains thin across our network of sites and many sites are under utilized as a result.”

She wrote that the staff will be re-deployed and the operation of the sites will transition to other community and non-profit partners.

“In the majority of these facilities there are other organizations already offering programming who will likely expand their own programming at those locations,” she wrote. “At some facilities, we are working with new organizations that may begin providing new programming or expanding our current partnerships.”