Commentary: Expand engagement, not dysfunction while tending the city budget process

The Boston Municipal Research Bureau’s mission is focused on sound city finances and policy so that Boston has the resources and tools to do what it needs to do and wants to do, now and in the future, for all who live, work, and learn in our city.

Boston’s budget process is an important part of maintaining financial stability. The City of Boston is a $6.61 billion municipal corporation, with a budget process that continually develops during the course of a fiscal year with ample opportunity for the City Council to shape the priorities of the city.

Why does the Research Bureau believe Councillor Lydia Edwards’s proposal to change Boston’s budget process is not in the best interests of the city’s ability to meet community needs?

Legal Issues - The proposed Charter amendment is fraught with legal issues right out of the starting gate. This is not a minor amendment to the City Charter but a major revision that would require at least a Home Rule Petition to make such a major change to the fundamental structure of Boston’s government. The proposal includes giving the City Council authority to decide which education needs get how much funding in the School Department budget - in direct conflict with state law that authorizes only the School Committee to program school funds.

Fiscal Uncertainty – Competing powers and lack of accountability would lead to fiscal uncertainty that the city cannot afford. Boston needs to continue with strong financial management to maintain its fiscal health, deliver basic services, and be prepared and flexible to deal with the changing needs of residents as well as downturns in the economy. This proposed charter change is ill-advised, especially during the fiscal uncertainty of the current pandemic.

Limited Capacity of the City Council for Budgeting - At $6.61 billion, the budget process is complex and involves hundreds of employees, financial experts, and the financial teams throughout city departments. The City Council structure and staff is not prepared to complete this type of analysis and evaluation.

We all seek a responsive budgetary process from our government officials – city council and mayor alike - that provides the resources to meet the Boston community’s needs. Thoughtful City Council approval and review is key. There are numerous opportunities throughout the fiscal year for the City Council to exercise its current powers and responsibilities to impact the policy goals and direction of the city, provide a different perspective than the administration, and establish a more inclusive process with the public.

To improve public engagement, City Councillors currently have the power and responsibility as elected officials to connect with residents on issues important to their districts and the community as a whole. For example, setting up budget hearings in the community before the budget season inviting public input from residents on where they would like to see more city appropriations and considerations for tailoring the budget to residents’ needs.

This could better inform the councillors’ understanding of how to guide budget discussions with the mayor and the departments.

Boston’s operating and capital budgets are living documents that are updated, with City Council participation, constantly throughout the fiscal year. The City Council already has the authority and responsibility to approve (or reject) spending in the city, including items like collective bargaining contracts that occur outside of the regular budget process.

The City Council may not be at the bargaining table, but it does have the power and responsibility to reject a contract and push for reforms and accountability.

The City Council has the power to reduce spending for departments - this is a powerful avenue that is not often employed by councillors during the budget process but that could help them make progress in advancing policy goals and holding the mayor accountable.

It’s time for the City Council to utilize these options, fulfill the role they were elected to do, and advocate for the needs of the community. Focusing on taking power from the mayor and changing the fundamental structure of Boston’s government is not in the best interests of the residents of Boston; it only invites chaos.

Pam Kocher, a Boston resident, is the President of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.