Mayor Michelle Wu this week kicked the city’s multibillion dollar budget back to the City Council in the latest volley over how to spend money from the federal government and Boston taxpayers.
A citywide ballot question approved by voters last year expanded the City Council’s budgetary powers, allowing for more of a back-and-forth between the 13-member body and the chief executive down the hall. This year’s budget is the first to be negotiated under the new structure.
After Wu submitted her version earlier this year, the Council last week passed an amended budget that took $14.5 million out of police and fire accounts and sent the money toward housing and youth jobs initiatives. Last year’s ballot question allows the council to amend the budget as well as override the mayor if there’s a disagreement, rather than making it a simple up-or-down vote affair as in previous years.
In its budget proposal last week, councillors unanimously cut $10 million from the police department’s overtime account. Wu put the $4 billion budget back in the council’s hands on Monday, pitching a smaller cut to public safety accounts.
“As we all are aware, due to state laws that require payment of all public safety overtime hours worked — regardless of the size of the budgeted line item — this would set up the city to repeat a pattern over several years of overspending on this line item and dipping into needed reserves from other areas to cover that,” she wrote. “Therefore, I cannot include a false reduction to the budget that would create unpredictability elsewhere.”
She pledged to rein in overtime, but instead of reducing the line item by $10 million, she reduced it by $1.2 million that would be achieved through the delay of the next class of recruits by two months, and a $200,000 reduction in the department’s equipment line. She also proposed reducing the Fire Department’s equipment line by $300,000.
If revenue from the state comes in higher later this year, a “top priority” for the administration will be the restoration of the recruit class, Wu wrote.
Overall, the mayor’s latest proposal increases city spending by $219 million over last year, or 5.8 percent.
“Over the next three years, new commitments in the Operating and Capital Budgets paired with federal recovery funds will infuse an unprecedented $365 million into affordable housing, supportive services, and public housing preservation and creation,” Wu said in her letter to the Council.
Her proposal also creates a Center for Behavioral Health to “elevate mental health as a citywide priority, a coordinated crisis response program, specialized supports for older adults, and pathways for greater representation of Boston residents and people of color in public safety jobs.”
The bill also includes elements of the “Boston Green New Deal” that Wu touted on the campaign trail, asking for a “greener” fleet of city vehicles, a citywide composting program, and money toward tree canopies and open spaces.
Councillors can insist on their version of the budget, but they need nine votes to do so as part of their new budgetary powers.
Aside from amending the budget last week, councillors also passed the $1.3 billion Boston Public Schools budget, despite concerns about transparency from school officials. Three voted “no” on that budget: City Councillors At-Large Michael Flaherty and Erin Murphy, and Dorchester’s District 3 Councillor Frank Baker.
With election season behind them, the budgetary talks have been a quieter affair than last year. At that time, three councillors — Wu, Annissa Essaibi George and Andrea Campbell — were running for mayor, with Kim Janey also a candidate while in the chief executive’s chair as acting mayor.
Wu and Campbell were the two votes against 2021’s $3.67 billion operating budget. East Boston Councillor Lydia Edwards, now a state senator, memorably compared the budget process then to a “little farce” and the budget as a “kidney stone” that would pass.