For the first time this year, Boston city councilors have the power to tear up the mayor’s budget. Are they going?
This is partly due to the logistical difficulty of doing so. The council continues to operate under significant limitations even after a successful ballot measure gave the body new budgetary powers. But the relative tranquility also points to early success for Wu, who — whether through his political acumen, structural constraints, the city’s strong financial position, or some combination of the three — appears to be avoiding the public budget wrangling his more recent predecessors have had to navigate.
“I am not interested in not passing the budget. I’m not particularly interested in not passing a budget for a woman of color who is mayor in her first term, in her first year of creating a budget,” the councilwoman said. Tania Fernandes Anderson, Board Ways and Means Chair. Committee. The board will come up with changes, she predicted, but won’t tear up Wu’s proposal “for the sport.”
Although imperfect, she added, “I think it’s a good operating budget.
The new budget process, approved by voters in the ballot last fall, aims to make the city’s spending decisions more democratic by allowing councilors to represent their respective wards. Critics have warned it could spiral into dysfunction, with many competing visions for the budget.
Wu, who served on the city council for many years, stressed that she wanted to embrace the new protocols and collaborate with councilors. She engaged advisors in the process long before she released her first proposal, an effort her staff so far attribute to the cooperative dynamic. Several people involved in the process said negotiations this year have so far been amicable, a departure from the animosity that has erupted between the administration and the board in previous years.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Boston is in good financial shape and isn’t planning any major cuts or layoffs. The city also has a comfortable stash of hundreds of millions of federal COVID recovery dollars that Wu has offered to spend. housing and environmental initiatives, among others.
Even the police department’s budget, a major source of previous political clashes, has yet to stoke the drama of years past. Wu herself voted against the city’s operating budget in 2020 and 2021, citing police issues each time. In 2020, she and a number of other local officials, including four current city councillors, called to reduce the budget by 10%. But his proposal this year only includes a 1% reduction.
Nonetheless, the debate over departmental spending has been quieter this year. In a hearing last week, only one councilor, Kendra Lara, directly called for cutting the police budget, and so far no councilor has tabled a formal budget amendment to that effect. Anderson, who said she would support some versions, anticipates further discussions in the coming weeks.
Given these relatively calm waters, it’s unclear what appetite councilors have for rewriting the budget Wu’s team drafted. Any changes may ultimately result from informal negotiations with the mayor rather than direct amendment. Anderson solicited proposed changes from fellow board members and plans to gather and disseminate their ideas so the body can develop a formal proposal.
Yet in the first year of the process, counselors learn just how difficult it will be to use their newfound power.
On the one hand, huge portions of the budget are virtually frozen, earmarked for major annual expenditures, including pensions, payroll and debt service. Nearly half of the 13 board members are new this year, with many still learning the details of the budget process. And councilors, unlike the mayor, aren’t equipped with dozens of budget experts, nor are they given the same months of time to compile and analyze the spending plan.
The most difficult political calculation: The council cannot come up with a budget that exceeds the $3.99 billion total described by Wu — meaning if councilors want to add somewhere, they have to subtract elsewhere. Cutting a budget is an unenviable political position for any elected official. And to protect against Wu’s pen of veto, any specific spending swap would need the support of nine advisers. This is a very high bar, given the organization’s ideological diversity, varied priorities and shifting alliances.
Police overtime spending, a huge expense and constant frustration for city officials, is a potential source of funding. But the law requires Boston to pay the police overtime bill even if it exceeds what the city budgeted. That means tapping the police overtime budget for other funding priorities would require tapping into city reserves to pay the department later.
During a working session on Wednesday afternoon, only one member of the authority, the president of the Council Ed Flynn, had even submitted proposals for amendments to the budget. His suggestions were modest tweaks, not sweeping revisions: he proposed moving relatively small sums of money, mostly within departments, to build speed bumps and raised crosswalks, and improve rodent control in his district.
Several councilors indicated other areas where they would like to see budget increases, but acknowledged that it was much more difficult to find equivalent reductions. Without more staff support, they said, the council cannot take full advantage of its new authority.
“People have given us this power to amend and we are staff limited,” Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune said. “Another request for this advice should be more [full-time employees] for this budget process, so that we can help determine where we want to take the money from.
It may take more than a year, several advisers have acknowledged, before the body takes full advantage of its new authority.
Regardless of how the council wields its power, responsibility for the city’s spending plans rests on its shoulders more than ever this year. Previously, councilors could throw the hot potato of unpopular budget decisions at the mayor’s fifth-floor office, complaining that their input had not been properly incorporated. Now, if voters aren’t happy with the city’s budget, it will be because their councilors either changed it or didn’t.
That’s what authority advocates envisioned last year as they pushed for change. But if the board didn’t make full use of its new powers this year, it wouldn’t be a failure or a missed opportunity, said Andres Del Castillo, whose organization, Right to the City Boston, supported the ballot issue.
“The first year is expected to feel what it’s like,” Del Castillo said in an interview. “They respect that authority. They are not careless with this.
Ivy Scott of Globe staff contributed to this report.