Boston councilors approve budget after charged debate

11th-hour effort demanding changes to address race issues fails  



AFTER MORE THAN two hours of debate, Boston city councilors approved a $3.61 billion budget for 2021, averting a showdown with Mayor Marty Walsh that some councilors deemed necessary to address urgent new priorities related to race and policing but others warned would set back progress that has been made and imperil the jobs of city workers. 

The 8-5 vote followed impassioned speeches on both sides and took place against the backdrop of sudden calls across the country to confront racism and racial equity issues. 

Calls to defund police departments in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis resident, at the hands a white officer, prompted Walsh to submit a revised budget earlier this month that called for shifting $12 million in police overtime spending to other areas, including mental and health and trauma services, youth homelessness funding, and economic development assistance to minority- and women-owned businesses. 

But a group of councilors, backed by community activists, said that didn’t go far enough in reorienting city spending priorities to address systemic racism. 

“This moment before us will set the tone for generations to come. It will set the tone for how our city does business,” said City Council President Kim Janey, one of the five councilors voting against the budget. For too long, the call has been “black lives matter but we have to wait, black lives matter but we need another study,” said Janey, a district councilor from Roxbury. “People are tired of waiting.” 

Janey and other councilors called for more sweeping change, including a 10 percent cut to the police budget of $414 million. 

Wednesday’s meeting was the council’s last session before the fiscal year ends next Tuesday. Rejecting the budget would have meant reverting to the current year’s spending plan until an agreement is reached. 

Walsh and councilors who voted for the budget argued that voting it down would have stripped away the police overtime reallocation and a host of newly proposed initiatives for housing, public health, and other services. They also warned that it could mean layoffs for city employees because many departments would have costs that exceed the level of spending authorized in the 2020 budget. 

Many of those voting in favor of the budget said they support the call for a bigger reduction in the police budget and other changes, but said it would be reckless to force that discussion by putting the 2021 spending plan in limbo and jeopardizing the jobs of city workers. 

City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who chairs the ways and means committee, said pressure in recent weeks yielded “concrete new commitments” in the mayor’s revised budget plan, including more money for youth jobs. She also pointed to a 40 percent increase in funding for affordable housing, the sort of change that Bok said happens “once a decade, if you’re lucky,” and a big increase in public health spending. 

All those changes would be wiped out if the city restarted the budget process, and Bok said there was no clear path — or revenue source — for a dramatic reshaping of the budget. Calls to reject the budget and start over would be “like saying you can lean out over a cliff without attaching the rope that is supposed to pull you back,” said Bok. 

She vowed to propose at the next council meeting a schedule of four hearings over the next three months to discuss how to incorporate larger changes in the police budget and other reforms into next year’s budget.

City Councilor Michelle Wu said it was “fear-mongering” to suggest that the council couldn’t reach agreement on a new spending plan without causing layoffs and other damage. “What we owe our constituents and our communities is to deliver the measure of justice, equity, and relief that meets this moment,” she said. 

“The mayor says that Boston is going to be a leader on racial equity, yet this budget does not demonstrate a commitment to that goal,” said City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who also voted against the budget. 

The normally dry budget process turned into a highly charged debate over racial justice and the pace of the change. 

City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who voted in favor of the budget, appeared to be the most torn among the 13-member body. An African American district councilor representing East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End, Edwards said this is the time for big change. But she said she wouldn’t risk the jobs of city workers by throwing the budget into uncertainty. “I’m not willing to treat those workers as cannon fodder in any culture war,” she said. She praised Bok’s plan to approach change through a more deliberative process.

Edwards said she had received messages with “horrific things” said by people anticipating her vote. “I will hold my record up to any one of my colleague’s about pushing for structural change from day one, and getting it done,” she said. “I challenge anyone to question my character, and I’ll be damned if anyone questions my blackness or my solidarity for people of color.” 

Walsh praised the council for its vote. “With this budget, we are making investments that are grounded in equity and inclusion and will have the greatest benefit to our residents,” he said in a statement.