Walsh, council in budget showdown
Boston city councilors demand spending changes on eve of vote
THE BOSTON CITY COUNCIL and Mayor Marty Walsh are in a high-stakes budget standoff fueled by the pandemic, policing issues, and political positioning a year ahead of a mayoral election.
The council is scheduled to convene on Wednesday for its final meeting before the city’s fiscal year ends on June 30, with some councilors threatening to vote down Walsh’s latest budget plan because they say it doesn’t go far enough in meeting urgent new priorities, including redeploying resources from the police department to other city services. The mayor’s office says failure to pass the budget on time will wipe out a proposal to shift $12 million in police overtime spending to other areas, eliminate increases in housing and public health programs, and lead to layoffs of city workers.
Failure to pass a new budget by the end of the month would mean the city automatically reverts to the 2020 spending plan until a new budget is passed. Because many departments would have costs that exceed their 2020 spending authorization, the administration says it would be forced to begin making plans for layoffs.
City Councilor Michelle Wu announced Tuesday that she plans to vote no on the $3.61 billion budget proposal, and she accused the administration of presenting a false choice of passing the mayor’s budget or imperiling city workers and spending priorities.
Wu is widely believed to be weighing a mayoral run next year, though she has not said so publicly.
The budget process, which was already playing out under the uncertainties of revenue declines related to the coronavirus crisis, has suddenly become a focus of calls for policing reform and heightened attention to racism following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Walsh responded to protests calling on the city to “defund the police” by submitting a new budget proposal on June 15 that shifts 20 percent of the police overtime budget to other uses, including mental and health and trauma services, youth homelessness funding, and economic development assistance to minority- and women-owned businesses.
That move wasn’t enough to satisfy some councilors. Seven councilors, led by Council President Kim Janey, sent Walsh a letter last Friday calling for a sweeping set of budget changes, including cutting the $414 million police budget by 10 percent, or more than $40 million.
City Councilor Julia Mejia, one of those signing the letter to Walsh, said she’s leaning toward voting to reject the budget. She said the mayor’s proposed $12 million cut to police overtime “is like a tip at a restaurant,” given the size of the city budget.
Councilors have been flooded with phone calls and messages from city workers worried about their jobs if the budget isn’t passed. The administration sent councilors a budget sheet on Tuesday afternoon that spells out the personnel spending reductions that would be set in motion if the council rejects the budget plan. Among the cuts listed are $78 million less for school personnel, $326,000 less for library staff, and $750,000 less for youth engagement and employment workers.
Reverting to the 2020 budget would also mean putting in place a spending plan that does include $65 million in reductions the administration said it has made in its 2021 proposal to account for pandemic-related revenue decreases. The administration is also emphasizing significant increases in the new budget plan for affordable housing, public health services, and other priorities that it says community leaders have advocated.
The budget brinksmanship comes as the city is reeling from the financial and health impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and is now also grappling with urgent calls for reform of police departments and other changes to address systemic racism.
Managing through the twin crises is presenting Walsh with his biggest challenge since taking office six and half years ago. At the same time, it is a crucial test of Boston’s first majority-minority City Council, which has been flexing its activist muscle and showing a willingness to stand up to the mayor.
Walsh needs at least seven votes of the 13-member council to pass the budget, and he was busy trying to corral support. Meija said late Tuesday afternoon that she just got off a call from the mayor.
City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who chairs the ways and means committee and has presided over several dozen budget hearing, including a lengthy session on Monday, said Wednesday’s vote looms large. “The most critical decision at this moment is what action the council can take to maximize the investment in the social services and institutions of community care that we most need right now in this crisis,” she said, “but also doing so in a way that is real about the financial implications of our decisions.”
City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who represents East Boston, the North End, and Charlestown, said she is not satisfied with many aspects of the mayor’s budget, including its appropriation for the Human Rights Commission, which deals with allegations of racism. But she is also very mindful of the real risks to city workers from rejecting it. “Who am I to say to any city worker, you are worth the sacrifice?” she said.Edwards didn’t mince words in expressing the bind she’s in approaching Wednesday’s budget vote. “I will eat political shit either way,” she said. “I lose the progressives if I vote for it. I lose a good chunk of my district and other people if I vote against it.”