Voters to decide on city budgeting powers, while establishment shills defend status quo
When Boston voters potentially choose a new mayor in November, they will also have the opportunity to approve greater budgeting powers for the City Council.
The current budget process for Boston starts with the mayor introducing their proposed budget for the year, usually by midspring. The City Council takes a simple vote to approve or reject the budget in its entirety. The council then negotiates with the mayor, often behind closed doors, before the mayor submits a budget with enough changes that the council approves it.
This year, the operating budget reached $3.6 billion.
Question 1, if passed, would amend the city charter, granting the council powers to amend the mayor’s annual budget. Typically, a change to the city’s charter would require a home-rule petition and approval from the state legislature, but in this case, the charter also allows changes if they are supported by a majority of the voting population.
Under the proposed changes, the budget process would still start with the mayor’s proposed budget, but that initial proposal has a deadline of the second Wednesday in April. From there, the City Council can vote on amendments to change items in the budget, as long as the change does not increase the overall cost, until the second Wednesday of June, when the most recent version of the budget, including amendments, becomes the official budget for the next fiscal year.
City Councilor Lydia Edwards originally proposed the charter change in mid-2020, in part at the urging of left-wing community organizations and labor unions that supported a reduction in police funding following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter resurgence.
Without an open budgeting process, activists were unable to see which councilor was actually working at a budget reduction and which ones were paying lip service, according to Armani White, campaign director for the Center for Economic Democracy and a member of the Yes on 1 campaign steering committee.
Question 1 would also establish the Office of Participatory Budgeting, which will enable residents to propose budgetary changes, which would then still need to be approved by the council.
The council ordinance passed unanimously and was signed by acting Mayor Kim Janey, who was a supporter when she was still serving on the council.
So far, the loudest voice of opposition has come from the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, which has advised mayors on fiscal matters for decades. The BMRB, which was formed by conservative business leaders in the midst of the Great Depression to demand a 15% salary cut for city employees, produces reports on the city policy and financial health. The organization is overseen by a 62-member board that features a full roster of local real estate developers, banks, law firms, and investment companies. The organization was quick to oppose the proposed charter change last year when the council was starting its work on the issue.
“It’s time for the City Council to utilize their current power and fulfill the role they were elected to do, advocating for the needs of the community,” said a statement that BMRB released Aug 12, 2020, warning against the efforts to amend the city charter. “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.”
Creating more opportunities for city councilors to alter the city’s annual budget would at the same time decrease financial stability for the city, which could then harm Boston’s AAA bond rating, according to Elaine Beattie, senior strategic adviser for the BMRB.
“It will bring a greater level of uncertainty to the city,” Beattie told DigBoston. “The supporters of this are trying to say it’s shared power, but really it’s a transfer of power. I would characterize it as bad legislation. It’s going to impact the financial stability of the city.”
Among the largest 25 cities in the country, in terms of population, Boston is just one of eight that currently have a AAA bond rating, which is the highest rating available. Every year, the city borrows the money that it uses for its operating budget, and a better bond rating means that the city can borrow at a lower interest rate.
Moody’s Investor Service and S&P Global Ratings have consistently rated Boston at AAA every year since 2014.
“That allows us to get more funding at a lower rate,” Beattie said. “If that capital gets more expensive you have to figure out how to pay for those, and it gets more expensive to do those same projects.”
Supporters of the ballot measure say that it will enable voters to have a louder voice during the annual deliberations over a new budget, according White.
“This question is going to bring greater transparency, democracy, and accountability to the budgeting process for the city of Boston,” White said. “[BMRB] seem to be an organization that is afraid of change and we imagine that this scares them because they are comfortable with how things happen now.”
Beattie also noted that there are five open seats on the 13-member City Council that will be filled after this year’s election. White acknowledged there would likely be a learning curve for the five new councilors who eventually win open seats in November but said they would still be best equipped to advocate for their respective communities.
“I think the people that are elected know what their constituents need,” White said.
Beattie dismissed the idea that the BMRB might be motivated to oppose Question 1 out of concern for how it might affect the bureau’s influence on the city’s budgeting process.
“I think it makes an organization like the municipal research bureau even more valuable, because we do a lot of work on the city’s budget and ensuring that fiscal responsibility is there,” she said. “I think folks would be relying on us more.”
Zack is a veteran reporter. He writes for DigBoston and VICE, and formerly reported for the Boston Courant and Bulletin Newspapers.