Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Mayor's Budget address to the City Council

I attended the Mayor’s budget presentation to the City Council scheduled for 8 a.m. this morning at the Eagle room in Boston City Hall. In deference to how hard the City Councilors work, Mayor Menino said to me at 8:05: “Look, it’s five after eight and there isn’t a single City Councilor here." This wasn’t entirely true as Councilor Ciommo was present. A nice shindig with table cloths, juice, croissants, etc. The Mayor also joked to me that they used to serve full breakfast but that was axed due to budget cuts.

The Mayor started the presentation right off by either showing he doesn’t know what he is talking about, or is just not being truthful. He said the budget “usually goes up by two to three percent a year”. In actuality, it has gone up between 4 and 5 percent a year for the last 5 years mostly because of poorly negotiated worker contracts.

As I have been speaking and writing about since January, the budget issues are no where near as bad as the Mayor had been and still is portraying(although he is portraying them more realistically now). The annual budget in Fiscal Year 2010 will be up by $5 million dollars and this is before many Federal Recovery Funds are added in, for example the $30 million dollars that School Budget person John McDonough spoke about anticipating the schools will receive.

Clearly this budget is designed by the Mayor to punish the unions that won’t accept the wage freeze instead of making value judgments about which programs that affect city residents need to be prioritized. Instead of level cuts across all departments the Mayor is cutting most deeply the unions who won’t acquiesce to his demands. As Charles Yancey pointed out, the School department is 34% of the city budget but yet the Mayor is applying 60% of the overall personnel cuts to that department alone.

Despite the smoke and mirrors the Mayor tries to throw up, it is clear to me that there is money available so that no teachers and no police officers need to be laid off. The most glaring example of this is how the City plays games with the reserve fund. In our current Fiscal Year 2009 there was $110 million dollars at the beginning of the year, of which $35 million was supposed to be taken out and used to "plug the gap" for the supposed dire straights we are in, leaving $75 million dollars. Yet, despite the terrible economy, according to the Mayor’s numbers the reserve fund has actually GROWN to $120 million dollars. In other words, at this point in time, on this one line item, we are $45 million dollars ahead of his projects from 9 months ago. This is not honest budgeting, and the people should not tolerate it. They are now proposing using $40 million of the $120 million next year. The amazing thing about their numbers is that every year they are supposedly using up some of their reserve fund, but every year the reserve fund grows!

The budget team is expecting $20.4 million dollars in ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) outside funds and the school department is expecting $30 million dollars in ARRA funds. The school department is projecting cutting 212 teaching and teaching assistant jobs. Those jobs can be paid for with either $30 million in ARRA funds or with reserve funds, and have money left over. The same situation applies for the police officers. The budget team flatly stated that if the Teacher's Union accepts the Wage Delay, there will be no cuts to teacher's jobs and all 212 positions would be saved.

Capital expenditures are not being cut, but are going to remain level funded. So we will be fixing as many roads as last year, building a new police station, and repairing schools at basically the same rate as the year before. No dire straits there.

As I have been saying since January, “There is enough money in the budget to not layoff a single police officer or teacher. As Mayor I will restore any cuts that the Mayor makes to these two most important services to the citizens”.

The real problem is that the Mayor has negotiated poor contracts with the City workers. According to the Mayor’s budget people pension costs are going up by 6.9% and health insurance costs are going up by 5.5%. We need a Mayor who is going to be honest about the budget, plan for the future, and negotiate sustainable contracts with our workers. Even if the budget only went up "2 to 3 percent a year", as the Mayor said we couldn't sustain for long such increases in pension and health insurance costs.

The Mayor's budget director Lisa Signori said that this budget "Protects Priorities". Clearly then the Mayor's priorities are not public schools and public safety. There are no cuts to the fire department, few cuts at City Hall, no cuts in the Capital plan, no cuts mentioned in City payments to the BRA (which has its own budget as a separate entity, but they aren't cutting any personnel), the biggest cuts are in police officers and schools which just happen to be the two unions who are not buying the Mayor's numbers and submitting to his demands.

Remember the $140 million dollar budget deficit figure the Mayor was threatening us with? Well that number was down to $44 million before the budget cuts, and that number is without the Federal Stimulus dollars. We have an increase of $5 million in revenue and $49 million in fixed cost increases such as debt, pension, and health insurance leaving $44 million to cut. That $44 million is being cut from the departments. 364 of the 565 proposed layoffs (64%) are in the school department. Clearly education is not one of his priorities.

Councilor Yoon asked the Mayor about some of the Financial Commission reports on the $70 million in possible savings there. The Mayor said the Police Commissioner has a new plan that the police department is going to save "10 million on overtime this year". The Mayor brought up the Curley house and said he isn't going to sell it, that "he would only get 10 cents on the dollar" for it. The Mayor clearly didn't answer Sam's questions directly. There was no "$10 million in savings" in police overtime presented as part of the overall budget presentation.

Just for the record, I would give the Mayor 50 cents on the dollar for the Curley house! It would also put the building back on the tax rolls, again lessening the tax burden on the rest of us.

A final note. It was impossible not to notice the racial disparity in the Eagle room during the presentation. As I was listening to the presentation, I counted up the people present. There were 44 people in the room, and only 5 were minorities: Councilors Yoon, Turner, and Yancey, Superintendent Johnson and one other person. The Mayor's budget team is all white. Interesting that the biggest cuts are to the schools where about 90 percent of the students are minorities, and to public safety which also disproportionally affects minorities, especially when it comes to violent crime.

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