The good news about the City Budget is that revenues are predicted to remain in good shape despite the economic upending by COVID-19, but the bad news is that the Police Department budget is likely going to dominate the conversation – and the controversy – once again this Budget season.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey released her budget on Wednesday and a piece of good news likely to be buried in more serious structural budgetary items is that fiscal healthiness of the City. The $3.72 billion City Budget is an increase of $142 million over last year – or a 3.9 percent increase. At the same time, it contains no layoffs, no service cuts and fully funds all the liabilities and debt payments facing the City.
New City CFO Justin Sterritt said Boston is in an enviable position compared to many other major cities and locales near Boston – many of whom are struggling with cuts to municipal government due to an uncertain property tax base and declining revenues.
“If you look at other cities in other parts of the state, they’re talking about where they need to spend the federal (Rescue Plan) dollars to make up for losses,” he said. “We are not in a position like than in Boston. We didn’t need to have any layoffs or cuts, but actually we added new programs…That’s the position Boston is in.”
The Operating Budget is accompanied by a five-year $3.2 billion Capital Plan that is the largest in history, representing a $200 million increase over last year’s plan.
“During the past year, Boston has come together like never before, and we must take that spirit of inclusiveness and compassion and translate it into real investments for the City of Boston and our residents. COVID-19 has brought on unprecedented economic and social change for our city, and this budget proposal meets the moment and makes targeted investments to ensure that as we emerge from this public health crisis we are not going back to normal, but going forward better than before,” said Janey. “I am proud of this budget and the enormous work that goes into running our City government and providing the services Bostonians need and rely on. No one can be left behind as
Boston recovers from COVID-19, and looks forward to the future.”
Sterritt indicated that the City was slated to get about $435 million in federal funding from the recently-passed Rescue Plan, and that money is something they hope to have a further conversation about – perhaps looking at one-time investments and not using it to fill gaps in municipal government as is being done elsewhere.
As far as revenues go, property tax collections were seen as being very reliable and certain, and the only revenues that were down were parking fines and license fees – down about $7 million. Revenues for hotel excise tax and other local options like Meals Taxes were also down, but Sterritt said they expected those revenues to return with the economy turning around after the pandemic lifts.
All that said, the focal point of the Budget once it gets to public hearings before the City Council is going to be the Police Department budget – a controversial topic last year that was only going to grow this year.
One councilor has already told the newspaper that there was some discomfort with the proposal, as it doesn’t seek to cut the Police Department budget very much at all – that coming after Acting Mayor Janey issued the Black and Brown Agenda last year calling for a full overhaul and major cut to the Police budget. Not having such a cut in her first budget proposal has brought confusion on the Council already, said the councilor.
Sterritt said last year’s $12 million cut to the Police Budget didn’t materialize, and in fact the Police budget exceeded its allocation.
“The Police had a $12 million cut last year,” he said. “We did not hit that number.”
Most of the overages, he said, came due to overtime paid for the large numbers of protests and election-related unrest that required a large police presence, most of it paid via overtime. That also came at a time when there were large amounts of retirements in the Department, and few new officers coming into the ranks.
As a counterweight to that news, he said this budget cuts overtime by 33 percent, taking it from $65 million last year to $21 million this year. That is accompanied, he said, by a plan that will sustain the cut and not require so much emergency overtime.
He said they plan to add more than 30 officers to the ranks, increasing the numbers to 2,300 officers in the budget. Those officers will hit the academy in June and be on the streets in December. Having more officers available to work, he said, will cut down on having to call in officers on overtime due to shortages in staffing.
That will be accompanied by a 50 percent increase to the Police Cadet program, and a $500,000 investment in a medical team to help officers that are injured or out of work return safely.
Another piece of that puzzle with the Police Department budget is a $1.75 million allocation to fund the design of an Alternative Police Force. That force would respond to things like mental health issues, and drug addiction issues – something that has been called for over a number of years by residents. The allocation would be to hire staff and consultants that would usher in the framework of the program – but only after “a robust community process that involves intense and direct conversations with the community.”