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FY21 Budget update from the Chair of the Committee on Ways and Means

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City Council

Hello again from Kenzie Bok, District 8 City Councilor and Ways and Means Chair.
 

This Wednesday, the City Council voted on and approved the FY21 budget. After roughly 40 hearings, working sessions, and public meetings, including hundreds of testimonials from members of the public, there was intense debate over whether to approve the resubmitted operating budget. As it had from first filing, the budget included record investments in affordable housing, which grew by 41% over last year, and public health, which grew by $14 million (14%). The resubmitted version now included $35 million in cuts due to reduced revenue forecasts, and $12 million in cuts to police overtime spending, in response to public outcry after the murder of George Floyd about the realities of policing in communities of color. These police cuts were reallocated to areas including the Boston Public Health Commission, equitable procurement, food and language access, immigrant advancement, mental health clinicians, and work to tackle youth homelessness and fund more first-time homeownership.

Some Councilors argued that these cuts to the police budget and reallocations to community programs did not go far enough, and that the Council should reject the budget in order to force the Mayor’s Administration to propose more extensive changes. Other Councilors, including myself, argued that a delay in passage was more likely to result in a loss of overall investment in community programs, as revenue projections continue to fall, and that a real structural change in the police budget will require work over the next year to control overtime, change the contract, transition personnel, and stand up alternative programs to receive funds. Looming over the conversation was the possibility of a 1/12th budget in the event of non-passage, which would lead the city to begin the process of laying off some workers. Councilors differed in our opinions of how dire and how reversible such a step would be. Councilor Lydia Edwards pointed out the absurdity of the Council’s position in having to take an all-or-nothing vote, and announced that she would pursue City Charter reform to allow the Council to propose and adjust budget line items.

Ultimately the operating budget passed 8 to 5. As I laid out in my speech, the Committee on Ways & Means will be following up with a number of hearings to set an effective course for further reducing the police budget in the year ahead. We will assess and monitor the plan for real overtime cost control, examine police contracts as policy documents, explore community ideas for alternative spending, and think about how we could better integrate participatory budgeting into our processes. Much more so than in ordinary years, this Wednesday’s budget passage is a stop along the road rather than the conclusion of a process.

The Council also approved the largest-ever education budget for Boston Public Schools, an appropriation of $1.26 billion. This represented an increase of $80 million over last year, two-thirds of the total new money in the operating budget. $44 million will go to cover fixed costs and then $36 million will be for new investments, mainly to pay for social workers, family liaisons, and other wraparound supports for our schools that need them most. This is going to be an incredibly challenging year ahead; we are facing enormous learning losses for our students, and a situation that opens the opportunity gap into a chasm. We need every resource we can muster to tackle it. We can’t allow the teacher layoffs other districts are making, and we should be deeply concerned that this week the State signaled that it may not meet its financial commitments in the Student Opportunity Act, which so many Bostonians fought so hard to pass.

Over the course of the budget season, the Council expressed its concern that because so much is unknown about the months ahead, it is difficult to measure whether our school budget is allocated as it needs to be. Just this week, the State underscored this point by issuing guidance requiring school departments to come up with three concurrent plans for classes in the fall: one in-person, one remote, and one mixed. But with so much in flux, the best thing the Council could do was to give the School Department the maximum funding possible to meet our students’ needs. Over the coming months, I am confident that the Council will exercise its oversight powers, in partnership with the School Committee, to monitor how we adapt our spending in light of the developing situation.

Finally, the Council also passed a $3 billion capital budget, the largest in the city’s history. It includes a large number of much-needed projects: from schools and libraries, to parks and youth centers, to safer roads and bike lanes and sidewalks. It doubles the number of street trees that we will be able to plant, and includes support to renovate public housing for seniors and people with disabilities. Because of our strong bond rating and the borrowing environment, we can afford to make these investments even as our operating budget may shrink over the next few years. Doing so will benefit many future generations of Bostonians. A robust city capital budget is also a way to invest counter-cyclically in our local economy as we weather a decrease in private spending. And even as we live through a public health emergency, we are also in the midst of an ongoing climate emergency, so the 10% of our capital budget dedicated to resiliency is an essential investment. Over the coming months and years, we may also see additional state and federal investment in capital spending to counter the recession. The Council will therefore need to continue pushing very hard to get Bostonians hired for these local jobs and open new avenues for Minority and Women-owned Businesses (MWBEs) to successfully bid for these contracts. With the budget passed, that work continues; President Janey and Councilor Wu will host a hearing on this topic on Monday, June 29th at 3pm.

In closing, I want to thank the Council staff who worked so hard on our entire budget process – from staff clinics to working sessions to long Zoom hearings to all the document preparation and research in between. In particular, thanks to Michelle Goldberg, Kerry Jordan, Candace Morales, Shane Pac, and Cora Montrond of central staff, and to Jonathan Spillane, Lauren Brody, Emily Brown, and Henry Santana from my office. Budgets are value statements, but there is a great deal of invisible work that goes into analyzing how those numbers actually reflect priorities on the ground, so their public service provides an essential backing for each of us who must weigh hard votes. Councilors and staff alike show up each day in the service of the City we love, and have done so throughout this budget process. I am grateful to every one of them for their hard work and dedication.

With all my thanks,
Councilor Kenzie Bok