Politics

Boston City Council opts to put budget process charter overhaul to voters in 2021

"The current system, as it stands right now, is not good enough."

Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe

Whether the Boston City Council will have the authority to line edit the mayor’s annual budget proposal could be heading to the ballot box next year after a council vote Wednesday favored advancing the potential city charter amendment.

The measure, initially filed by Councilor Lydia Edwards in July, would grant the council the ability to amend budgets the mayor proposes to the body, but would not allow councilors to increase the overall price tag.

The charter currently allows the council to only accept or reject the mayor’s proposal and reduce its scope. Only the mayor can request funds be transferred.

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“I think it speaks to …  our trust and our belief in our constituents,” Edwards said of the amendment. “And ultimately, they may not agree that this is the power that they want. They may not. That is OK. But democracy requires us, I believe today, to say, ‘Then make your decision.'”

Most councilors who spoke ahead of Wednesday’s 10-3 vote voiced strong support for the measure, which some said was needed in the wake of a contentious 8-5 vote in June to pass the current $3.6 billion operating budget.

Opponents said the fiscal year 2021 budget, with a final draft arriving amid the growing racial justice movement, did not go far enough in funding needed changes to battle systemic racism and longstanding racial inequities.

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But others said current procedure gave them little options. Rejecting the budget, they said, would have surrendered key gains and left city departments funded at last year’s levels — or a 1/12 budget — with potential layoffs, until officials could settle on a new proposal — a risk that was too large to take among the devastating coronavirus pandemic.

Edwards was among the councilors who voted to pass the budget, but said at the time “real change in the budget process requires broader reform,” which she vowed to take on.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who voted against the budget but supports the charter amendment, said the current system is essentially “a limitation about the advocates and the community groups and the communities that we represent,” who so often bring to officials nuanced positions on budget allocations.

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“To have to explain to them that what we’re allowed to do is essentially reject or approve a budget and not actually touch upon any of those nuances is incredibly frustrating,” Arroyo said during Wednesday’s virtual meeting.

Through the charter amendment, the mayor would still submit a budget proposal to the council, who would, in turn, have the chance to make its own adjustments before sending it back to the mayor’s office.

An amendment to the measure the council also approved Wednesday would allow the mayor to increase the budget during his or her review of the council-approved budget. (The previous draft granted the mayor authority to only decrease spending.) From there, the council could vote to pass the final budget or override it with a two-thirds majority vote. The same majority would be required to override a mayoral veto of the council’s changes.

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Additionally, the charter change would create the independent Office of Participatory Budgeting, which would oversee “a binding decision-making process open to Boston residents that would decide how at least .5 percent of the budget is allocated” beginning in fiscal year 2024, according to Edwards’s office. The amount would raise to at least 1 percent by fiscal year 2029.

With the council vote, the measure will ultimately head to the Attorney General’s office to review for constitutionality before potentially going to voters next year. Edwards said officials can also continue speaking with the mayor’s office about the amendment as the process plays out.

Councilor Matt O’Malley backed the 2021 fiscal year budget and said the decision to support it was the “most difficult budget vote” he’s made during his decade-long tenure on the council “because there was no alternative that I thought would satisfy the myriad of needs that we (have) as a city.”

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O’Malley supports the charter amendment for a simple reason: “I trust this body because more than any other legislative body in perhaps the country, we represent this city.

“And make no mistake, this can be an incredibly maddening body, a divided body at times, a confounding body at times, but also a body that does come together,” he added.

But other councilors who expressed hesitation or outright opposition to the amendment were less confident about how exactly opening up the council for debating budget amendments would impact the body.

“I don’t have that much faith in this body to be able to not be 13 different fiefdoms and destroy the city budget,” said Councilor Frank Baker, who voted against the measure alongside councilors Michael Flaherty and Ed Flynn, both of whom did not make remarks Wednesday. “I’m very, very concerned going into this.”

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Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George ultimately supported the measure but said she went into the vote with “some real concerns.”

“I do worry about the reality and the practicality of how this plays out … when we’re all working towards and debating and fighting with one another over — although a $3 billion dollar budget — still a small budget, we are still going to be in a place where we are fighting each other over crumbs,” Essaibi-George said. “And it is all so important. So I struggle with this vote today.”

Additionally, Baker expressed worries over whether the change would impact Boston’s bond rating, which both Moody’s and S&P Global awarded a “AAA” credit rating last month once again — the highest a municipality can receive. There is a “relatively small” amount of research on how participatory budgeting could affect the rating, Baker said.

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The Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city government watchdog organization, offered testimony opposing the amendment in August, stating, in part, that the changes “would lead to fiscal uncertainty and instability in Boston that the city cannot afford.”

Baker also highlighted that the Boston Finance Commission had not weighed in on the amendment.

“We (had) a working session heavy on advocates, heavy on socialists … We haven’t even asked our own finance committee where they are on this,” Baker said. “So I think, yeah, that this is a bit of a rush trying to get it done.”

Edwards said that though FinComm representatives were not specifically invited, they could have participated in the public hearing like anyone else. She agreed with Baker that research is limited on the relationship between participatory budgeting and bond ratings, but said that where there has been an impact, in Hartford, Connecticut, the rating actually improved.

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“The current system, as it stands right now, is not good enough,” Edwards said. “It is not good enough to the people of Boston, not just us — it is not good enough for them. They have every single right to watch us to see us fight for them, and to hold us accountable when we don’t. And this process opens that up for them to see us go to the mat.”

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