Beyond Boston?s mayoral election, an under-the-radar budget item lurks

BY SourceMedia | MUNICIPAL | 09/24/21 10:50 AM EDT By Paul Burton

Boston?s mayoral race has captured national headlines, with the city in line to have its first elected female and minority mayor.

It reflects demographic change in a city noted over the years for clinging to its traditions.

?Every significant candidate was identified as a person of color, and the four top finishers were women,? said Lawrence DiCara, a local attorney and city historian who spent 10 years on the City Council in the 1970s and 1980s.

On Nov. 2, two women on the 13-member City Council will duel for the fifth-floor corner office at City Hall ? Michelle Wu, the face of the city?s progressive movement and backed by the likes of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and the more moderate Annissa Essaibi George, of Turkish descent.

Interim Mayor Kim Janey, who became the city?s first Black and female mayor when predecessor Marty Walsh resigned to join the Biden administration, is out, having finished fourth in the Sept. 14 open, nonpartisan primary. Another Black woman, Andrea Joy Campbell, was third in the eight-person field.

Meanwhile, lurking under the radar on the November ballot is a referendum on a charter change with serious ramifications to the city?s finances. It would enable the City Council to change lines in the budget. Right now, it can only vote on the budget up or down.

Janey endorsed the move.

?Signing this charter amendment creates a path forward for city budgeting that is more democratic, inclusive, and transparent,? said Janey, who succeeded Walsh in March when President Biden named him labor secretary.

DiCara, though, said passage could make the city?s budgeting fractious and jeopardize its triple-A bond ratings. So does the watchdog Boston Municipal Research Bureau, of which DiCara is a board member.

The research bureau said in a statement that the measure would ?fundamentally change the strong-mayor form of government [and] would bring uncertainty, chaos and a level of bargaining and negotiating with special interest groups that Boston has not seen since its early days."

State Attorney General Maura Healy?s office ruled in July that the measure does not conflict with state laws or its constitution.

?That?s a whole legal mumbo-jumbo story,? DiCara said.

Boston implemented a strong-mayor, or ?Plan A? system through 1951 and 1953 charter amendments.

Its fiscal 2022 operating budget is $3.8 billion, while its FY2022-2026 capital program totals $3.3 billion.

The charter change, if passed, would also enable the council to amend the budget of the public schools, for which the School Committee now has sole responsibility.

It would call for an independent Office of Participatory Budgeting, for which Janey has already set aside $1 million. It would ?create and oversee an equitable and binding decision-making process open to all Boston residents by FY24.?

This office, according to critics, would end up representing those with the loudest voices.

?The folks at the rating agencies like certainty,? DiCara said. ?The city is doing very well. Reserve levels are good ? not crazy, but good. Between [mayors] Tom Menino and Marty Walsh, it?s been a well-run city. We?ve had 30 years of absolute prosperity.

?Will the police commissioner have to cut 13 separate deals instead of fighting crime? I hope not.?

Boston enjoys across-the-board triple-A ratings from Moody?s Investors Service, S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings.

Moody?s cited the city?s fiscal management, healthy financial position, large and conservatively managed debt profile, and large but well managed pension and other post-employment benefit liabilities.

?Despite a recent spike in the unemployment rate and decline in smaller economically sensitive revenue, the coronavirus pandemic is not a rating driver given the city's reliance on property taxes as the primary revenue source,? Moody?s said.

DiCara remembers Boston?s dark days.

?The city was on its knees in the 70s,? he said. ?Nobody wanted to invest in Boston 45 years ago.?

The troubles included racial turmoil over federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity?s school desegregation order and later that decade, a Back Bay arson ring whose operatives had ties to convicted mass murderer James ?Whitey? Bulger.

DiCara, author of the book ?Turmoil and Transition in Boston: A Political Memoir from the Busing Era,? still has a copy of a bond the city issued in 1978, when a February blizzard dropped 27 inches of snow. As council president at the time, DiCara became acting mayor when Kevin White couldn?t return from his Florida vacation.

?The rate on the bond was 3.98%,? he said. ?At that time marginal tax rates were over 50%. That means that those purchasing the bonds were getting an effective 8% return given that?s the return they would have needed from a taxable instrument.?

DiCara started on the council in 1972 right out of Harvard University as a 23-year-old liberal gadfly. In his day, the nine-member, all at-large City Council often fielded an all-male 5-4 split between Irish and Italian ancestry. The outlier female then was Louise Day Hicks, a two-time mayoral candidate, council member and later a congresswoman, known nationally for her opposition to school busing.

Voters in 1981 agreed to a charter change to a 13-member council with only four at-large members.

Wu, 36, had 35,888 votes in the primary to Essaibi George?s 24,186. The combined 42,000 votes Campbell and Janey corralled are up for grabs this fall.

?It seems as though the demographics of the political class in Boston have caught up with the demographics of the city,? said Adam Myers, a Providence College political science professor. ?For me, it?s been interesting to observe the dynamics of this mayoral race.?

Despite the benefits of incumbency, however brief, Janey stumbled amid controversies that included the firing of police chief Dennis White and her comments that compared proof-of-vaccination requirements to slavery.

Chicago-born Wu?s progressive agenda includes free service on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system that serves Greater Boston, and restoring rent control. Both of these changes, however, would be beyond city control. She also supports a national Green New Deal.

Boston native Essaibi George, 47, a small-business owner and former schoolteacher, favors improved funding for police. New Balance shoe company chairman James Davis, a traditional Republican donor, funneled $495,000 into a super PAC supporting her.

Election debate has included the pandemic, education, police funding levels, opioid addiction ? notably along the ?Mass and Cass? corridor at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, just south of Boston Medical Center ? and even esoteric views on architecture.

Missing so far has been discussion about the property tax, which has risen by around 7% annually over the past decade and prompted debate over how to allocate the funding or whether to lower those taxes. Property tax accounts for roughly 72% of Boston?s revenue.

The race so far has fit a template of progressive vs. moderate visible in several local races across the country.

?It seems as though the progressives haven?t had a winning streak of late,? Myers said.

He cited the Democratic mayoral primary victory in New York by moderate Eric Adams, a retired police captain.

In addition, the Democratic primary for Congress in Ohio?s Cleveland-centric 11th District saw establishment candidate Shontel Brown defeat progressive Nina Turner in an open-seat race to succeed Marcia Fudge, who resigned to become U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary.

?Boston?s a little bit different than New York or Cleveland, with more gentrification,? Myers said.

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