Boston: A Letter from the Chair of Ways and Means

To my colleagues:

We are more than halfway through our Fiscal Year 2025 budget process, with nearly 20 hearings and one public testimony session in the books. It's a great time to reflect on what we've learned through these hearings as we continue our discussions around the budget.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

At our initial hearings with the Office of Budget Management, the administration testified that the repayment of general obligation bonds is at 5.95% of the Operating Budget's size, a number below the 7% threshold that allows the city to maintain its AAA bond rating. From there, the city broke down how net state aid has declined from 20% of the city's budget in FY03 ($375 million) to 2.7% of the FY25 budget ($123 million), as well as sharing that 23,000 new housing units have been permitted, but construction has not yet begun. Additionally, numerous other home-rule petitions that would allow for increased revenue for the city, from an expansion of liquor licenses in underserved communities to the real-estate transfer tax, are waiting for approval at the state level.

During the past few months, we have also dug into job vacancies citywide. The city showed 760 job postings in April 2024, compared to 960 in April 2023. These numbers, however, only set a floor as they don't include BPHC, BPS, or the full picture in certain departments. The Boston Police Department, for example, has more than 500 vacancies, but only has 20 positions posted at present. We will dive deeper into consistent underspending in permanent employees at our working sessions.

The administration's testimony also showed the composition of the $344 million increase from FY25. The BPDA's partial move into the city's operating budget is one part of it, with $32 million extra dedicated to the Planning Department. With several new collective bargaining deals raising the pay, especially for our police, firefighters and lowest-wage workers, the city is seeing a $150M spike in wages for non-Boston Public Schools personnel. Additionally, $81 million of the budget hike is going to BPS as it eases off the ESSER funding of the past few years. Those three sources make up $263 million of that $344 million increase, leaving an $81 million increase (less than 2% overall) elsewhere in the $4.6 billion budget.

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With declining enrollment trends, we are asking tough questions about the fiscal picture of our education system, including why only two schools are merging in the 2025-26 school year. It's a topic we delved into at our hearings with the schools district in late April. Boston Public Schools was in for three hearings last month on its $1.8 billion slice of the budget, with another scheduled on May 23 at 10 am. The three hearings touched on various topics, including a school bus tracking pilot to debut this summer, the inclusive learning plan for the fall, and a need for more support for LGBTQ+ students. At our working session later that week, councilors discussed the hypothetical process if the Boston Public Schools budget was rejected by the City Council. The upcoming hearing will focus in large part on the long-term facilities plan and will occur the night after the district is scheduled to present its closures and mergers for the 2025-26 school year to the School Committee. This also comes on the heels of our process with BPS that began in February and included advocacy for more transparency from its central office, including several programming audits, as well as funding for more reading specialists, athletics, and Hub Schools.

In meeting with our Streets Cabinet in April, we learned that there have been 10 fatalities in Boston streets in the past 5 months, and while hokeys and parking-enforcement officers have seen an uptick in hiring, the department has still only filled 65% of its 940 budgeted positions. We also zeroed in on nearly $500,000 in consistent underspending on Public Works' lease/ purchase line item.

At the Equity Cabinet's hearings, we learned about Fair Housing's push for a general counsel position, and the need to declare survivors of domestic violence as a protected class.

During our hearing with Inspectional Services, Property Management and Public Facilities, we learned more about how the city keeps scofflaw data and the desire for a fourth vehicle dedicated to graffiti removal.

The Boston Fire Department presented its budget early this month as well, with a look at the mostly civilian positions that are vacant as well as a need for more capital investments in a few firehouses. Additionally, Fire Commissioner Burke testified that if trucks were staffed with more permanent employees than are budgeted, then the rising overtime costs could be reined in.

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The Office of Human Services' Early Childhood and Office of Returning Citizens both discussed new initiatives, from universal pre-K to BHA vouchers.

Last week, we heard from the Economic Opportunity & Inclusion cabinet, as well as Boston Public Library and BCYF, which all have experienced hiring difficulties. BCYF elaborated on how its lifeguard hiring challenges persist, and how it has shifted some pool oversight to Boston Public Schools and is moving away from on-site daycares despite the child care crisis in the city. There was also a push to get BCYF to expand its indoor infant and toddler play areas that are only available in South Boston and Roslindale during weekday daytime hours. BPL discussed how they have extended weekend hours at all its libraries, they are partnering with Project Bread to offer food assistance to those in need, and they've created non-literary community programs such as cooking classes at its mobile kitchen. The Planning Department, which will begin in earnest on July 1, discussed its new organizational structure while breaking down its capital reserve of $16.5 million and their overall need for capital, including $150 million for coastal resiliency. They also described that some positions, such as Supplier Diversity, will remain despite redundancies across other city departments. Our final hearing of the week was with the Department of Innovation and Technology, which detailed its increasing collaboration with city departments despite the lack of clear authority. They also described digital equity issues, and reforms with 311.

We've started this week of hearings with two appearances each by the Boston Police Department and the Boston Public Health Commission. This week will also include our first off-site hearing of the budget cycle on May 16 at the Lilla Frederick School. The 6 pm hearing will focus on Age Strong, Youth Engagement & Advancement, and Youth Employment & Opportunity. It will be a great opportunity to mix our youth with our seniors, allowing for cross-generational opinions to be shared rather than siloed. And, of course, we'll be concluding the week with our second of four Working Sessions of the budget cycle.

Please spread the word about our second public testimony session on May 28 at 6 pm. At our first public testimony session, which was held on the first day of budget hearings, constituents focused on the need for more funding for youth jobs, Caribbean history, potholes and sidewalks, as well as more grant opportunities for agencies such as Louis D. Brown Peace Institute and Catie's Closet. We are looking forward to hearing more from community members on the budget priorities that will impact their lives for the better.

Councilor Brian Worrell
Chair of the Committee on Ways & Means

Filed Under: Government, City

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