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Roots of Boston's fiscal mess

So the Boston public schools have reopened after the spring break. For the last few weeks, proposals and counterproposals have been shield back and forth between the mayor and the city council. Varying amounts of millions have been solemnly affirmed as necessary for solving the city's financial crisis. Personalities and institutions have been smirched, muddied, and decried. And Bostonians who have tried to puzzle out these political machinations may be forgiven if, in the tangled ball of twine that is local government, they see no clear threads.

The financial crisis, perhaps the worst the city has ever faced, is by no means over. The dust, in fact, may not settle for some time. So this may be as good a time as any to try to ravel some significance out of the tangle -- a tangle woven of several threads, created by a number of spinners each trying to weave a different noose, and resolved not by careful fingers but by scissors.

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First, the threads. There are three major ones, each contributing to the city's fiscal woes, but each remarkably different and not to be confused:

* School committee overspending. Nine months ago, Mayor Kevin H. White, tired of consistent school-budget deficits since 1976, gave the schools only what they had had the year before: $195 million. The school committee, however, had negotiated a wage increase with its teachers (already among the best paid in the nation) worth another $15 million, which court action compelled the city to pay. The brought the budget to $210 million -- up from $96 million 10 years ago , during a period when enrollments fell from 94,000 to 64,000 students. But the school committee, instead of belt-tightening toward the $210 million budget, will finish the year having spent something like $240 million.

* Property tax rebates. At least since the days of Mayor Curley in the 1930s , Boston's property tax assessing practices have been shot through with political favoritism. Those upon whom the administration smiled had low assessments. Those who misstepped found their property mysteriously revalued. The resulting patchwork -- and the ongoing tradition of haphazard assessment -- created monstrous inequities. The Boston Finance Commission, a state-created watchdog over city affairs, has found some classic examples on West Concord Street in the South End. There, two parcels of similar value were both assessed at $5,500 in 1980. One is now assessed at $7,200, the other at $15,000. Nor do assessments reflect fair market values: The $7,200 parcel has recently been on the market for $185,000.

The system, however, is undergoing several jolts. Last year, the city lost the so-called "Tregor" case. Having overtaxed commercial properties in the past while keeping residential assessments (where voters live) low, the city found itself liable for some $78 million in tax rebates. Then on April 24, in the heat of the school crisis, came a decision in the related "French" case -- adding an additional $30 million to the abatement figure. The upshot: Before the end of its fiscal year on June 30, the city may need to reimburse property owners some $35 million.

* Proposition 2 1/2. The toughest of the three threads, this one is also the most open to devious uses by the various spinners. Designed to limit property taxes to no more than 2 1/2 percent of assessed value, the statewide measure will force the city to trim its budget by $119 million next year. Mayor White has already taken a hiding from a distraught public for cuts in the police and fire departments, as part of a 3,500 to 4,000 trimming of city staff planned by July 1. To some extent, these cuts are necessary at this time, in order that vacation days, sick leave, and severance pay arrangements can be completed before revenues fall drastically next year.

But, like consummate bureaucrats throughout the state, the mayor's administrators have busily used the measure as an excuse, blaming a proposition that has yet to take effect (except in falling excise-tax revenues) for problems Boston would have had in any case. The mayor has unashamedly cut the very things (like patrolemn and firehouses) that will bring the public screaming to its feet. The plan could work: It may help persuade the state legislature to recall the proposition, allow communities to override it locally, or funnel back more state aid to ailing cities and towns. But it could backfire: The mayor's already-flaccid popularity may wilt still more if these moves generate the perception that patronage jobs are surviving while service jobs are being axed.

How fat are these threads? Of the city's $878 million budget, only about $ 250 million is "discretionary" money not irrevocably committed to such things as repaying debt or funding pensions. So finding another $35 million to repay the overtaxed and $30 million to bail out the schools adds a whopping 26 percent increase -- and all before the nearly 50 percent reduction in discretionary spending required by Proposition 2 1/2 next year.

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Men of goodwill and mutual respect might agree to think through such a crisis. So far, however, there has been little agreement among the current crop of rope-spinners. Who are they, and what nooses are they knitting?

* The school committee. The five-member committee, now headed by the city's first black president, John D. O'Bryant, has a long history of capitulation to the demands of the Boston Teachers Union. It has also fostered a clutch of central administrators who arrogate to themselves even the most minute planning efforts. But it retains fiscal autonomy --year's level) without any check whatever. It blames part of its overspending on specially mandated programs (like special education) which it is required to operate and which each year grow more expensive. And it defines part of its duty as defending a school system that is already 64 percent minority (largely black and Hispanic) against a political system peopled with Irish, Italian, and Yankee stock.

* The city council. This nine-member group splits into several groups.During the present crisis, four members --president Patrick F. McDonough and Councillors Frederick C. Langone, Albert P. (Dapper) O'Neil, and Joseph M. Tierney -- have single-mindedly pursued a scorch-the-mayor policy. They are determined to wrench from him fundamental concessions in return for a bill that (once passed by the legislature) would let the city borrow money to surmount the current crisis. Three others -- Councillors John W. Sears, Lawrence S. DiCara, and Rosemary E. Sansone -- have restrained their desire to corral the mayor with the recognition that some compromise is needed.The other two -- Councillors Christopher A. Ianella and Raymond L. Flynn -- hold something like swing votes. Council debates are peppered by shouting, table-pounding, poor grammar, and sighs of disgust, with little of the coalition-building and mutual trade-off that usually characterize the democratic process. An added problem: Next November come the council elections. Already, it seems, the council chamber is becoming an election stump.

* The mayor. Is he, as one longtime economist and mayor-watcher told me, a man with "the political sophistication of a Machiavelli and the attention span of a six-year-old"? Or is he, as some in the business community fell, the Midas whose charismatic touch has turned Boston's leaden past into commercial gold? Critics accuse him of needlessly antagonizing the city council -- doing end runs around their budget, setting up whatever programs he fancies and funding them by the dubious ethics of budget transfers between departments. He is blamed for ignoring the agonizingly slow buildup of this long-foreseen crisis, and (especially in recent weeks) for leaping a bit too quickly to the mention of polls showing that the public is indifferent to the fate of the schools. But he is credited by many with bringing forward the most reasonable and balanced of the recent proposals to resolve the crisis.

What is the solution? The crisis has revealed the limits of the present structure of government. There is growing sentiment for a complete reform in the way councillors and school committee members are elected. For the present system militates against the kind of political compromise that gets results. The fact is that coalitions cannot be built because, within both these groups, each member is elected "at large." Every voter votes for all of them. So each member competes with every other for a seat. Members of most elected bodies, competing only with those outside the chamber for their seats, do not see one another as potential rivals. They can work together because they represent separate districts. District representation in Boston would mean that the city's 30 percent minority population might at last capture a few city council seats. Since the last charter reform in 1951, 90 percent of the city councillors have come from only 7 of the city's 22 wards -- which may help explain why only 21 percent of the eligible residents of the city voted in the 1977 city council elections.

Which brings us back to the scissors. If you're tired of the nooses of the rope-spinners, there is another string you can follow. A group called the Campaign for District Representation is mounting a petition drive to put the issue on the ballot in November. According to state legislator Melvin H. King, they have collected some 8,000 signatures already, on their way to about 23,000.

They need your help. They may be too late to slice through the present tangle. But a quick, firm response to their petition may sober the rope-spinners.

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