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Political potholes abound along Boston's road to fiscal stability

Although riding a building boom that puts it second only to Houston in per capita annual construction, Boston is wedged into a political impasse that longtime observers here say is unprecedented.

As federal cutbacks stem a 20-year tide of funds flowing into Boston, the deadlock could have far-reaching effects on governing a city that has been notorious for political intrigue since the days of Mayor James M. Curley, a half century ago.

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The immediate problem: a 10-month failure among political leaders to agree on a plan for lifting the city out of its financial morass. There has been weekly talk of pending resolutions - and, for a while, of possible municipal bankruptcy.

The results of the stalemate:

* Last week, pleading lack of funds, Mayor Kevin H. White laid off 146 policemen - in addition to 114 during the summer.

* He also dismissed 93 firemen, closed police and fire substations, and dissolved special crime, drug, and neighborhood relations detective squads - all during a period of rising crime statistics.

* Capital spending has been frozen since January, and the mayor recently mentioned that residents should not expect potholed streets to be repaired or excessive snowfalls to be removed.

* Cutbacks in public works staff have resulted in unkempt parks, rundown public buildings, and streets so littered that The Boston Globe has run daily photographs of them.

Yet even as these cutbacks produce public pressure for a settlement, the political leadership of the city seems to be making little headway.

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On the surface, the stalemate centers on an extremely complex proposal to issue $75 million in bonds - money the mayor says he needs to cover court-ordered tax rebates for previously overassessed property owners. The mayor also blames the fiscal crunch on runaway school department spending and on Proposition 21/2, the statewide voter-approved measure limiting future property taxes.

The proposal - called the ''Tregor bill'' after the court case over tax rebates - finally emerged in August after eight months of bitter haggling between the mayor and the nine-member City Council, who blame the city's financial woes on the mayor's high spending.

Now ''Tregor'' is hung up in the state Legislature, which must approve it along with Gov. Edward J. King. So far, the 18-member delegation from Boston in the state House of Representatives has insisted on a massive rewriting (dubbed ''Son of Tregor'') which the mayor says he will not countenance.

Why the delay?

Observers here increasingly blame it on the mayor's lack of credibility. After 14 years in office, he has a reputation for both charisma and arrogance - and for building an extensive patronage machine that until recently has been viewed as a potent vote-getting apparatus.

Now he has sunk to new lows in public polls. State lawmakers worry that his proposal, without rewriting, would allow him to spend the borrowed money less for repaying city debts than for programs that might boost his popularity.

Some city councilors and state legislators also fault him for refusing to build close relationships with them and with the governor that could have paid off during the present crunch.

They admit that Boston, which lacks the clout at the statehouse that New York City has in Albany, N.Y., or Chicago in Springfield, Ill., has a history of rancorous relations with the rest of Massachusetts. But they feel that the relationship could have been greatly improved.

Those close to the White administration say that the mayor has become increasingly inaccessible in the last several years, particularly since ''Tregor.''

But the charming, snowy-haired mayor has by no means given up the fight - although he has tended to take his battle more to the public (through formal and impromptu press conferences) than to the state legislators.

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