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Mayor Flynn battling old Boston problems: high costs, low revenues

Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, whatever his shortcomings may be, certainly is not politically naive, nor is he a whiner when things don't go his way. The populist-style Boston chief executive, however, still must prove his leadership skills, rallying support for key proposals that fly in the face of potent special interests.

Now, slightly more than nine months through his first year at the municipal reins, Mr. Flynn is facing tough decisions, few of which seem likely to win friends in political circles.

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Particularly crucial, in terms of his image and, more important, the city's future, is getting Boston's fiscal house in order - in fact as well as on paper.

It has been known for weeks that the nearly $1 billion municipal budget for the 12 months commencing last July 1 is out of balance by as much as $35 million , perhaps even $55 million. That budget breezed through the city council with hardly a trim.

Hoped-for help from the state legislature, through approval of a 5 percent parking excise tax, was thwarted last June despite considerable friendly persuasion by Mayor Flynn among Beacon Hill lawmakers.

More successful, although still little more than perhaps a token move in the right direction, has been Flynn's attempt to cut down the city payroll. While obviously resigned to the necessity of laying off a lot more city workers, the mayor appears to be having a struggle pinpointing those who will receive ''good-bye'' slips.

Part of the reason is almost surely a reluctance to let go people who have served the city well and often for many years, but whose jobs may be less essential than others.

Many of the 378 positions wiped out since last January, when the Flynn administration took over, were occupied by people with allegiences to the previous city regime of Mayor Kevin H. White.

To his credit Mayor Flynn is unwilling to balance the budget by laying off policemen and firefighters, thus possibly jeopardizing public safety. But if the fiscal 1985 budget is to be brought in line with revenues, cutbacks must come from other municipal agencies. Some programs will end, and others will be sharply cut back.

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Early action would be best, since the longer it takes the Flynn administration to decide who must go, the more city workers may have to be axed in the interest of economy.

Personnel costs account for about 62 percent of the total municipal budget. More than 11,000 of the 20,282 on Boston payrolls as of last January, however, are in the school, police, and fire departments.

Thus, most of the remaining layoffs must come from among the nearly 8,600 other city workers, whose agency heads are being asked by the mayor to chop their fiscal 1985 approved personnel appropriations by 4 to 5 percent. It is increasingly questionable whether some will make it, or even come close. Much will depend on the degree of mayoral determination and resistance to pressures to allow exceptions to the directive.

Certainly there is a limit to how much the municipal work force can be shrunk without rendering Boston a place in which nobody, could take even modest pride. At the same time, there is nothing to suggest that payroll reductions thus far have had an appreciable adverse impact in terms of meaningful public services such as clean streets.

Having tried once and failed to get state lawmaker support for a parking excise tax, Mayor Flynn intends to try again. But try as hard as he may to convince legislators from across the commonwealth that his city cannot get by without additional revenue of substantial proportions, prospects for favorable response in the waning weeks of the 1984 lawmaking session are slim.

Considerably more promising might be passage of one or more Boston aid measures next year, although probably not until well into legislative session.

As sympathetic as many senators and representatives might be to the capital city's fiscal plight, a reticence to support another so-called ''bail out'' for Boston must be overcome. Wary lawmakers must be convinced not only that what is good for Boston is good for all Massachusetts, but also that such aid would not come at the expense of taxpayers in their districts.

Such apprehension last summer, at a time when a number of perhaps otherwise favorable legislators were facing stiff election challenges, contributed perhaps greatly to the defeat of the parking excise tax.

Besides doing whatever is possible, as politically awkward as it might be to expedite personnel cuts and push new legislation to expand the city's revenue base, the mayor might be well advised to explore several other approaches to narrowing the city's budget gap.

This could include a more aggressive program to collect the more than $125 million in back property taxes and interest due. Since most of the delinquencies go back several years and involve absentee owners, some of whom cannot be located, there should be little trouble seizing and selling the land or buildings involved and in the process bringing in needed funds to help run the city. This could help maintain, or even increase Boston's stock of affordable and livable housing for low-income families.

Another possible means to ease the city's fiscal crunch, especially over the long run, could be greater involvement of the business community in support of various municipal services and programs on a voluntary basis. Civic-spirited executives, including those living outside the city but with commercial enterprises in the Hub might, for example, be asked to sponsor the maintenance and operation of a playground or indoor recreation area. This would be an expansion of the program under which downtown merchants in recent years have bankrolled the special lighting on Boston Common during the Christmas season.

Community, fraternal, and other groups within the city might similarly be encouraged to assume at least partial funding responsibility for various worthwhile municipal activities such as complaints processing.

Several law firms, through the Boston Bar Association or some other professional group, might be encouraged to donate the part-time services of various lawyers, on perhaps a rotating basis, to take over much of the work of the city's law department.

The extent to which Mayor Flynn is able to demonstrate that the city is doing the most it can to help itself make financial ends meet could determine how willing state lawmakers may be in helping provide more revenue for Boston.

Needless to say, the mayor will need a lot of support from the Boston City Council in attempting to hold expenditures down. Relations between Mayor Flynn and certain of the 13 councilors were hardly improved by the 7-to-6 rejection of his housing package, including partial rent control, in favor of a narrower arrangement more acceptable to landlords.

By next spring it may be apparent how effective Mayor Flynn will be in only addressing the challenges facing the city.

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