Boston about to tighten belt again but that will not end budget woes
Boston is preparing to tighten its belt another notch, but a leaner city government won't do enough to substantially reduce the hefty budget deficit - estimated to be between $35 million and $40 million this year.
The Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a private research organization that tracks city finances, says better management and more layoffs at City Hall will only ''pick away at the problem.'' What City Hall most needs to address is the ''structural problem'' of heavy reliance on property taxes in the post-Proposition 21/2 era, says Samuel R. Tyler, the bureau's executive director.
No other comparable city in the United States depends so exclusively on one tax to raise money, according to a study by the US Census Bureau. The report, which uses data from 1981-82, shows that the property tax accounted for three-quarters of the revenue raised by Boston.
However, the city's intake from property taxes has been steadily decreasing because of gradual implementation of Proposition 21/2, which puts a cap on the property-tax levy. The state has been doling out more and more aid to struggling cities and towns, including Boston. But city officials say Boston will not become more financially independent so long as it is tied to the state's apron strings. They say the ''structural problem'' can be addressed if the state will allow Boston to implement different kinds of taxes.
Raymond Dooley, director of administrative services, says a number of tax proposals are in the running:
* A tax on occupancy of hotels and motels within city limits.
* A tax on tickets to entertainment events, such as sports, theater, and concerts.
* A parking excise tax. Mayor Raymond Flynn's first attempt to push this through the legislature failed, and in July he ordered 48 city departments to cut spending by 5 percent. City officials also are considering asking the state to take over costs of running the Suffolk County jail, to pay the city's $42 million share of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority deficit, and to assume some of the city's pension costs.
The Flynn administration is expected to settle on a package by the first week of November. At the same time, city officials will make an equally important decision: when to submit the package to the state legislature for approval. Any revenue-raising package sent to Beacon Hill this year could dive headfirst into a political maelstrom caused by a fight for the House leadership between Rep. George Keverian and Speaker Thomas W. McGee.
Some of the mayor's advisers, indicating that the package may get caught in the political crossfire, have advised him to hold off introducing his bill. According to an aide for Rep. Salvatore F. DiMasi, leader of the Boston House delegation, the mayor ''has been advised to wait until January,'' when the leadership battle will be resolved.
Mr. Tyler of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau agrees. He says the Flynn administration ''should wait and work behind the scenes to build a consensus'' on Beacon Hill. In addition, Tyler says, it is imperative that City Hall strengthen its case by cinching in its belt to present the state legislators with a trim, efficient city government. He has made a number of suggestions:
Control costs. Flynn has axed more than 300 positions from the city payroll and has held allocations for most of the city's 73 departments to last year's levels, but Tyler says the mayor must redouble his efforts. Specifically, he says, Flynn should trim $10 million by following through on the 5 percent cut he ordered in July and by reducing appropriations for departments that were exempt from those cuts (police, fire, health and hospitals, parks and recreation, and public works). However, Stuart Vidockler, director of the budget office, says the administration will maintain police and fire protection at current levels and will not resort to the ''scare tactics'' of layoffs.
In other departments, however, ''there will be more firing,'' Mr. Vidockler says. ''There's been a 300 net decrease in personnel now. We expect to go another 200 to 300.''
Freeze most wages. All major contracts with city employees (except teachers) expired in June, but this year's budget has no provision for wage increases, Tyler says. Vidockler says the city will be ''looking for very moderate concessions'' from unions because of Boston's financial straits.
Raise more revenue. The city does not need state approval to levy fees, fines , and charges through its departments. Vidockler says he has recently overseen an exhaustive review of about 40 city departments and ''thousands of fees'' they impose - everything from building permits to boat-mooring fees.
Many of the fees, such as liquor licenses, need to be increased to reflect the real cost to the city, and others need to be more strictly enforced, he says. These changes, in addition to some new charges, could enrich Boston's coffers by $3 million to $6 million. The report, which Vidockler characterizes as ''part of a self-help agenda,'' will be submitted to the City Council for approval, probably next month.
But ''even if the city takes steps to reduce spending and to raise its own revenue, it's still not going to be enough,'' cautions Tyler. ''The city is not able to totally solve the problem itself.''
The administration and the City Council are banking on support from the state , which in the past has been reluctant to give Boston new power to tax.
But recently more legislators are realizing that ''this is a metropolitan problem more than a city-of-Boston problem,'' says Councilor James E. Byrne, chairman of the Committee on Government Finance. ''The argument that helping Boston is the right thing to do is being entertained and accepted'' on Beacon Hill, he concludes.