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The Boston Globe

Metro

Menino unveils $2.4b budget

Mayor Thomas M. Menino outlined a $2.4 billion budget plan today to the City Council that would boost city spending by 2.5 percent, an increase that essentially keeps pace with rising costs.

The proposal, which would go into effect July 1, represents a $60 million rise from the current budget. Menino said the additional funding will come in part from an anticipated increase in revenue from the taxes on jet fuel, hotel rooms, and meals because “this is a city people want to come to.”

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“This is a good budget,” Menino told the City Council and his department heads at a breakfast meeting at City Hall. “But I’m always Mr. Cautious. What about next year?”

Over the next few months, the City Council will hold dozens of hearings to dissect the proposal. The budget would add a small number of employees in the coming year, a significant change for a payroll that has slashed more than 1,100 positions since 2009.

The spending plan anticipates that for only the second time in the past decade, the city will be able to avoid dipping into its rainy day fund to pay bills. And city departments may even make some discretionary purchases, such as five rock climbing walls, at a cost of $25,000 apiece, to lure more teenagers to community centers.

Part of the reason for Boston’s fiscal good fortune: Health insurance costs are expected to decline by $26.3 million in the coming year, the first drop in spending on the employee benefit in memory. A deal struck last year with Boston’s municipal unions means workers pay a larger share of premiums and higher co-payments at doctors’ offices, pharmacies, and emergency rooms.

A change in state law also forced retirees eligible for Medicare to join the federal program, which lowered the city’s insurance costs for roughly 5,000 former employees and their dependents.

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The health care savings will have an immediate impact, especially when coupled with an anticipated $90 million increase in revenue from taxes on property, hotel rooms, meals, jet fuel, and fees from building permits.

It means Boston’s bottom line is expected to be better since the world plunged into a deep recession.

“It’s a good budget that delivers for the people of Boston,” said Meredith Weenick, the city’s chief financial officer, who added a note of caution about the coming years. “Recovery from this recession will be slow. [Next year] the city will face familiar challenges of increasing health insurance and pension costs and other expenditure pressures.”

The cost of health insurance is expected to increase, quickly eclipsing the savings from the agreement with organized labor. Boston is renegotiating contracts with its municipal unions, which means salary costs may increase. And although tax revenues have grown, money flowing into city coffers may not be enough to sustain healthy growth.

“The next couple of years are still going to be tight years for the city,” said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog funded by business and nonprofits. “It’s a stabilizing budget that allows some increases, but recognizes the fact that the next year will be even more difficult,” Tyler added.

In his plan, Menino would hire 219 full-time employees to a municipal payroll that numbered 16,173 on Jan. 1, 2012. Many of the hires would take the place of retirees and others who have left the city’s workforce, administration officials said.

The spending plan would add 107 police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians. Public safety staffing would not actually increase overall, except at the Fire Department.

The administration would like to hire 65 full-time employees at the School Department to teach special education and students learning English. The budget would add nine positions at the city department overseeing major capital initiatives such as the $115 million renovation of the Ferdinand building and other investments in Dudley Square.

The budget anticipates a $7.8 million cut in state aid, a significant source of income for the city that has dropped precipitously in recent years.

The amount the city will receive from the state will not be finalized until Beacon Hill lawmakers approve a budget.

The city’s $90 million increase in revenue is driven in large part by a 2.5 percent increase in property taxes.

High oil prices are expected to increase the city’s proceeds from its jet fuel tax by roughly $1 million. The hotel room tax, which Boston increased in 2009, is predicted to net an additional $7 million. And the meals tax - a 0.75 percent surcharge on bills at diners, take-out joints, and fine restaurants - is anticipated to generate $2.3 million more.

“Although we were opposed to the local option meals tax, we are happy to see that the revenue has increased,” said Stephen J. Clark of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “That means people are eating out.”

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