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The Boston Globe

Opinion

LAWRENCE HARMON

Next mayor of Boston needs a no-nonsense CFO

Mayoral candidate Bill Walczak would be open to retaining Meredith Weenick.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/file

Mayoral candidate Bill Walczak would be open to retaining Meredith Weenick.

There are no race-baiters or extremists in Boston’s mayoral field. Each of the viable candidates wants better schools and safer streets. But how many of them are ready — by virtue of experience and temperament — to manage a $2.6 billion operation with 17,000 employees?

Mayor Menino scored big points in municipal finance because he adhered to a self-imposed debt ceiling, did a decent job at managing union contracts, fielded a superb budget management team, and kept a close eye on pension and retiree health care liability. During the last 11 years, he reduced city personnel by about 6 percent. And the headstrong Menino rarely, if ever, ignored the advice of his in-house financial experts. That’s why the city enjoys a triple-A bond rating from Moody’s.

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The next mayor will need to protect that legacy. And to accomplish that, he or she will need a first-rate chief financial officer. Most of the candidates, at least, have given the issue some thought.

Bill Walczak of Dorchester has the most experience dealing with large budgets and staffs. Walczak said he oversaw about 1,200 employees and an operating budget of about $110 million during a 14-month stint as head of Carney Hospital. He also led a successful nonprofit community health center. Walczak said he would be open to retaining Meredith Weenick, the city’s current chief financial officer. That’s a smart move by an outsider who understands that he might need a CFO who knows the inner workings of City Hall.

City Councilor Felix Arroyo and state representative Martin Walsh are at the other end of the spectrum. With limited management experience and close ties to organized labor, they have the potential to spook financial rating agencies.

To their credit, both Arroyo and Walsh are challenging that perception. “My first instinct is to stay at the staffing levels we have today,’’ said Arroyo. That’s a good instinct. Bloated payrolls have pushed cities, including Detroit, into bankruptcy. Arroyo said he is leaning heavily on Jay Gonzalez — Governor Patrick’s former administration and finance secretary — for fiscal advice. Arroyo seems to have an eye for financial talent.

Walsh is similarly demonstrating to voters that he is committed to fiscal stability. He cited former state budget expert Katherine Craven as his ideal CFO. The no-nonsense Craven did a stellar job restoring fiscal sanity to the state authority that reimburses cities and towns for the construction and renovation of K-12 schools.

City Councilor Rob Consalvo unexpectedly went off the fiscal rails this week while outlining his public safety plan to reporters. Consalvo said he would boost the size of the police department by 10 percent, or about 200 officers. That plan, when fully implemented, would cost taxpayers about $20 million annually. Yet there is no manpower crisis at the police department. Consalvo said he would look for a CFO who is both “a number cruncher and an innovator.’’ But he has no one specifically in mind.

Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley and former city housing chief Charlotte Golar Richie each have run good-sized public agencies, with about 300 employees and 200 employees, respectively. During a recent candidates’ forum with downtown business executives, Conley said that he would resist the inevitable pressure on a new mayor to spend liberally on projects that translate into votes. He characterized the late Edward Collins, Boston’s talented finance chief during the 1990s, as the ideal steward of the city’s coffers. Golar Richie indicated in a statement that she held current city CFO Weenick in “high regard.’’ She also cited former Boston bankers William Pinakiewicz and Ron Walker for their work with “mission-driven’’ nonprofit organizations.

City councilors Michael Ross and John Connolly have a lot of experience combing through city budgets. At the downtown business forum, Connolly cited the importance of funding an irrevocable trust for the health care costs of retired city workers. It’s not a sexy issue, but it shows a strong understanding of how a city remains fiscally healthy. Connolly cited South End activist Susan Passoni, a former investment banker, as someone he could envision as the city’s CFO. Ross stressed his role in the successful 2010 effort to renegotiate an outrageous firefighter contract, saving the city millions of dollars. Ross cited several academic and economic experts in Boston he would consult to find a capable finance chief.

Former school board member John Barros, who has worked in the financial industry, aimed high. He cited Jack Meyer, the former head of Harvard University's endowment portfolio, as an ideal CFO-type.

Whoever wins can be sure that department heads, political aides, and city unions will attempt end runs around the city’s CFO. Menino was wise to that game and didn’t allow anyone to undermine his finance team or break his budget. Boston voters would do well to elect another mayor who knows the value of taking “no’’ for an answer, especially when it comes from the lips of a capable chief financial officer.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com
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