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Next Boston mayor must curb the urge to spend

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It can be fun being mayor when the economy is on an upswing; it’s less a pleasure when recessions hit. Spending makes everyone happy. Trimming back does not. Judging by the raft of new ideas the 12 candidates to succeed Boston Mayor Tom Menino are advancing, they’re looking to have fun. But the next mayor shouldn’t enjoy himself or herself too much. It’s a good guess that sometime during the second term, things will turn sour — and that’s when the party ends and the painful hangover can begin.

The candidates have promises aplenty. Felix Arroyo wants more cops patrolling city parks. John Barros would boost spending on the arts. Dan Conley thinks teachers need more professional development. John Connolly urges increasing the length of the school day. Rob Consalvo says he’ll hire 200 more cops. Charlotte Golar Richie looks to rebuild infrastructure to better withstand global climate change. Mike Ross hopes for universal pre-school. Marty Walsh plans “little city halls” in Boston’s neighborhoods.

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And so on and so on. There are a lot of ideas out there, many of them worthy. Whoever is mayor will likely liberally borrow from what has been a stew of creative thinking during this campaign. The year 2014 may see the kick-off of a number of new initiatives.

They will all cost money, though. Still, we’re doing well, so why not? The national economy is growing, doing a slo-mo bounce-back from the Great Recession. And Boston in particular is hot. The industries that are its mainstays — health care, technology, bio-tech — are surging, hiring more and generating profits. Attracted by the city’s charm, safety, culture, and nightlife, people are moving in. Developers are spending billions on new construction, all with the promise of millions of dollars of new tax revenue. The city is in solid shape, and lenders likely would be willing to lend it more.

The money, it seems, is at hand. And that’s the problem.

Things may be on the upswing now, but someday that’ll change. Menino experienced that several times during his 20 years. He arrived just as one recession was ending and saw a long period of growth. Seven years into his term, however, Internet stocks imploded, kicking off the 2001 recession. The economy bounced back eventually, but six years later brought another, far more significant crash. No one knows when the next recession comes, of course, but it’s probably a certainty that at some point one will arrive. Without proper preparation, its impact on the city could be brutal.

Even in the best of times, demands for spending far exceed growth in revenue. Those demands can only be met by thinning the city’s reserves and borrowing. But doing so makes the next recession all the worse. New employees hired during a boom are hard to fire during a bust. Other programs have to be cut deeply to make up the difference, or staff has to be shrunk through attrition (meaning, for example, that in the Police Department new cops wouldn’t be hired while the city waits for old ones to retire, gradually increasing the average age of the force). Bold initiatives, like public art or newly created parks, suddenly find themselves without funds for care and maintenance. What was once an asset to a community turns into an eyesore. Innovative programs sponsored by the city find themselves cut; those dependent on them are cast adrift.

The better but harder approach is to hold off. Increase spending slowly. Don’t take on extra debt. Divert a healthy portion of the new funds coming in to build reserves for the inevitable rainy day.

One of Menino’s best traits has been his fiscal caution. Being a naysayer isn’t necessarily fun, but it’s served Boston well. It’s been politically smart too. People will forgive you for not spending as much as they wish. But those forced to make harsh cuts not only lose a legacy, they can lose reelection.

Tom Keane can be reached at
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