THE BIG question hanging over Boston Mayor Martin Walsh when he took office in January concerned his ability — and willingness — to protect the public treasury. Walsh’s detractors envisioned him sweeping into office and padding the public payroll with cronies from the labor movement who had backed his successful campaign. But Walsh has shown himself to be a stand-up steward of public funds during his first 100 or so days in office. He has filed a fiscally sound $2.7 billion operating budget, negotiated a decent contract with the firefighters, and hired an accomplished chief financial officer.
It’s an impressive start.
During the campaign, Walsh promised he would get a firefighters contract that was fair to all and do so without the acrimony and expensive arbitration that characterized the Menino years. He wasn’t talking through his hat. If ratified by members of Boston Firefighters Local 718, the contract would provide an 18.8 percent raise over six years. With a cost of $92 million over the life of the contract, it can’t be called cheap. Yet it looks reasonable compared to last year’s arbitration award of 25.4 percent over six years to the Boston Police.
Fire units that deal with hazardous materials and highly technical rescues got a special bump in pay, as they should. City officials made no headway, however, in eliminating the inflated “career award’’ that automatically translates into an average annual salary increase of 0.5 percent for firefighters each time their base wage increases.
Still, Walsh did manage to wrangle some minimal reforms from the notoriously tough union. Fire Department managers gained some tools to curb overtime costs and abuse of sick time. Meanwhile, the 2 percent raise in the final year of the contract is something the administration can use as a starting point in future negotiations with the police and teachers unions.
Richard Paris, president of Boston Firefighters Local 718, said it required just three or four sessions over 20 hours to conclude the contract negotiation. “We got treated with respect for the first time,’’ said Paris. For now, at least, the long-running tensions between City Hall and the firefighters have abated.
In another big development this week, Walsh named David Sweeney, 31, as the city’s new chief financial officer. Sweeney currently serves as the CFO for the Massachusetts State Lottery and formerly served as the chief fiscal policy adviser to House Speaker Robert DeLeo.
It’s not easy to find an experienced CFO who understands the intricacies of municipal finance and revenue forecasting, and is also not afraid to stand up to anyone — including the boss — who suggests risky uses of public funds.
“You’re not there to be the mayor’s best friend and he [Walsh] knows it,’’ said Sweeney. “My role and his goal is fiscal sobriety.’’ That’s what Boston’s commercial and residential taxpayers want to hear. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Sweeney specialized in rooting out work-shy employees at the Lottery. Those skills should come in handy in Boston, too.
Unlike his predecessors in the Menino administration, however, Sweeney won’t have direct control of the city’s human resources and labor relations departments. Shorty after taking office, Walsh folded those functions into the portfolio of Joseph Rull, the city’s chief of operations. With almost 70 percent of the city’s operating budget devoted to salaries and benefits, that move might come back to bite the mayor. The professional budget team, not the mayor’s more politically oriented cabinet staff, should be directly responsible for monitoring hiring levels in the city.
Walsh’s $2.7 billion operating budget for fiscal year 2015, up 4.5 percent from last year, also shows he’s serious about fiscal stability. His policy priorities are seen in boosts for early education, expanded library hours, and recovery services for substance abusers. But he also takes $40 million from Boston’s healthy reserve fund and applies it to the city’s largest unfunded employee liability — health insurance for retired city workers. That’s the kind of move that impresses bond-rating agencies, who like to see cities address such liabilities without being forced to by state or federal mandates.
“My job is to make sure we keep our AAA rating from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s,’’ said Walsh. Boston currently enjoys the highest rating, which allows the city to borrow money for capital projects at favorable terms.
It’s very early in Walsh’s first term. He hasn’t been tested by a downturn in the economy or a surge in demands from the city’s municipal unions. But Walsh’s early efforts suggest that — at least for now — the city rests in capable hands.