Politics is fun: the clash of candidates in campaigns, the pageantry of speeches and ribbon-cuttings, and the gossip about who did what to whom. Governance, on the other hand, can be dull: Few get excited about the back-office world of spreadsheets and green eyeshades, of non-recurring revenue, balanced budgets, bond ratings, and pension obligations.
Boring or not, though, this is the stuff that really matters. If you want to measure a city politician’s real success, look at the numbers — and by that measure, former Boston mayor Tom Menino’s tenure shines as an example for his successor, a point driven home by a just-issued report from the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, the independent business-funded watchdog.
Covering the last 11 years of the administration, the report is both an excavation of the past — including an effort to understand how Boston survived so remarkably well the Great Recession — and a set of guidelines for the future. The short answers: Don’t reach farther than your grasp. Don’t be afraid to say no. And build up reserves to help ride out the inevitable next recession.
Boston’s government today is a $2.6 billion operation. More than 80 percent of those funds come from just two sources: property tax and state aid. Both are inflexible. State law prohibits cities and towns from suddenly increasing property tax rates. Meanwhile, state aid is shrinking. Boston’s share, for example, went from $523 million in 2002 down to $403 million last year. Money, in other words, is tight.
So what are pols with grand plans to do? Play games. They can use non-recurring revenues (say from the sale of some city-owned property) to fund recurring expenses. They can increase borrowing, using debt to pay for constituent-pleasing new projects. They can underfund some obligations, deferring payments on employee pensions, for example. Or they can spend every last dollar, never building up a reserve. All of these dodges work, at least for the short term, but they create enormous perils for the future. Eventually, of course, someone has to pay.
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