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With police funding debate swirling, Boston City Council poised to vote on budget. Will it pass?

Boston City Hall was lit in blue in April to show support for health care workers.
Boston City Hall was lit in blue in April to show support for health care workers.Maddie Meyer/Getty

Amid a pitched debate about police funding and city spending during the pandemic, the Boston City Council is poised Wednesday to vote on next year’s operating budget.

The big questions: Will it pass? And, if it doesn’t, what happens next?

The council has the power to vote up or down on the budget, which has received attention in recent weeks, with residents and advocates calling for Boston police funding to be slashed and the money rerouted to social services and community programs.

Earlier this month, Mayor Martin J. Walsh submitted a revised $3.61 billion budget for the next fiscal year, days after announcing plans to reallocate police overtime funds amid protests against racism.

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However, some councilors say the new plan is inadequate.

On Tuesday, Councilor Michelle Wu said she intended to vote “no” regarding the Walsh administration’s proposal, saying that that plan “includes slight changes from the pre-pandemic budget that don’t represent the type of transformative investments that so many community members, activists, and residents are reaching out for.”

According to Wu, by “reducing the police overtime line item with no plan for actually reducing police overtime hours, the Administration is setting up the City to overspend and inevitably dip into contingency funding to fulfill obligations governed by existing police contracts.”

Samantha Ormsby, a Walsh spokeswoman, said in a Tuesday e-mail that as the city faces a significant loss in revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic, “the Mayor is focused on being fiscally responsible, while leading the charge toward a more just and equitable society by listening to the calls of residents and advocates, and making smart and strategic investments that will get this important work off the ground at a time when it is needed most.”

Should the councilors reject Walsh’s budget proposal, a so-called 1/12 budget is almost certain to go into effect for Boston, a stopgap that means the city would be funded with last year’s funding levels but would still have to pay this year’s costs.

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Under that scenario, City Hall would still be on the hook for things like upcoming pay raises that are included in collective bargaining agreements.

Such a dynamic would create budget gaps in various city departments and in order to fill those gaps, the city would have to resort to layoffs and spending reductions, according to city authorities. The number and nature of such layoffs are not yet clear, since there would be many variables, including the union agreements, at play.

“The only way to fill budget gaps without more spending authorization is spending reduction, so that’s cuts to staff, or personnel, or other areas,” said Justin Sterritt, the city’s budget chief, in a council budget session on Monday.

The Walsh proposal does have its supporters. Councilor Frank Baker said it would be “wildly irresponsible” to vote the budget down for “political reasons.”

“They’re looking to rub dirt in the mayor’s face on this one,” said Baker of the proposal’s opponents.

Baker said while city authorities should be looking at doing things differently with regards to police, he praised the budget before the council for investments in public health and housing.

“We have a great budget in front of us,” said Baker.

Councilor Ed Flynn also supports Walsh’s plan, saying Tuesday the proposal is fiscally responsible and makes investments in critical programs, and also responds to the needs of racial equity.

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“The discussion on racial equity and justice isn’t over,” said Flynn in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of work we need to do beyond this year’s budget.”

Asked which way he thought the council would vote on Wednesday, Flynn said, “It’s tough to predict right now.”

The mayor’s newest budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is slightly lower than the initial $3.65 billion plan proposed in April, and represents a 3.4 percent increase in spending over the current fiscal year. Officials said the resubmission followed more than 30 meetings with city councilors meant to identify cost-saving measures, and continues to propose increased funding for education, housing, and public health.

The proposal includes the reallocation of $12 million in police overtime spending — 20 percent of the department’s overtime budget — toward other programs, including $3 million to the Boston Public Health Commission for programs to combat systemic racism and economic and racial inequities.

Councilor Kenzie Bok, who is chairwoman of the council’s ways and means committee, which deals with budgetary matters, called the possibility of a 1/12 budget “very sobering.”

“What worries me about it most of all is that it wouldn’t lock in the large increases in affordable housing and public health funds that we’ve pushed for,” said Bok during a phone interview.

She continued, “I think in this moment the whole council is weighing how to lay the groundwork for a more just city with deeper investments in communities of color and institutions of community care, while making sure we’re as well-fortified as possible for this economic storm we find ourselves in.”

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The council has the power to reduce the budget, but does not have the legal authority to add to it, and the body can transfer funds only when the mayor requests it.

Councilor Lydia Edwards said that while the budget has “come a long way,” she has concerns about what she calls the administration’s “inability to explain the worst case scenario.” If the council rejected the proposal, she wants to know who would lose their jobs, how many jobs would be lost, and whether employees that were let go because of that move would eventually be rehired.

“The budget doesn’t answer the cry for a lot of systemic changes people want, and it’s frustrating,” she said.

She said councilors are now faced with a “false choice” of workers’ jobs or systemic reforms and mentioned that she would look to restructure city government in the future so that the council would have more budgetary power.

“I am planning to turn my phone off after the vote,” she said. “I can’t win.”

Like Edwards, Councilor Liz Breadon indicated Tuesday afternoon she had yet to make up her mind regarding which way she was going to vote, while noting the city had not gone the route of a 1/12 budget for many years. That option constitutes “uncharted territory” for Boston, she said. Breadon said, “This is a strong budget with many, many things to like.” She also acknowledged the groundswell of support to reroute police funding toward other programs.

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“It’s a bigger conversation that needs to happen after tomorrow,” she said.

The scrutiny on how the council will handle the budget vote comes as hundreds of youth activists rallied outside City Hall Tuesday calling on officials to redirect police funding toward social-service oriented programs, such as public health programs; they called for a 10 percent cut in police funding. Several activists, from groups including the Youth Justice and Power Union and the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project, at one point chained themselves together and shut down the intersection at Congress and State Streets.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said Tuesday he wouldn’t be voting for Walsh’s budget proposal as it was constituted on Tuesday. He wanted to see more investment in public health services and specific programs like Boston Centers for Youth & Families and the city’s neighborhood trauma team. He also wanted to see a deeper reduction to the police budget.

Councilor Michael Flaherty planned to support the budget, which he said would make investments in critical areas including affordable housing, public safety, and youth programming. He said he was focused on being a good fiscal steward for the city.

”In light of the larger fiscal uncertainty as a result of COVD-19 and anticipated reductions to state aid, I am not comfortable sending us to a 1/12 budget,” he said.

Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Abigail Feldman contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.