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Amid calls for police reform and fierce debate, Boston City Council passes $3.61 billion budget

Boston City Hall.
Boston City Hall.Craig F. Walker

The Boston City Council on Wednesday passed a $3.61 billion operating budget for the next fiscal year that will ramp up spending on housing and public health, but it drew vociferous opposition from several councilors who said the spending plan falls woefully short of the moment and the movement to dismantle structural racism.

With the budget’s passage, the city avoids a stopgap funding measure that some officials said could have brought layoffs in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a plan that Mayor Martin J. Walsh said “makes significant investments in new community-led programs, and that takes bold steps toward our pledge of creating a more just and equitable society.”

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But following weeks of protests about racism and police abuses, Councilor Andrea Campbell, who voted against the budget, said that “gradual will no longer do.”

She was among the councilors who said the mayor’s plan did not do enough to fight economic and racial inequalities and help communities of color.

The operating budget, which was resubmitted by Walsh’s administration earlier this month, includes the reallocation of $12 million in police overtime spending — 20 percent of the department’s overtime budget — to other programs, including $3 million to the Public Health Commission for programs to combat systemic racism. It was not enough for some residents and advocates, who pushed for more money to be rerouted from the police budget to community programs.

On Wednesday, the budget passed by an 8-to-5 vote during a virtual meeting after more than two hours of discussion during which all 13 councilors spoke.

Councilors Frank Baker, Michael Flaherty, Ed Flynn, Annissa Essaibi-George, Lydia Edwards, Kenzie Bok, Matt O’Malley, and Liz Breadon voted yes.

Councilors Campbell, Ricardo Arroyo, Michelle Wu, Julia Mejia, and Council President Kim Janey voted no.

Walsh, in a statement, called the operating budget fiscally responsible.

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“I look forward to our continued collaboration by listening to residents and advocates and investing and acting on the reforms needed to address structural racism,” he said.

The vote came during a moment of intense public interest. There have been calls, both in the streets and during council hearings, for substantial change that would help dismantle systems that perpetuate racism.

A multitude of demonstrations in recent weeks, locally and nationwide, have focused mostly on the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis but also on the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and racial inequality at large.

Floyd, a 46-year-old handcuffed Black man, died on Memorial Day when a white police officer pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Taylor was a 26-year-old EMT killed in March by police executing a “no-knock” warrant.

The prospect of the budget being rejected brought with it potential layoffs; a temporary budget known as a 1/12 would have seen the city fund services at last year’s levels, but Boston would still have been on the hook for this year’s costs, city officials say.

The council has the power to accept or reject the budget. It can also reduce the budget but has no authority to add to it. Councilors can transfer funds only if the mayor requests that.

“Given the authority that I have as a Councilor to vote yes or no on an entire budget,” Campbell said in a statement, “this vote will not be enough to ensure that one’s zip code does not determine one’s ability to get a good-paying job, access a quality education, afford a home, or feel valued and safe in one’s community.”

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“But I do know that our votes can send a strong message to the Mayor and Administration that a timid response to the organizing and calls for action to shift our budget so it is more equitable and anti-racist is not enough.”

Said Mejia, another “no” vote: “I am no longer interested in having drip-drop, incremental changes.”

Flaherty, meanwhile, indicated the operating budget was sensible.

“This budget does a lot of good for our city,” he said, pointing to funding for workforce development, parks and recreation, and environmental resiliency programs, among other things.

Bok, who chairs the council’s ways and means committee, voted yes but said she would support a 10 percent overall reduction in police funding and a reallocation of that money. She laid out steps to achieve that goal.

She also cast doubt on the notion that voting down the operating budget would have gotten Boston any closer to a more equitable reality. She said the city should be “thoughtful and compassionate” about how it shifts personnel in the middle of a pandemic.

“We all feel the urgency of this moment, but the council cannot speedily negotiate a new, better budget from the mayor without a viable counterproposal,” she said.

Edwards, who voted yes, pledged to work to restructure local government to change the way the city allocates funds and the council’s budgetary powers.

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“I know that a lot of people are frustrated by the fact that this budget doesn’t answer the cry for systemic change. I agree,” Edwards said in a statement. “But the system doesn’t allow for that kind of change or even conversation.”

“If you are really tired of false choices between workers and an OK budget, join me in reforming the system,” she continued. “I’d rather break the wheel through charter reform” — referring to the city charter — “than pretend that voting ‘no’ does anything but continue the systemic false choice by working within the system.”

Flynn also voted in favor of the operating budget. He said discussion regarding racial equity and justice must continue.

“I believe that voting for this budget does not mean that we won’t work to address issues of accountability for misconduct and structural change,” he said.

Prior to the budget discussion, the council held a moment of silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds for George Floyd.

Arroyo, who voted no on the operating budget, has wanted to see a deeper reduction in the police budget and has advocated for more investment in other city services. At Wednesday’s meeting, he referenced Floyd and that moment of silence.

“It felt incredibly long,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “It was very painful. Now imagine waiting decades for funding in your communities and being told to wait with an impending recession.”

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The council also unanimously passed a $3 billion capital budget for the city and a $1.2 billion Boston Public Schools budget, which was adopted 11 to 2.


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