Boston will soon have a new mayor, barring unforeseen developments. And she couldn’t be arriving at a more complicated time.
City Council President Kim Janey is taking over from Mayor Martin J. Walsh at what is hopefully the tail end of a pandemic that has upended every aspect of life in what had been, just a year ago, a teeming city. She will be charged with implementing a recently passed and hard-fought police reform package that includes an independent watchdog to probe officer misconduct. She will inherit an intractable crisis in affordable housing, an area that Walsh prioritized and made significant strides in, but where more needs to be done.
To the good, Janey will take over a city budget from Walsh that is notably stable at a time when municipal and state coffers have suffered dramatic losses due to the pandemic. As Walsh got high grades for leading the city through the toughest times of the pandemic and leaves a popular mayor, Janey will be at the helm for the recovery, leading Boston as it navigates an undoubtedly complicated return to a more normal life.
In short, Janey — who would be the first Black person and the first woman to serve as the city’s mayor — will have her hands full. She will likely serve as acting mayor until this fall, when there will be a mayoral election with the winner serving a full term. Whoever wins that contest will face many of the same problems.
“The next mayor is going to have to instill hope in the people of the city,” said the Rev. Willie Bodrick II, senior pastor at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, one of several local leaders asked by the Globe to detail the most pressing problems facing the next mayor. “It’s an opportunity for us to reimagine a better Boston.”
While Janey has said little about what she will do as mayor, she inherits a number of immediate questions created by the COVID-19 crisis.
Budget-wise, Boston appears to be relatively well-positioned this year even as the state and city continue to reel from the pandemic’s economic fallout. During a virtual City Council hearing last week, Walsh administration budget officials touted a balanced budget of $3.59 billion for the year — which they were able to achieve without any major service cuts or layoffs. The officials pointed to property taxes coming in $49 million higher than expected, driven by new growth during Boston’s pre-pandemic economic boom of 2019. The state also delivered $9 million more in aid than anticipated, thanks to a bump in education funding.
Those factors helped offset the pandemic-induced dip in local revenue, which has suffered from fewer people spending on items such as hotel rooms and restaurant meals, leaving the city with less excise taxes to collect. Department fines and permitting fees have also declined because of less economic activity in the city, officials said.
Those revenue sources for this year are expected to come in at $57 million below the budgeted amount, according to authorities.
Boston budget officials said avoiding layoffs among city employees continues to be a priority. The city has already cut $65 million from this year’s original budget forecast, about a 2 percent budget reduction.
Still, future fiscal questions abound, chief among them what the multiyear economic effect from COVID-19 will be. With many businesses working from home, the future value of commercial real estate and planned commercial projects is another looming uncertainty for city coffers.
Despite the pandemic-induced economic uncertainty, Lorna Rivera, a University of Massachusetts Boston professor and a member of the city’s COVID-19 inequities task force, thinks the city needs to continue to find ways to fund essential programs and services.
“I don’t buy into that ‘We got to fight for the crumbs of the pie,’ ” she said. “There’s a lot of wealth in Boston and it can be mobilized.”
Dealing with gentrification and adding affordable housing will be an essential task for the future mayors of Boston, she said. Additionally, infrastructure of the city’s school district is in many ways outdated, said Rivera. Scores of school facilities do not have HVAC systems, she said.
“Some of these buildings are literally unsafe,” said Rivera.
Pastor Bodrick also singled out affordable housing as a top priority. The city, he said, needs to do more to ensure that people are not priced out of neighborhoods they grew up in.
“You need to build, build, build, but with intentionality,” he said.
Rivera ticked off a list of other challenges facing Boston: coming up with ways to move buses through the city more efficiently, expanding the availability of English classes for immigrants, implementing police reform that matters. Additionally, the vaccination rollout will be tethered directly to the city’s economic recovery.
“People can’t get to work safely if they’re not vaccinated,” she said. “That is a huge challenge.”
Boston’s school district also continues to wrestle with persistent and stubborn achievement gaps, a problem COVID-19 has only further complicated.
Segun Idowu, executive director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, said economic justice for communities of color, specifically the Black community, is a crucial and immediate task for the city.
“Part of that is about the city doing business with our businesses,” he said.
Citing a recent study that found businesses owned by people of color were massively underrepresented in contracts awarded by the city, Idowu said, “Contracting is going to be a huge piece.”
The city needs deeper investment in technical assistance and grant assistance for Black businesses, he said. More relationships need to be fostered between businesses and organizations who provide such aid, according to Idowu.
He said the city cannot be fiscally shortsighted, even with the ongoing damage the pandemic may cause to revenue streams in the years ahead.
“Once the vaccine has been rolled out to everyone, that doesn’t mean the issues for the business have stopped,” said Idowu. “It’s going to be important that we’re continuing to provide as much relief and assistance to our businesses for the foreseeable future.”
Eldin Lynn Villafañe, a Boston-based political consultant, said the city needs a mayor who will make sure the city is “doing better with public school education, doing better with economic development for Black and brown communities.” It would help if the city’s executive understands the pain of those communities, and how race factors into every industry and policy, he said. The city, he said, needs to continue to have frank discussions about structural racism.
While Walsh is expected to sail through his final confirmation vote, it’s far less certain what’s ahead for Janey, who has not said whether she intends to join the field of candidates vying to be the next elected mayor.
There is a preliminary mayoral election scheduled for September and a general contest slated for November. So far, three city councilors have declared their mayoral candidacies: Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, and Michelle Wu. Other candidates are widely expected to jump in.
“If we’re not making the investments now for the future, then this mayor, the next mayor, and the mayor after that are going to have less money to provide more services for an ailing city,” said Idowu.