In what was billed as her first major speech to Boston’s business community, Acting Mayor Kim Janey on Wednesday steered clear of any controversy while focusing on spreading the wealth of city contracts to diverse small businesses and helping address the city’s labor and housing shortages.
Janey is competing with five other rivals — including several of her city council peers — for the mayor’s seat this fall, and no candidate has yet emerged as a clear favorite of the city’s business community.
That makes appearances at events such as the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce government affairs forum, held virtually on Wednesday, all the more important for Janey’s political prospects. It’s a high-profile venue, even if many of the 200 or so people who watched don’t actually live in the city. While this was her largest business audience since taking over for Mayor-turned-Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh in March, it most likely won’t be her last such event.
Janey delivered prerecorded remarks that were filmed on Tuesday at cybersecurity firm Rapid7′s new headquarters next to the TD Garden, and then answered some live questions from her City Hall office. Among her responses to questions posed by Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney: She criticized state education Commissioner Jeff Riley’s suggestion that some federal aid for Boston schools should be frozen temporarily because of turmoil at the Boston School Committee, and she disagreed with leaders in the state Legislature who do not want to give Boston a seat on a newly reconstituted governance board for the MBTA.
Her speech itself focused on issues of equity and inclusion, and how to guide Boston’s economy out of the COVID-19 pandemic that challenged the city in so many ways.
“By focusing on our workers, by supporting our businesses, by diversifying who we contract with, we will all rise from this pandemic to a stronger Boston that is more equitable, just and resilient,” Janey said.
Janey homed in on a recent city-commissioned report that showed businesses owned by people of color secured only 2.5 percent of the $2.1 billion in contracts and professional goods and services that the city has awarded over a five-year period. The diversity of the city’s contractors had been improving in the Walsh administration, but nowhere near as quickly as Janey would like to see.
As a result, she trumpeted a number of reforms meant to address this disparity — some which she started, others set in motion under Walsh. She cited efforts to market procurement opportunities to diverse vendors and developing diverse spending goals at the department level, additions to her staff to address the issue, and a newly created “Boston Contracting Opportunity Fund” that doled out $820,000 via 56 grants of up to $15,000 each to local, diverse businesses this week to help them better position themselves for future city contracts.
For housing, Janey highlighted her recent launch of a $50 million rental relief fund, an increase in funding for the city’s first-time homebuyer program, and an upcoming investment of $30 million to develop housing for low and moderate-income residents.
She recapped several city-organized small-business assistance programs, primarily funded by federal relief funds. And she proposed setting aside $1.7 million to support restaurants — to subsidize marketing, provide tuition assistance and retention payments, and to offer logistics help for outdoor dining.
And in the $3.8 billion city budget for the next fiscal year that she submitted to the City Council last week, she set aside new pots of money for job training, including $1 million for industries hit hardest by COVID-19 and another $1 million for artists. The budget also would create a cabinet-level position, the chief of labor and workforce development, to advocate for legislation and programs that can help end wage disparities and ensure workers have the skills the need for the job opportunities that are available.
That budget could face a bumpy road at the City Council, where several members voiced concerns about it during a meeting Wednesday, with roughly a week remaining before the new fiscal year begins.