In a stark and unusual procedural rebuke of Acting Mayor Kim Janey, the Boston City Council on Wednesday signaled it is not ready to pass her $3.76 billion operating budget proposal in its current form, sending the proposal to its ways and means committee in the hopes of reaching consensus on a spending plan for the city with a little more than a week to go before the end of the fiscal year.
The move is the latest evidence of escalating tension between the Janey and the council she used to preside over before she became acting mayor in March. Earlier this month, the council approved a rule change empowering it to remove Janey as council president, which would hypothetically strip her of the acting mayor title. And there have been recent rumblings that some councilors are upset with what they perceive as poor communication from Janey’s administration on an array of issues.
On Wednesday, councilors raised various complaints about the budget during an extensive and robust discussion at their weekly City Hall meeting. Some wanted deeper cuts to police funding. Others wanted more money to address the city’s climate resiliency. Yet others spoke of the need for more housing programs and more resources for the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, known as Mass. and Cass, the epicenter of the city’s opioid crisis.
Budget jousting is nothing new for City Hall, but Wednesday’s move from the council, which signaled that passage of the proposal was in possible jeopardy, represented an unusual step.
“There are some good things in this budget, but there can be more, and we’re up against a fiscal deadline,” said Councilor Matt O’Malley.
Councilor Lydia Edwards was more pointed in her criticism, expressing frustration at what she described as a lack of communication from Janey’s administration regarding the budget. The budget process, she said, has not been a collective effort.
She also suggested that the budget fell short on a number of fronts, saying this is a crucial time of COVID-19 recovery, racial reckoning, and necessary police reform for Boston.
“The housing crisis had just had gasoline thrown on it with the pandemic,” said Edwards “Does this this budget meet that moment? It doesn’t.”
She added, “I am not comfortable with this budget for many reasons.”
Councilor Andrea Campbell, who announced her opposition to the budget at a press conference a day earlier, said Janey’s budget did not “rise to the occasion” when it comes to policing and police reform. The budget, she said, adds more officers and does not include a plan to rein in overtime for the department. She reiterated her intention to vote “no” on the budget as it is currently constructed.
“I was deeply disappointed during this whole process,” she said.
Campbell is one of three councilors who are vying with Janey in this year’s crowded mayoral race. She and fellow councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George will have the opportunity to approve or reject Janey’s budget.
On Wednesday, Essaibi George said the city needed to provide more resources to help small businesses and alleviate the housing and opioid crises, among other issues.
“There are certainly some critical elements that are missing,” she said.
By a 10-2 vote, the council voted not to pass the operating budget, and the matter was sent to the ways and means committee, which plans on holding a working session on Friday and a hearing on Monday.
From those meetings, councilors could make proposals to address their budgetary concerns, which in turn would allow Janey to incorporate those changes into her budget proposal in order to win the council’s approval. The proposed $1.29 billion Boston Public Schools budget was also referred to the ways and means committee.
Councilor Kenzie Bok, who is the chairwoman of the ways and means committee and proposed the unusual move Wednesday, indicated that she was a “yes” vote on the budget but said that she had heard concerns from other councilors. She hoped discussions in the next week will help the council reach a consensus.
“What gets us there?” she asked. “What gets us to a budget that we can all feel like is meeting that moment?”
The council’s move comes days after Janey unveiled a revised operating budget for next fiscal year to the council.
Janey’s latest budget proposal represents a year-over-year increase of $152 million, or 4.2 percent, and the resubmission follows more than three dozen council hearings and working sessions in recent weeks. Her administration has said its proposal makes “further investment in core city services and resident needs, while centering an equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
A Janey spokeswoman said in a statement that Janey “is proud to submit a budget that makes immediate and long term investments in neighborhoods, career pipelines, parks, public safety, and shared spaces for joy.”
“Mayor Janey values her relationships with members of the Boston City Council and has led structural reforms to strengthen Council input in the City’s budgeting process, including funding the Office of Participatory Budgeting and clearing the way for a new ballot question to increase the Councils role in the annual budget process,” she said.
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. Janey needs seven “yes” votes from the 12 voting councilors for the operating budget to pass.
The council could pass an operating budget at its June 30 meeting, on the eve of the new fiscal year.
Failure to approve a budget before the start of the new fiscal year would mean real financial uncertainties for Boston. A temporary budget known as a 1/12 would take effect, which would see the city fund services at the previous year’s levels, but Boston would still be on the hook for the new year’s costs. This dynamic could create budget gaps in various departments.