In the past two years, Boston’s budget season brought bitter clashes between the mayor and city councilors. But this year — despite a new mayor, a City Council stacked with new, ambitious faces, and an entirely new budgeting process that some warned would breed chaos — the debate has produced few fireworks.
Armed with broad new power to rewrite Boston’s annual operating budget, the City Council has so far treaded lightly. More than a month after Mayor Michelle Wu proposed a $3.99 billion budget, the council has yet to make any changes to it, and it remains to be seen whether the body will pitch any major shifts at all.
That’s in part due to the logistical difficulty of doing so. The council continues to operate under significant limitations even after a successful ballot measure gave the body new budgeting powers. But the relative tranquility also indicates early success for Wu, who — whether thanks to political savvy, structural constraints, the city’s strong financial position, or some combination of all three — appears to be avoiding the public budget squabble her most recent predecessors had to navigate.
“I’m not interested in not passing the budget. I’m not interested, especially, in not passing a budget for a woman of color who is mayor in her first term, in her first year of creating a budget,” said City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, chairwoman of the council’s Ways and Means Committee. The council will propose changes, she predicted, but not tear up Wu’s proposal “for sport.”
Though imperfect, she added, “I think it’s a good operating budget.”
The new budget process, approved by voters on last fall’s ballot, aims to make city spending decisions more democratic by empowering councilors to represent their respective neighborhoods. Critics warned that it could devolve into dysfunction, with numerous competing visions for the budget.
Wu, who served on the City Council for many years, has emphasized that she wants to embrace the new protocols and collaborate with councilors. She brought councilors into the process well before releasing her first proposal, an effort her aides credit for the cooperative dynamic so far. Several people involved in the process said this year’s negotiations have so far been amicable, a departure from the animosity that flared between administration and council in previous years.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Boston is in strong financial shape and not anticipating major cuts or layoffs. The city also has a comfortable stockpile of hundreds of millions of federal COVID recovery dollars that Wu has proposed spending on housing and environmental initiatives among others.
Even the Police Department budget, a major source of previous political clashes, has yet to stoke the drama of past years. Wu herself voted against the city’s operating budget in 2020 and 2021, citing policing issues both times. In 2020, she and a number of other local officials, including four present city councilors, called for cutting the budget by 10 percent. But her proposal this year includes just a 1 percent cut.
Nevertheless, debate on the department’s spending has been quieter this year. At a hearing last week, only one councilor, Kendra Lara, directly called for cutting the police budget, and so far, no councilor has filed a formal budget amendment to that effect. Anderson, who said she would support some trims, anticipates more discussion in the coming weeks.
Given these relatively placid waters, it’s not clear how much appetite councilors have for rewriting the budget drafted by Wu’s team. Any changes may ultimately come through informal negotiations with the mayor rather than by direct amendment. Anderson has solicited her council colleagues’ proposed changes, and plans to collate and distribute their ideas so the body can craft a formal proposal.
Still, in the first year of the process, councilors are learning just how tricky it will be to use their new power.
For one thing, huge portions of the budget are all but locked in, set aside for major annual expenses including pensions, payroll, and debt service. Nearly half the council’s 13 members are new this year, many of them still becoming acquainted with the minutiae of the budgeting process. And the councilors, unlike the mayor, aren’t equipped with dozens of budget experts, nor do they enjoy the same months-long timeframe to compile and analyze the spending plan.
The toughest political calculation: The council cannot propose a budget that exceeds the $3.99 billion total Wu outlined — meaning if councilors want to add somewhere, they must subtract somewhere else. Slashing a budget is an unenviable political position for any elected official. And to protect against Wu’s veto pen, any specific spending swap would need support from nine councilors. That’s a very high bar, given the body’s ideological diversity, varied priorities, and shifting alliances.
Police overtime spending, an enormous expense and constant frustration to city officials, presents one potential source of funding. But law requires Boston to pay the police overtime bill even if it exceeds what the city had budgeted. That means tapping the police overtime budget for other funding priorities now would require dipping into city reserves to pay the department later.
As of a working session Wednesday afternoon, only one member of the body, Council president Ed Flynn, had even submitted proposed amendments to the budget. His suggestions were modest adjustments, not dramatic overhauls: He proposed moving relatively small sums of money around, largely within departments, to build speed bumps and raised crosswalks, and improve rodent control in his district.
Several councilors pointed to other areas where they’d like to see budget increases, but acknowledged it was far more challenging to find equivalent cuts. Without more staff support, they said, the council can’t take full advantage of its new authority.
“The people have given us this power to amend, and we are limited in staff,” said Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune. “Another ask for this council should be more [full-time employees] for this budget process, so that we can help determine where we want to take the money from.”
It may take more than one year, several councilors acknowledged, before the body takes full advantage of its new authority.
However the council wields its power, the responsibility for the city’s spending plans rests more on its shoulders this year than ever before. Previously, councilors could toss the hot potato of unpopular budget decisions to the mayor’s fifth-floor office, complaining that their input hadn’t been appropriately incorporated. Now, if voters are unsatisfied with the city budget, it will be because their councilors changed it, or failed to.
That’s the authority advocates envisioned last year as they pushed for the change. But should the council not make full use of its new powers this year, it wouldn’t be a failure or a missed opportunity, said Andres Del Castillo, whose organization, Right to the City Boston, backed the ballot question.
“It’s expected that the first year’s kind of feeling out what this looks like,” Del Castillo said in an interview. “They’re respecting that authority. They’re not being careless with it.”
Ivy Scott of the Globe staff contributed to this report.