On the eve of a new fiscal year, the Boston City Council on Wednesday approved a $3.99 billion operating budget in a series of votes that saw the body flex its new budget authority — if only infinitesimally.
In the first budget passed under Mayor Michelle Wu, and in the first year of a new budget process that allowed the council to directly amend the city spending plan, councilors voted unanimously to tweak Wu’s proposal by a few million dollars. But after weeks of debate — and months of campaign promises from some councilors — the body did not make any cuts to the Boston Police Department’s budget, backing away from a $13 million trim that just three weeks ago every member of the body had supported.
Police funding has been a persistent flashpoint in city spending debates in recent years, with many elected officials — including, in the past, Wu herself — calling to slash the department’s budget. In a vote earlier this month, the council had cut $13 million, most of it from the overtime budget. But Wu rejected that, blasting the overtime slash as a “false reduction” because state law requires that all police overtime be paid, if not in the fiscal year budget then from city reserves later.
In an apparent concession to the mayor, the council did not so much vote on that police overtime cut this week. Instead, the body weighed a proposal from Councilor Kendra Lara to allocate more funding for youth jobs by cutting $2.4 million from the police equipment and contractual services budgets. Before the vote, Lara retrieved from under her desk an impressive stack of paper, which she said was 742 pages of e-mails the council had received in support of such a step, and exhorted her colleagues to support the “compromise” change.
For some councilors, it did not prove compromise enough. While most supported the cut, they fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the mayor’s veto. The 8-5 tally split largely along racial lines, with every councilor of color voting to cut the police budget in favor of more funding for youth jobs.
When the vote to cut the police budget fell short, the department was left with nearly $400 million, very close to its allocation in the last fiscal year.
The divided vote offered just one glimpse at fissures on the body, which emerged at several other moments during a marathon meeting that stretched well into the evening.
Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, who chairs the body’s ways and means committee, began the budget debate by thanking her colleagues “that were respectful, that were supportive, that were kind” and also alluding to “those who gave me a hard time, and that were rude, that were not very kind to me.”
As she called a vote to override the mayor and make about $2 million in funding swaps, Fernandes Anderson leaned close to her microphone and peered around the chamber at her colleagues, making eye contact with each of them as she reminded them that these were cuts “that we voted for” in a previous session.
“That is the only money that we have to work with,” she said, arguing the trims were justified by the new spending. “Can we get programs to save Black men’s lives?”
The council voted unanimously to approve that set of changes, including drawing down $1.15 million from the fire department’s equipment budget, funds councilors said had gone unspent in previous years. The council shifted that and other money to allocate more money for tree maintenance, the new Office of Black Male Advancement, and the city’s office for individuals returning from incarceration, among other priorities.
Wu’s administration pointed to a number of achievements in the budget, including investments in housing, a new behavioral health center, and several environmental initiatives that build toward the mayor’s proposal for a municipal Green New Deal.
“I’m grateful to the Council for their partnership in advancing the bold actions and city services that our residents deserve,” Wu said in a statement Wednesday evening.
A ballot question last year granted the City Council newfound budget authority, a shift proponents said would make the spending process more democratic. Critics had warned that the change could lead to chaos, or even threaten the city’s credit rating.
The process did cause some confusion, including over what, precisely, the council had the authority to change, and what only the mayor is empowered to decide. On Wednesday afternoon alone, the council recessed time after time to consult administration officials and muddle through procedural matters. In previous meetings, some councilors had complained that they lacked the staff to effectively wield their new budget power and accused the administration of not engaging in good faith negotiations.
But despite those hiccups, the budget passed this week largely resembles those of previous years, with the largest portions dedicated to routine annual expenses such as payroll, pensions, and debt service. And councilors said it was important to take advantage of the new power this year, an effort that may set the stage for more ambitious changes in future budget cycles.
“It’s about the power we’ve been given to flex that little muscle,” Councilor Julia Mejia said. Consider this budget cycle a “learning opportunity,” she said: “It’s about how we seize this moment.”