Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on Wednesday unveiled a $4.28 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2024, calling it a “back-to-basics” budget that would shore up essential city services while making some investments in new priorities, including the seeds of a new city planning department and some green renovations to public housing.
Citing the city’s ongoing financial health, and revenues that continue to rebound as Boston recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, Wu proposed a 6.8 percent increase over last year’s operating budget, an uptick of $273.7 million. The proposed budget, along with a $4.2 billion five-year plan for capital expenditures, is aimed at making Boston safer, greener, and economically robust, Wu said at the annual budget breakfast at the City Hall Plaza Pavilion.
As city councilors and other officials grazed on muffins and fruit, Wu administration officials laid out their spending plan, spotlighting investments the mayor said would support Boston’s families and ensure “exceptional constituent services.” Wu’s proposal includes, for example, a $6 million upgrade to the city’s 311 system, which handles requests from residents, funding for more personnel in the City Registry and Inspectional Services Department, and $147 million bookmarked in the capital budget to maintain bridges, stairs, and walking paths around Boston.
“We want to make sure that rather than just always announcing new things, and new things, and new things — and certainly there’s some great new things here — the focus also has to be on doing what we already do well, and making sure that the work is sustainable,” Wu said.
Ashley Groffenberger, Boston’s chief financial officer, touted Boston’s AAA bond rating and said the budget’s growth rests on the strength of the city’s property tax base and “a solid rebound” in local hotel and meals taxes from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The operating budget and capital spending plan look “to empower our city’s future but also make those intentional, invisible investments in the types of things that make our city better and faster for our residents,” Groffenberger added.
Even given the current economic uncertainty, the city’s revenue estimates are conservative, and the proposed growth in the city budget is “fiscally responsible,” said Pam Kocher, head of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a watchdog organization.
Wednesday’s rollout formally kicks off months of hearings before the Boston City Council, which has more power than ever to guide city spending. This year, for the second time, the council has the authority to directly amend the budget; before 2022, it could vote only to accept or reject the mayor’s proposals.
Last year, as it adjusted to the new process, the council passed only modest changes to the mayor’s proposed budget, notably backing away from a cut to the Boston Police Department budget that initially had support from all 13 councilors.
Tania Fernandes Anderson, chair of the council’s Ways and Means Committee, said in an interview Wednesday that the council is better positioned this year to wield its budget authority, and she aims to discuss proposed changes earlier in the process to build consensus. But it may be difficult to muster enough votes to amend the mayor’s plan without risk of a veto — nine of 13 would be needed for any override — as the upcoming departure of Councilor Kenzie Bok will leave the council with just 12 members for most if not all of the budget process.
As in past years, the largest chunks of the budget are devoted to education, public safety, and fixed costs such as pensions and health insurance for city employees. Here’s a first look at some of Wu’s proposals for the upcoming fiscal year:
- $451,000 for a new planning department, the first step in Wu’s long-term effort to shift employees from the quasi-governmental Boston Planning and Development Agency into a city department under the thumb of the mayor and council. The city has said most employees will not transition from the BPDA this year.
- $4 million increase in funding for pre-kindergarten, a sum Wu’s office said would create 350 more seats for 3- and 4-year-olds, for a total of 1,475 seats.
- $50 million for the Boston Housing Authority to modernize public housing facilities and make green renovations. Wu has set a goal of 2030 for all public housing in Boston to end its reliance on fossil fuels.
- $1.4 million to introduce electric Bluebikes across the system, and $550,000 to provide $5 passes for 10,000 residents.
- $1 million for electric vehicle charging stations in public locations.
- $405 million for the Boston Police Department, an increase of 2.3 percent over last year’s budget. Police funding has been a point of contention in recent years’ budget debates, last year prompting a veto from the mayor. At Wednesday’s breakfast, three protesters stood in silent opposition as public safety spending was discussed, one holding a sign demanding, “Why is the police budget increasing?” Asked about the protest, Wu told reporters after the event that her administration is still working toward a contract with police unions and “we believe this budget is the way to make real progress.” As a city councilor, Wu signed onto a letter calling for a 10 percent decrease to the department’s budget, but as mayor, she has continued to fund it at a consistent level.
- $1.45 billion for education, an increase of $68.5 million over last year.
- $750,000 to expand library hours, and $43 million for constructing libraries in Codman Square, Fields Corner, and Egleston Square in the coming years.
- $94 million in capital spending for improvements to central city facilities, including City Hall and the Plaza. That comes after a $95 million upgrade to City Hall Plaza that made it more accessible and installed a new playground.