It was supposed to level the budgeting playing field in Boston. In 2021, voters decided to give the City Council a teensy bit more say in the city budget, while also creating a new office designed to engage voters in the often-tedious budgetary process.
The result, so far: rancor, long and pointless debates, and ultimately little to show for the effort.
And in what seemed like a coda to a disastrous process, Mayor Michelle Wu informed the council this week that the single budget change on which they managed to muster the votes to override her mayoral veto — well, it turned out to be illegal and, therefore, would not be enforced.
If the new process is going to work, and produce anything like the more responsive and transparent budgetary process voters were promised, councilors need to use their power more pragmatically and wisely.
The final twist to this year’s process involved $584,896 from the $4.2 billion budget that the council tried to shift from contractual services in the city’s property management division to instead fund a raise for municipal police officers assigned to protect city buildings, including City Hall. Problem is, the city is in the midst of negotiating that labor contract with the officers’ union, and the vote was clearly intended to circumvent that process.
“There is no other interpretation of this override vote than as a directive from the City Council to the Administration to adopt the [municipal police union’s] specific salary increase demands in bargaining, which is a clear cut violation of the City Charter and state law,” Wu wrote in a one-page letter to the council. “The council cannot use the budget-making process to dictate collective bargaining.”
This was the second year the council was able to exercise a broader role under the 2021 referendum that allows councilors to change some — but not all — line items as long as they do not increase the budget’s bottom line. So every dollar the councilors propose to spend on their favored programs (i.e., raises for municipal police) must be cut from elsewhere in the mayor’s proposed budget.
As the Council discovered the hard way, though, there really aren’t a lot of nonessential city services to cut to make room for their priorities, such as expanding the city’s tree canopy, improving Black Heritage Trail signage, opening more English-as-second-language classes, or providing $10 million to fund the new citizen-involved part of participatory budgeting process (Wu’s budget sets aside $2 million for that purpose). The council had proposed to fund those items by cutting the budget for police, public works, libraries, and veterans.
Wu ended up vetoing most of the council-approved big ticket items, rightly calling cuts to the police department “illusory.” In her veto letter, she noted that personnel cuts to public works and transportation “would mean holding positions vacant and delaying hiring for critically needed positions in both departments to fill potholes, upgrade crosswalks, plow snow, and ensure our street infrastructure is safe.”
Those original amendments passed by a 7-5 vote — a vote that broke largely along racial lines, with councilors of color favoring the shifts. When the time came for the council to try to muster the two-thirds vote to override Wu’s vetoes, things went from bad to worse. For more than seven and a half hours, councilors argued not so much with the Wu administration but with each other. Councilor Frank Baker, who won’t be running for reelection, made a reference to some councilors acting like pigs during the budget process. That in turn ticked off Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, chair of the council’s budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, who insisted that in Boston, “a Black woman can’t complain.”
In the end, only the pay raise proposal passed. And now that’s gone, too.
“You had six new councilors just learning the ropes, and that added to the challenge,” said Pam Kocher, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. “There was a lot of uncertainty and confusion, pressure from advocates in the community who thought they could get more [from the council] and a major learning curve about the process.”
Step one to doing a better job next year would be to develop a better understanding of the limitations of the new process. Promises to voters notwithstanding, the new budgeting law actually allows the council to amend only about 42 percent of the city’s budget — or about $1.8 billion this year. Exempt from the council’s ability to reallocate funds are the school budget and such fixed costs as pensions, debt service, and state assessments. For the rest of the budget, as Kocher said, “The mayor still runs the process.” And, as in the case of the municipal police union, there are legal restraints, too.
“So let’s do some more education — for all of us,” Kocher said. “Let’s think about what kind of support and guidance and training would be helpful so councilors can have a more grounded understanding of the budget.”
Assuming next year’s council can start by keeping their discussions civil — and what a sea change that would be — the new process can still give them more say. Or, they can squander their chance to influence the budget with poorly thought through gestures, the way they did this year. That’ll be up to them.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.