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The Bottom LineThe Bottom Line

Boston Votes on Who Holds City Purse Strings

"The budget of the city is its moral compass. What it prioritizes, it funds."

Boston City Hall Plaza (Photo by Eric F. JamesCC BY 2.0)

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Don’t just change the players — change the game.

Boston voters will have a chance to do that next week, as they go to the polls not only to elect a new mayor, but also to vote yes or no on a ballot measure that would overhaul the city’s annual budget negotiation process by giving city council more formal control over city purse strings.

Boston city council member Lydia Edwards has felt hamstrung since her first budget vote in 2018. For decades, the Boston municipal budget process has started with budget hearings leading up to the mayor proposing a budget in June, which city council traditionally votes against as a formality. That perfunctory “no” vote traditionally kicks off a month-long process of closed-door budget negotiations between the mayor’s office and individual city council members.

Under this strong-mayor system, council members don’t have the formal power to propose and vote on budget amendments that would shape how the city spends its $3.7 billion budget — for example shifting them from one department to another or stipulating guidelines on how dollars get spent within a department. They can ask for such changes, and they can reduce budget item amounts, but the mayor doesn’t have to concede or take any of their advice. And if city council votes no on the budget again at the end of June, under state law the budget reverts to a month-to-month version of last year’s budget — a “1/12th budget” as Boston policy wonks call it — until a new budget gets negotiated.

“We can’t move things around,” Edwards says. “You can try to remove certain things, but it’s basically impossible.”

This system, Edwards says, has helped perpetuate the status quo of racial inequality in Boston, a city where white households have a median wealth of $247,500 while Black households have a median wealth of only $8, according to a study funded by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

“The budget of the city is its moral compass,” Edwards says. “What it prioritizes, it funds. As a city, we declared racism is a public health crisis, but if we’re not putting the money and our moral compass toward closing that gap, that is directly connected to our lack of power.”

That’s why Edwards led the way to get Question 1 on the ballot for next week. Voter approval would amend the city charter to give Boston City Council power to propose budget amendments or even propose its own entire budget, so long as it stays within the revenue projections from the mayor’s office. It also would create a charter mandate for a new participatory budgeting program to be up and running by 2024. Supporters say the changes will create more transparency and accountability in the budget process.

“You have to look around and feel it in the air; we’re questioning every system since the pandemic and the uprisings last year after police killed George Floyd,” Edwards says. “I call it the system side-eye.”

Detractors have said the proposed changes would lead to unnecessary chaos, and have even put forth unfounded claims that the changes would risk lowering the city’s bond ratings.

“They think it is a chaotic process,” Edwards says. “I think more people pushing and demanding of their elected officials is called democracy.”

Question 1 has garnered support from a broad coalition of organizations across the city, as well as all four mayoral candidates — reflecting broadly shared concerns that Boston’s budget process has long excluded many voices.

“This is led by Black folks who have been doing this work for a long time, trying to make sure resources affecting communities are more community-led,” says Armani White, director of campaigns at the Center for Economic Democracy, a Boston-based nonprofit that is sponsoring the Yes On 1 Campaign in support of Question 1.

Edwards credits former state legislator and mayoral candidate Mel King and the late former city council member Chuck Turner for laying the groundwork starting in the 1980s. King led the charge to shift from an all at-large council to having nine council members elected by district along with four at-large members. Later, as a council member, Turner unsuccessfully championed reforming the budget process to give city council more equal standing with the mayor.

“This is part of their legacy,” Edwards says. “Chuck and Mel were such visionaries, ahead of their time. Decades ahead of us. We just caught up to what they could see. ”

From 2018 to 2019, the Center for Economic Democracy co-convened a Boston Charter Reform Study Group, along with Council Member Lydia Edwards and Neighbor to Neighbor, a statewide membership-based advocacy organization. The study group brought together around 25 organizers and leaders to identify charter provisions they believed prevented equitable and participatory governance, and brainstorm possible alternatives.

Momentum started building specifically around reforming the budget process, “in response largely to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the racial justice reckoning happening around police budgets and resources for Black communities.” Armani says.

Nearly 40 organizations have signed onto the Yes On 1 Campaign, from organized labor to tenant organizing groups, immigrant rights groups, environmental advocacy groups, and affordable housing and community development groups. They include the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, which recently filed a civil rights complaint against the City of Boston for racial discrimination in how it awards city contract dollars.

The main opponent of Question 1 has been the Boston Municipal Research Board, whose board consists mainly of executives from the largest corporations in Boston. President Pam Kocher told Politico, “We would have essentially 13 city councilors, all with their own agendas, all competing with each other.”

“They are vested in a system that requires the mayor to have all the power,” Edwards says. “Any narratives of people being more involved, they have always opposed. They would love to be the only entities with power and access.”

In a June editorial, the Boston Globe sided with the Boston Municipal Research Board, sharing concerns about the potential for political chaos and even writing: “The power shift inherent in this charter change and the resulting hodge-podge of competing interests has the potential to jeopardize the city’s AAA bond rating.”

There is little if any evidence to back up such a claim. In fact, there are at least seven large cities where council members have budget amendment powers similar to those outlined in Question 1, while also having a AAA bond rating — San Antonio, Austin, Columbus, Charlotte, San Francisco, Seattle and Denver.

As Edwards notes, the proposed charter amendment would still require city council to stay within the projected revenue and municipal bond issuance as determined by the mayor’s office. “This is about having a back and forth, looking within the budget and publicly voting on what we think makes sense for our districts and society instead of that fake vote every year,” Edwards says.

Edwards also says putting more power over the budget into city council’s hands is mathematically more accountable, since council members are elected every two years and the mayor only every four years.

“​​So if you don’t like what I do, you will see me do it or not do it and you will fire me or hire me again,” Edwards says.

Both mayoral candidates on the ballot for next week support Question 1. As city council members they have had the chance to experience some of the same frustrations as Edwards. In supporting Question 1, they are effectively supporting taking power away from the mayor in the same election that makes one of them the next mayor.

“No matter who is there, the process itself does not allow communities to have adequate say in the budget,” Armani says. “The charter amendment is going to give residents, council members, the mayor an opportunity to put together a better budget for everyone including those who have been excluded from the process this whole time.”

This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter.

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Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.

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Tags: bostonmayorscity councils

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