Boston votes on who owns the city’s purse strings

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

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

Boston City Council member Lydia Edwards has felt crippled since her first budget vote in 2018. For decades, Boston’s city budget process began with budget hearings that led the mayor to come up with a budget in June, against which the city council traditionally votes as a formality. . This shallow “no” vote traditionally initiates a month-long process of closed-door budget negotiations between the mayor’s office and individual members of city council.

In this strong mayor system, council members do not have the formal power to propose and vote on budget amendments that would determine how the city spends its $ 3.7 billion budget – for example by shifting them. from one department to another or by stipulating guidelines on how dollars be spent within a department. They can ask for such changes and they can reduce the amounts of the budget items, but the mayor does not have to give in or follow their advice. And if the city council votes no on the budget again at the end of June, under state law, the budget reverts to a monthly version of last year’s budget – a “1 / 12th budget” like the Boston politicians call – until a new budget is negotiated.

“We can’t move things,” Edwards says. “You can try to remove some 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 just $ 8. according to a study funded by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

“The city’s budget is its moral compass,” says Edwards. “What he prioritizes, he finances. As a city, we have declared that racism is a public health crisis, but if we do not put the money and our moral compass to close this gap, it is directly related to our lack of power. “

That’s why Edwards paved the way to get Question 1 on the ballot for next week. Voter approval would change the city charter to give Boston City Council the power to propose budget amendments or even come up with its own budget in its entirety, as long as it remains within the mayor’s office revenue forecast. . It would also create a charter mandate for a new participatory budgeting program to be operational 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 are questioning every system since the pandemic and uprisings last year after police killed George Floyd, ”Edwards said. “I call it the side eye of the system.”

Critics said the proposed changes would lead to unnecessary chaos, and even made unfounded claims that the changes could lower the city’s bond ratings.

“They think it’s a chaotic process,” Edwards says. “I think more people who push and demand of their elected officials are called democracy.”

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

“This is led by black people who have been doing this work for a long time, trying to ensure that resources affecting communities are more community driven,” says Armani White, director of campaigns at the Center for Economic Democracy, an organization based in Boston. non-profit that sponsors the Yes on 1 campaign in support of question 1.

Edwards thanks former state lawmaker and mayoral candidate Mel King and the late former city councilor Chuck Turner for laying the groundwork starting in the 1980s. King led the charge to move from council general to nine council members elected by district as well as four members in a personal capacity. Later, as a council member, Turner unsuccessfully advocated reforming the budget process to put city council on a more equal footing with the mayor.

“It’s part of their heritage,” says Edwards. “Chuck and Mel were such visionaries, ahead of their time. Decades ahead of us. We just caught up with what they could see. “

From 2018 to 2019, the Center for Economic Democracy co-hosted a Boston Charter Reform Study Group, with Board Member Lydia Edwards and Neighbor to Neighbor, a membership advocacy organization in statewide. The study group brought together around 25 organizers and leaders to identify the provisions of the charter that they felt were preventing equitable and participatory governance, and to reflect on possible alternatives.

Momentum began to build specifically around reforming the budget process, “in response in large part to the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the racial justice calculation that is going on around police budgets and resources. for black communities “. Armani said.

Almost 40 organizations have joined the Yes On 1 campaign, from labor unions to tenant organizing groups, immigrant rights groups, environmental groups and affordable housing groups and community development. They include the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, who recently filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Boston for racial discrimination in the way it awards city contract dollars.

The main opponent of Question 1 was the Boston Municipal Research Board, whose board of directors is primarily made up of executives from Boston’s largest companies. President Pam Kocher says Politico“We would basically have 13 city councilors, all with their own agendas, all competing with each other. ”

“They are invested in a system that requires the mayor to have all the power,” says Edwards. “All the stories of people more involved, they always opposed. They would like to be the only entities with power and access. “

In an editorial from June, the Boston Globe sided with the Boston Municipal Research Board, sharing concerns about the potential for political chaos and even writing: bond ratings.

There is little or no evidence to support such a claim. In fact, there are at least seven major cities where board members have similar budget amendment powers as described in question 1, while also having a AAA rating for bonds – San Antonio, Austin, Columbus, Charlotte, San Francisco, Seattle and Denver.

As Edwards notes, the proposed charter amendment would still require city council to meet projected revenues and municipal bond issuance as determined by the mayor’s office. “It’s about going back and forth, looking in the budget and voting publicly on what we think makes sense for our districts and our society instead of that bogus vote every year,” Edwards said.

Edwards also says putting more power over the budget in the hands of city council is mathematically more responsible, since council members are elected every two years and the mayor only every four years.

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

The two mayoral candidates on the ballot for next week support Question 1. As members of city council, they were fortunate enough to experience the same frustrations as Edwards. By supporting question 1, they are effectively supporting the removal of power from the mayor in the same election that makes one of them the next mayor.

“It doesn’t matter who is there, the process itself doesn’t give communities a say in the budget,” says Armani. “The charter amendment will give residents, council members, the mayor the opportunity to put in place a better budget for everyone, including those who have been left out of the process all this time.”

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

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