The City Council Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Councilor Kenzie Bok, held a working session on April 26 to provide an overview of the city’s budget process and address questions and comments from the public. This working session was one of many opportunities to provide public comment during the Fiscal Year 2022 budget process, Bok said.
Bok provided some details about the budget process and how it works, starting with the timeline. She said that on April 14, the budget came before the council, and then from mid-April to mid-June, public hearings and working sessions on different budget issues will be held by the City Council. On June 9, the City Council takes its first vote on the budget.
Bok said that the council “traditionally votes down the first version of the budget so the administration can reintroduce it with the changes that reflect the conversation that’s happened.”
On either June 16 or June 23, the budget will be resubmitted by the mayor, and on June 30, the council “votes to adopt, reject, or reduce the resubmitted capital and/or operating budgets,” according to a slide presented. The new fiscal year commences on July 1.
The City Council has the power to either “accept, reject, or reduce the budget,” according to a slide, but it cannot increase the amount of funding or adjust any line items.
“If you’re watching at home and think this is a little bit limiting, so do we,” Bok said. “There’s a back and forth on the council and in the public about whether we should have different budget powers, but where it stands right now is these are our budget powers.”
The budget is split into two parts: the operating budget—which includes the Boston Public Schools budget, but this is voted on separately—and the capital budget. The operating budget “covers day-today expenses for city departments,” Bok said, and would be funds for “anything you’d have to redo every year.” She said that the majority of the operating budget is city personnel.
“It really is true that city workers are the city and what the city does gets done by them,” she said.
The capital budget is the money that is used for larger investments or projects in the city such as schools, community centers, parks, roads, and the like. It’s “basically anything physical; anything that you’d be using over time for multiple years,” Bok said. Money for these projects comes from bonds, which are debt incurred by the city.
Bok explained that there is a limit to the amount of debt the city can have, which is “five percent of the assessed value of taxable property without state approval, or 10 percent with state approval,” according to a slide presented. “We’re well below that limit,” Bok said.
She also said that there is something called a debt policy limit, which says that a limit of seven percent of the operating budget can go towards paying interest on debt. Bok said the city is also below this limit.
When it comes to city workers, Bok said it is “important to us and it has been historically that they be able to retire with dignity and live their old age with dignity and health care.” Money is set aside each year to pay for pensions for city workers, she added, which is on its way to becoming fully funded.
Bok also talked about Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB), which is the “cost of healthcare in particular for retirees,” which is currently underfunded. She said that the city’s “plan is to finish funding pensions and then switch over to funding this OPEB.”
She also mentioned revolving funds, which is “basically where a department takes in money for some kind of operation and then spends that money on that operation,” she said.
Other city councilors and the public were invited to make comments or ask questions during this working session. Councilor Julia Mejia talked about controlling expectations during the budget process, as sometimes certain things may not always get funded, though people might want them to.
“The reality is, there are things that reshape priorities,” Bok said, such as “unsafe incidents somewhere” or the need for lighting or safety fixes in certain parts of the city.
“We all see the city just through our set of eyes, and so part of the job of the budget process is to even it out across sort of like all these different perspectives that are at play,” she said. “But that said, we have to have the public input opportunity because there’s lots of things someone might not see, like if you’re the only one who sees that that wall is crumbling down, you need to tell the city and the city needs to reprioritize on the basis of it. That’s the balancing act we’re trying to strike.”
Bok also said that “one thing that’s frustrating is that we can’t generally grow the revenue in the City of Boston.” She added that Councilor Ed Flynn has been working on finding ways to gain more revenue from the state and other avenues.
“One of the challenges with the budget is that an increase anywhere is a decrease somewhere and all of our services feel urgent and we’re trying to do well by all of them and so that’s also one of the reasons why sometimes it feels like things are incremental when we change them in the budget,” she said. “There’s a fine line also between recognizing that in any given budget process, we don’t necessarily get all of the things that we want or ask for, and also recognizing that the advocacy that people do does matter, and if you didn’t do it, we would end up in a different place, and it wouldn’t be as good of a place.”
JP resident Paige Sparks expressed concern about money spent on “overpolicing” in Boston, and wondered what she and other residents could do when advocating for changes in funding when it comes to policing.
“I guess one suggestion I would have for you as an advocate would be not just sort of having a target number but really saying what are the changes that we’re pushing for that would make a difference?” Bok said. She said that “there needs to be an analysis of ‘how,’ not just ‘how much,’” as last year $12 million was cut from the police overtime budget last fiscal year but “that cut was not realized and it’s because our police budget is allowed to run over its allocation amount with overtime and it did.”
When it comes to responding to 911 calls, she also said part of advocacy work could be “really talking concretely about what alternative response looks like” and looking at making those kinds of real changes when it comes to the budget and in actually implementing alternatives.
At the end of the working session, Bok reiterated that there will be many more opportunities for Bostonians to participate in the budget process by asking questions or testifying at upcoming hearings. Bok said that there are around 35 hearings and working sessions scheduled so far, and people can either show up virtually to testify live, or submit written comments or a video testimony.
Any questions about the budget should be directed to [email protected], and Bok can be o CC’d as well at [email protected]. Information about the dockets and working sessions can be found at boston.gov/publicnotices, and all hearings are recorded and put on the Boston City Council YouTube channel.
She said for this particular working session, “we wanted to put this explanation of the budget and open forum kind out out in the formal space but it is not the end of that opportunity. So just reach out; it’s your budget.”