June 25, 2020: The Budget and The Work Ahead

Dear Friends,

Yesterday the City Council voted to pass the City’s revised FY21 budget. As you know, I’m serving as the Council’s Ways & Means Chair; I wanted to write about that decision and what comes next. 

This year’s budget process has come in the cauldron of COVID-19, collective fury about police brutality, and the obvious role of systemic racism in every aspect of our collective life. Over the past weeks, the City Council has heard many calls to reduce and reallocate the City’s police budget in order to create alternative institutions of community care and invest more in communities of color. In mid-June, the Mayor reallocated $12M from police overtime to other purposes, but advocates have called for $40M, and a real participatory leadership role in building the alternatives. 

The difficult question that came before the Council yesterday was whether to accept the Mayor’s revised budget, or to go into a 1/12th budget, where this year’s departmental allocations extend into the new fiscal year. Because both personnel contracts and other costs are scheduled to go up on July 1, under a 1/12th budget many departments would begin the process of laying off some staff or cutting services in order to close their budget gap. We also would not lock in any of the new allocations in this year’s budget, including the $12M reallocated away from police.

To me, risking the loss of those new allocations was unacceptable. This year’s operating budget has by far the highest allocations ever for affordable housing and public health. It includes new money for food access, immigrant advancement, and language access that will help the City build programs that are actually adequate to our huge needs on those fronts. We are also finally getting funding for an urban forestry plan, which will allow accelerated tree planting in areas of the city with greatest need.

The affordable housing funds in particular are personal for me. Since 2015, I have been fighting – first as an activist myself with GBIO and MAHA – for the One Plus Boston mortgage program, to help first-time homebuyers get a foothold in Boston, especially homebuyers of color. I was there when that program started as a glimmer in our eyes in church basements; it becomes millions of dollars for the first time in this budget. Then in my years at the Boston Housing Authority, I pushed hard on the idea that the City should help financially support the renovation of public housing, and the construction of new deeply-affordable housing. I got money in the budget for the first time for those purposes last year, and this year’s budget contains more. I have also been an outspoken proponent of the Acquisition Opportunity Program (AOP), through which the city can enable affordable operators or even tenant cooperatives to buy whole apartment buildings at risk of being sold – a program which expands in this budget. And I’m excited about how a major initiative of my predecessor Josh Zakim, a city-level housing voucher program that becomes real for the first time in this budget, can best help families left behind by the state and federal voucher programs. 

Some of my Council colleagues felt that we could temporarily shift to a 1/12th budget in order to pressure the Mayor, reach a budget with even more money for these priorities in a couple of weeks, and contain the fallout for key city departments. As I talked with colleagues, I did not find that we had a collective counterproposal or feasible timeline to make that plausible. My analysis was that if we went to a 1/12th budget we were instead very likely to end up there permanently for the year. I am expecting the State to lower the amount of money it sends to us. As soon as it does that officially, we would have to decrease our budget forecasts. If that happens after we pass a budget with new community-focused investments, we can make collective decisions about which departments to trim or when to pull money out of reserves to cover the gaps. If it happens beforehand, we don’t have those options; we just have to reduce. I am not willing to end up with a budget that is lower on every front I have been pushing to expand and higher on policing. I am also not willing to precipitously lay off city workers in the middle of a pandemic when it can be avoided.

One further factor complicates the picture: police budget cuts can by law be overridden by the Administration in the interest of public safety. So without a structural change to the police contract, deeper cuts to that department are likely to be illusory. If we make them in theory but not in practice, we will take them out of reserves, which will further reduce funds for everything else we’re trying to pay for. That would be a false victory, which isn’t something I’d accept.

For that reason, I laid out a plan for how I’m going to use the Ways & Means Committee to drive a real 10% reduction in the police budget over the next year. This will start with a hearing on how the $12M cut in police overtime will actually be achieved, to be followed by quarterly hearings to closely track it all year. Since we seem to have overspent our overtime budget by about $8M this past year, we’re really probably trying to achieve $20M in savings on that front.

But the real cost drivers of overtime and the police budget overall are locked up in the police contract, which is up for renegotiation this year. The bargaining has to happen between the Administration and the unions, but the public policy conditions and expectations for what will be acceptable can be set by the Council, which has to approve any final agreement. We will hold a Ways & Means hearing on that contract as a policy document in the coming weeks, and follow it up with further work to set those expectations.

We will then also hold a hearing on alternative visions for reallocating police funding, and another on how we can build more real participatory budgeting into our process. I heard from advocates a deep frustration with the limitations on public testimony at the end of a hearing as a method for public engagement, and I’d like to assess what mechanisms would be more meaningful—even within the limiting constraints of our current City Charter. 

I am outlining this path because I intend for us to achieve a reduction in the police budget in a way that is structural and permanent. Over my time in office, I also intend for us to shift the whole city budget towards more funding for affordable housing and public health. Voting to pass yesterday’s new high-water marks for those areas was part of achieving that shift. 

I know that some of you will disagree, and I look forward to talking further. As a new City Councilor, I am deeply conscious of my obligation to weigh all aspects of hard decisions like this one about the budget, to use my best judgment, and then to give my constituents as thorough an explanation as can. Most of all, I’m cognizant of all the work that lies ahead.

Sincerely,

Kenzie

See my full remarks from yesterday here.

[Alt text] 

Title: Boston City Council – Committee on Ways and Means: Planned Hearings for July, August, & September 2020 

#1 Police overtime (quarterly hearing in FY21) – How do we reduce it and keep it down?

#2 Police contracts as policy documents – Strategies for accountability and transparency 

#3 Alternative budgets for community care – Reallocating police funds

#4 Participatory budgeting for Boston – Going beyond testimony

Footer: Councilor Kenzie Bok – District 8  

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