Beleaguered Boston's feuding politicians edge toward compromises

"They will not relinquish the bat, and they will not get up to the plate. That makes it hard to get the ball game going." Boston's Mayor Kevin H. White, increasingly coming back into public view after a winter of apparent introspection, was talking about the Massachusetts Legislature.

But many feel he might have been describing the City Council or the school committee -- or even himself.

For although the past week has seen some movement by each of these four actors toward lifting the city's immediate financial siege, there has been little progress toward a long-term solution. The city still faces the immediate challenge of a $38 million budget overrun by the school department and a $100 million court-ordered tax repayment to overassessed property owners.

In the longer term, it still faces a 40 percent cutback in next year's discretionary spending (and further cuts in future years) due to Proposition 2 1 /2, the statewide measure limiting property tax revenues.

And from all sides a growing chorus of complaint drums out a single theme: Boston's problems reflect a lack of leadership.

This week, however, some leadership has been evident:

* The mayor has secured the services of Merrill Lynch White Weld Capital Markets Group to help it borrow money. Earlier, Moody's Investors Service had suspended Boston's bond rating because of uncertainties about the impact of Proposition 2 1/2 -- a move which made it more difficult for the city to sell bonds. At a press conference May 2, however, Merrill Lynch spokesman Jean J. Rousseau noted that the city's budget and management procedures are "generally sound." He added, "We are confident that with a practical resolution of the current difficulties the long-term financial prospects for the city will improve dramatically."

* The state Legislature passed a bill refunding $9.4 million owed to the city for prior school construction costs. It is also considering a bill that would give Mayor White authority to borrow up to $24 million to refund tax abatements. It would also give him authority to borrow money to keep schools open during a declared "educational emergency."

* The Boston City Council, under stiff pressure from the police and fire unions, agreed May 6 to allow the mayor to use $3 million of the $9.4 million state refund to rehire 400 policemen and firefighters laid off earlier. The council's 7-to-2 vote in favor of the rehiring marked the first time in recent weeks that the deeply divided body has supported any proposal favored by the mayor.

* The Boston School Committee, winning a significant point against the mayor, has been told by the Supreme Judicial Court that schools must stay open until the end of the term. But under accusations of financial irreponsibility and overstaffing, the committee has made plans to terminate 2,259 tenured teachers -- although the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) has a no-layoff clause in its contract. Meanwhile, power is already ebbing away from the school committee: Former state comptroller Arthur H. MacKinnon has been named the court-appointed monitor to oversee school department spending.

But the longer-term solutions remain illusive. On one hand, Mayor White insists that Proposition 2 1/2 is a good thing --serve relief. But, on the other hand, he noted in a recent letter to the press that "next y ear's budget will represent absolute chaos" unless the Legislature provides some kind of relief to the city.

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