Boston getting its fiscal, political houses in order

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Boston, stalled for months in fiscal and political confusion, is finally beginning to move forward. In the past week:

* Mayor Kevin H. White, acceding to the stubborn demands of the City Council, has resubmitted a version of the budget that yields up some of his authority over city finances and rehires most of the policemen and firefighters laid off earlier.

* The mayor announced the award of the long-awaited cable television contract--one of the last remaining franchises among America's major cities--to Cablevision Systems of Woodbury, N.Y.

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* The development of Bird Island Flats, the controversial piece of filled harbor land at Bostonhs Logan Airport, will finally go forward as the Massachusetts Port Authority (the semi-independent agency that runs the airport) and the state (whose governor, Edward J. King, once headed Massport and began the land-filling operations) have ended years of bitter feuding over the construction plans.

Although the city's fiscal year began July 1, the budget has been delayed by wrangling between mayor and councilors.

The budget process is customarily an anguished one in a city famous for political infighting. It was made worse than usual this year because of serious overspending in the school department, a court-ordered repayment of property taxes to owners overassessed in prior years (the so-called "Tregor" case), and Proposition 2 1/2 (the voter-approved measure trimming property taxes statewide).

Last spring, in fact, the mayor spoke of bankruptcy--although the city reached July 1 with $72 million in the bank, and the mayor's critics spoke of scare tactics.

The latest proposal, if adopted by both the City Council and (since it makes significant changes in the law) the state Legislature, promises to smooth the process.

The new proposal is based on the "worst case" budget submitted in June. It adds $39 million in state aid. More controversially, it continues to request authorization to borrow up to $75 million to repay the city's "Tregor" obligations--money some councilors are loathe to place in the mayor's hands.

And it requests several new sources of revenue, including a 15 percent excise on parking (falling largely on commuters), a 3.5 percent city surcharge on top of the state's 5.7 percent hotel tax, a fee for reference service at the city library, and a $500-per-unit excise on the conversion of real estate into condominiums.

But the proposal also clamps down on school spending and agrees to establish a quarterly allocation system for tighter, better bookkeeping. And, most significantly, it regulates the transfer of funds between departments -- which has allowed mayors to shift money during the year with little regard for the budget.

It also restores police and fire department funds close to last year's levels , and increases the library budget and the funds for public works and parks--both of which had been severely chopped.

The restoration of police and fire funds may be crucial. A federal judge's ruling last weekend--that manpower cutbacks would have to preserve earlier ratios of minority workers and could not follow the last-hired, first-fired pattern--threatened to split the departments along racial lines.

The cable television award comes after a year-long process that pitted Cablevision against the giant Warner-Amex company.The award begins a 3 1/2-year, observers generally felt the choice was above board and fair.

The firm has agreed to provide basic service for the bargain price of $2 a month. The loser, Warner-Amex, had offered fewer channels for a higher fee.

The dispute over the $132 million Bird Island Flats project was resolved as both sides agreed to submit to a panel of outside arbitrators. At issue: whether the proposed air cargo and commercial facilities would foreclose long-range plans for a new runway and a third harbor tunnel.

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