Tregor bill: a gift or a lump of coal in Boston's stocking?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Can Boston, battered like many American cities by federal and state budget cuts, survive its latest Christmas present? That's the question beleaguered city officials are asking, following passage by the state Legislature this past weekend of a bill designed to hoist the city from its fiscal abyss.

The subject of the debate surrounding the bill, ostensibly, was finance: how to restructure Boston's fiscal affairs.

Underneath, however, the issue was political. Under discussion was the personality of Mayor Kevin H. White - one of the longest-serving and most controversial mayors in America - and his severely strained relationship with the state Legislature.

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The occasion should have been one for jubilation. The so-called ''Tregor bill ,'' passed after 11 months of often-Byzantine political maneuvering, allows Boston to borrow up to $75 million and to levy several new taxes.

But it departs in crucial ways from the home-rule bill originally submitted by Mayor Kevin H. White and the City Council. And the city, although hanging from a fiscal thread and continuing to lay off firemen, policemen, and teachers, has threatened to challenge the bill's legality in court.

''Boston needs a sound fiscal plan now,'' said a statement issued by the mayor's office following Senate passage of the modified bill, ''but in our opinion the version approved today is not the one.''

An even more ominous assessment came from a spokesman for the firm underwriting the city's municipal bonds. ''The bill is a nullity,'' said Francis X. Meaney, counsel to the Merrill Lynch White Weld Markets Group, adding that ''no bonds can be issued.''

The bond sale is needed, say city officials, to offset a battery of financial pressures, including:

* Proposition 2 1/2, the statewide measure limiting property-tax collections to 2 1/2 percent of assessed value.

* The ''Tregor'' case, putting the city under court order to give tax rebates to previously overassessed property owners.

* School overspending, which since 1972 has produced deficits totaling more than $73 million.

Under these pressures, the city's bond rating - the stamp of approval that helps potential investors judge the security of the bonds - has slipped from ''investment grade'' into the lower and more speculative ranges. The city has already cut its budget by 21 percent below last year's figure, and citizens are complaining loudly about dirty streets, unkempt parks, and lack of security services.

Yet in spite of the financial hardships (so severe that the city nearly exhausted its snow-removal budget during its first storm earlier this month), the mayor continues to oppose the bill.

He has based his opposition to the Legislature's bill on what he calls a matter of principle. Under state law, a home-rule bill - submitted by a single municipality and intended to affect only its own governance - may be amended by the legislators only in technical ways. But the Legislature, responding to a widespread feeling that Boston's affairs have been mismanaged for years, stripped away several key provisions of the bill - including a measure giving the superintendent of schools much broader powers.

The school board, which has virtually unlimited spending powers, has been a prime source of criticism from potential bondholders, who want the spending leak sealed.

But critics of the city's version of the bill say it would in effect shift control of schools from the school board to the mayor's office.

Some observers view the mayor's threat of court action as a grandstand play. His threat - as well as the layoffs of policemen and firemen, producing predictible outcries from city residents - may have been designed to pressure the 19-member Boston delegation to come quickly to the city's rescue.

But the threat failed, leaving the mayor between a rock and a hard place. If he accepts the Legislature's measure, he will have lost a prestigious battle and yielded up some of his power - though the school reform, seen by many observers both inside and outside of the White camp as a necessary step in improving the schools, could come at a later time.

But if Mayor White (or any other citizen) actually brings the measure to court, the process of haggling out some kind of rescue bill could begin all over again - with the city's resources continuing to dwindle.

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