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Getting rid of Boston's red ink may tax the mayor's ability to say 'no'

By GEORGE B. MERRY / April 26, 1984

One of the biggest rooms at Boston City Hall - indeed, almost any house of government - is the room for improvement. And nowhere is its dimensions greater than in the area of municipal finance, where all-too-many taxpayer dollars have fallen through the cracks over the years.

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Mayor Raymond L. Flynn is well aware of what some might describe as Boston's financial chamber of horrors, including an impending $24 million city budget deficit for the fiscal year that ends June 30. His determination to provide the Hub with a budget balanced in fact, as well as on paper, is at least impressive.

It remains to be seen, however, whether he will be able to make the difficult decisions needed to absorb the fiscal 1984 deficit and operate the city in the black throughout the 12 months commencing July 1.

Mayor Flynn's $937.1 million blueprint for fiscal 1985, put on public display April 18, represents a fragile balance between proposed spending and projected revenues.

While the mayor undoubtedly intends to live within the budget, this may be impossible unless he's willing to say ''no'' much more often than he and his financial aides expected.

To live within the Flynn spending program, Boston's payroll may need to be pruned by more than the 259 positions now slated for elimination. Even if Boston's chief executive succeeds in bringing the municipal manpower level down to 11,953, as he is proposing, the number of layoffs required will be closer to 450.

Despite layoffs elsewhere, a few crucial city agencies where manpower is currently below fiscal 1984 quotas will be enlarged at least modestly. This includes the hiring of 48 firefighters and 50 police officers, bringing the the ranks of the two public-safety operations from 4,216 to 4,314: 1,767 firefighters and 2,547 police.

This increased manpower is intended to help combat two of the city's more vexing law enforcement challenges - arson and rape - toward which Flynn is directing special emphasis.

Mayor Flynn and his aides should not have much of a problem showing the door to those employees with political connections to the previous Boston administration. Considerably tougher could be resisting the urge, if not political pressures, to hire unneeded city employees who worked in the Flynn campaign or have friends in high places within the current administration.

Although the Flynn fiscal '85 budget may not be the austerity document that some observers of the Boston municipal finance scene anticipated, it appears to be the tightest in more than a decade. Most city agencies are being held to current appropriation levels - or are being reduced.

Particularly hard hit would be the city's real property and public facilities departments, two agencies generally well-populated with political favorites of the previous municipal regime. In addition, at least seven agencies already have been or soon will be abolished because Mayor Flynn considers them to be nonessential or low-priority offices.