Flynn marches up Beacon Hill with a new tax package for Boston

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Boston's budget is out of balance to the tune of about $30 million and the mayor has gone to the legislature with 11 new proposals to raise more revenue for his property-tax dependent city. Mayor Raymond L. Flynn and his budget team, intent on winning new revenues for Boston, have taken their offensive to a new court -- the General Court of Massachusetts.

The mayor and his staff, in keeping with an elaborate game plan, have lobbied hard within the past few weeks for a tax package they say is crucial to Boston's fiscal stability. Now, after meetings with the House and Senate leadership, the Boston delegation, and small groups of state legislators, some elements of the tax package ``seem to be attracting consistent support,'' according to Raymond Dooley, coordinator of the Flynn offensive.

Although he cautions that it's too early to tell which of Mayor Flynn's 11 proposals will be included in any final package, Mr. Dooley says the hotel-motel tax appears to have ``a fairly broad base of support.'' In addition, Dooley says ``a fair amount of attention'' is being focused on a Flynn option that would have the state pick up the $12.5 million tab for operating the Charles Street Jail and the Deer Island House of Correction.

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Hotel-motel occupancy is already taxed in Massachusetts, but the money goes into state, not city, coffers. Flynn's proposal would raise the existing tax from 5.7 percent to 9 percent, with the difference (about $15 million) going to Boston. Out-of-state visitors who use hotels, not local citizens, would bear the brunt of the tax, a condition that may make it more palatable to state lawmakers.

Rep. John H. Flood (D), co-chairman of the Committee on Taxation, says the prison proposal is ``more logical'' than some of the mayor's others. The state currently pays for ``everything in the [county] court system except courthouse rental and prison costs. It would be easier to audit if all expenses were under one umbrella,'' he adds.

But Representative Flood, whose committee will begin hearings April 10 on all of Flynn's revenue initiatives, says he adamantly opposes one of the proposals: an excise tax on parking in Boston.

``There are a lot of clerks at Filene's and Jordan Marsh, who don't make a lot of money, who have to drive into work,'' says Mr. Flood, who represents the suburban town of Canton. A commuter could pay as much as $300 more a year if the tax is enacted.

Flood is not alone in his opposition. Of the 11 House members of the Taxation Committee, at least four others say they definitely would not vote for it. Last June, when the parking excise tax came to the House floor, it narrowly went down to defeat, 77 to 72.

The Flynn administration's objective is to acquire ``a regular new stream of revenue,'' Dooley says. The mayor hopes to reach a consensus among legislative leaders and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) that ``will incorporate some version of the proposals that have been submitted,'' he adds.

While the Flynn team is pushing for some sort of package by the end of the fiscal year June 30, Dooley says action will come too late to balance the 1985 budget.

During the year, the city incurred nearly $10 million in ``unanticipated costs,'' when the court ordered Boston to pay for prison improvements, he says. The city also did not budget to spend money on emergency programs to combat the rising infant mortality rate and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), Dooley adds. The deficit, which could reach $30 million this year, will be rolled over to next year's budget.

Despite these predictions, some state lawmakers, such as Representative Flood, say they are not convinced that Boston needs the money.

During meetings with Flynn and Dooley, Flood says he asked to see Boston's financial information to help him determine whether ``the city is doing everything it can do on its own to cut costs.'' In particular, he says he wants to determine whether Boston has ``an inordinate number of administrators'' on the payroll, especially in the police and school departments.

Indeed, City Hall's reputation for mismanagement is one of the biggest obstacles to be overcome by the year-old Flynn administration. Rep. John R. Driscoll (R), a member of the Taxation Committee, may have captured the sentiment among many wary legislators when he said: ``I'd have to take a very long look at anything coming from the City of Boston.''

For his part, Flynn says he cut 460 jobs and updated the city's user-fee structure during his first year in office. In addition, budgets for city departments either were held to fiscal 1984 levels or were cut.

Almost from the beginning, the administration has insisted that Boston's budget deficit is a ``structural'' problem. The problem surfaced when property taxes -- the only taxes that Massachusetts cities and towns are allowed to collect -- were slashed in the wake of Proposition 21/2, city officials say.

``Since 1981, Boston alone has lost over $400 million because of its overreliance on the property tax,'' Flynn said at a public address last month. ``Increases in local aid from the commonwealth, while needed and appreciated, have not come close to covering this loss.'' The solution is for the state to make history by allowing Boston -- as well as other Massachusetts cities and towns -- to raise revenues in new ways, Flynn says.

Indeed, Flood recognizes that Flynn's proposal raises ``major policy questions. But I'm just not certain that we should do something that introduces a whole new layer of taxation to the residents of the commonwealth.'' Chart: How cities raise money. As a percent of revenue raised by the city (excludes state and federal assistance)

Boston 20-city average Property tax 76.3 27.1 General sales tax 0.0 8.5 Selective sales tax 0.0 8.1 Income tax 0.0 7.4 Motor vehicle licenses 0.0 .3 Other 1.5 6.1 Charges and miscellaneous 22.2 42.5 Source: ``City Government Finances in 1981-82'' by US Commerce Department and US Census Bureau. Cities are Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Buffalo, N.Y., Kansas City, Mo., Memphis, Tenn., Newark, N.J., Phoenix, Ariz., and Toledo, Ohio.

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