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

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.

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.

It should be pointed out, however, that some functions of these offices have not been discontinued but shifted to newly constituted Flynn agencies. For one, Mayor Flynn's press office - although thinner in manpower than its predecessor - has taken over the function of the Office of Public Information which thrived under Mayor Kevin H. White's administration. Others are the Office of Policy Management, Community Services Administration, the complaints division, and Public Improvements Commission.

Their space, if not responsibilities, is being taken over by Flynn-crafted Cable Communications Commission, Office of Business and Cultural Development, Office of Capital Planning, Office of Community Participation, Office of Service , Office of Neighborhood Service, and Women's Commission.

The nine new agencies, reflecting in part some of Flynn's priorities, have a combined proposed fiscal '85 budget of almost $1.3 million. This compares with nearly $3.1 million allotted to the seven doomed or already departed agencies for the year ending June 30.

For whatever reason, Mayor Flynn and his staff have not uttered even a polite whisper of criticism about the way Mayor White ran the city. The new mayor's actions, however, speak louder than even the sternest of words. Within the fiscal '85 proposed budget are more than a few hints that some of Flynn's policies and practices are quite different from those of his predecessor.

Mayor White, whose administration demonstrated a conspicuous commitment to patronage, was considerably rankled by the Boston Finance Commission and its dogged way of pinpointing various administrative shortcomings. Instead of accepting the criticism of the watchdog agency, the former mayor went as far as he could to render the FinCom impotent.

Four years ago, at a time when many other municipal-funded agencies were being given at least modest budget increases, White chopped the FinCom's annual appropriation from $139,000 to $85,000, the minimum amount allowable under state law. And once having taken that daring but probably unwise step, he held the FinCom's budget to that level. This made it difficult for the FinCom to operate, since it meant the commission was forced to slim its investigative ranks - and possibly to pay less attention to the awarding of municipal contracts.

Beyond a bit of hand-wringing, there was nothing the City Council could do. Under Boston's charter, the council can only reduce or approve a mayoral budget proposal. It cannot add one penny, no matter how much it feels a program or agency is being shortchanged.

Now Mayor Flynn is recommending that the FinCom, set up in 1909, be given $ 125,000 - a $40,000 increase in its annual budget. The additional money is expected to help add to the agency's investigative capacity.

Even more important than the money, this action serves notice that the new mayor is not afraid the watchdog might bark should the city administration err. But then, the Flynn administration may have little to fear: It has initiated a tight policy against municipal contracts being awarded without following the bid process.

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