Balancing Boston's budget: the first test of Flynn's managerial mettle

Of all Boston's needs, none is more urgent than to find a good architect - not one who designs buildings but one who can draw up plans to remodel a crumbling municipal fiscal structure.

Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, despite his good intentions and political capability, has had little experience in this matter. And it's questionable how well those in his administration can rise to the task of producing a workable blueprint for balancing the city's needs with the funds that are available.

Few people close to the Boston fiscal scene, including Mayor Flynn himself, are optimistic that a deficit can be averted in the coming 11 months without significant spending cuts or increased municipal revenue.

It's still possible that a parking-excise tax will be passed, but such action seems unlikely before mid-autumn - well into fiscal 1985 which began July 1. Thus, the yield would probably fall short of the $10 million Flynn says will be needed to balance the city budget.

This leaves Boston's new chief executive in the awkward but unavoidable position of having to lay off many more city workers than he had anticipated, including some hard-working men and women who do good jobs and are free from patronage links to previous administrations.

Since January, when Flynn took office, a net of almost 300 positions have been trimmed from the municipal work force. But this may be just a baby step in the direction the Flynn administration must walk.

The more time it takes to determine who will be let go, and to effect their layoffs, the deeper the payroll cuts must be to try to head off a fiscal 1985 deficit, which Samuel Tyler of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau warns may be in the range of $40 million. Such projections are based on the assumption nary an additional penny of city spending will be authorized over the next 11 months.

Asking department leaders to recommend ways their accounts can be trimmed, as Flynn has done, can hardly be faulted. However, it's unrealistic to expect this in itself will accomplish meaningful payroll reductions.

In the end, it will be Mayor Flynn who must make the hard decisions of who and what must go in the interest of a balanced municipal budget. And a balanced budget is essential if the current regime at City Hall is to prove itself to be a sound fiscal manager.

Unlike his predecessor, Kevin H. White, Flynn is facing up to the belt-tightening without cuts in the ranks of police and firefighters. Further, he intends to stick with his plan of increasing the manpower of both, as called for in the $421 million city budget approved in June. He also ruled out layoffs within Boston's Health and Hospitals Department.

Sparing these agencies from the fiscal shears seems to make sense. But such action will require substantial trimming, if not chopping, within other departments that have fewer employees than those being protected.

Future pay raises, as justified as they may be, will probably have to be deferred, including those for top administration aides who came to the Flynn team at lower salaries than they had received in private industry.

The mayor must have found it particularly unpleasant to veto two ordinances, one to provide 5 percent pay boosts for members of the City Council's 11-member central professional and support staff, and another to provide a $15,000 increase in the amount each councilor can spend on personal aides.

As a former city councilor, Mayor Flynn undoubtedly would have liked to go along with the raises for the professional support staff. That, however, could send a message to the public and to other municipal departments that Boston's financial situation is not all that tight. Flynn-approved raises for the staff also would make it harder for the mayor to say no to others in various municipal agencies.

Much more difficult to justify than raises for council employees is the additional money each councilor would be allotted to use - pretty much as he or she saw fit - on administrative assistants or other aides.

Currently the council president gets $80,000 a year and his 12 colleagues get individual councilors to have more to spend on office aides, either full-time or part-time, is understandable. But it's not clear how this would help serve the cause of better government, especially at a time when most other municipal agencies are facing layoffs and program cuts.

A far better approach, if new council employees are to be hired, would involve beefing up the council's professional staff - those with special training and background in municipal finance, planning, research, and legislative draftsmanship. This is not to suggest that special talents are missing within the current staff, but as the Municipal Research Bureau noted in a report last March, much more should be done to provide the council as a whole more expertise.

Adding more workers with personal loyalties to a single councilor (and whose efforts may overlap those of others on the payroll) makes little sense beyond providing a bit of increased patronage - something that is not exactly in short supply at City Hall.

With the council membership having increased from nine to 13 as of January, it would seem the workload should now be more spread out. All but four of the councilors serve districts (each comprising only one-ninth of Boston) rather than the city as a whole.

Despite arguments against the raises, the City Council can be expected to override the Flynn vetoes, probably at the July 18 meeting. To succeed, such a move would require support of at least nine councilors. There are already enough funds within the council's fiscal '85 budget to cover both the central staff pay raises and the increases in the personnel accounts for all 13 councilors - amounting to about $237,000.

For this reason, the mayor may not have as much say in the matter as he would like, and certainly should have.

If the council persists in one or both overrides, it's questionable what the mayor could do beyond engaging in a quarrel that could work to his disadvantage in the long run by promoting hostile relations between the city's legislative branch and his administration. This is something that, in the interest of Boston and a balanced budget that provides for the essential needs of all its people, must be avoided.

Toward that end, Mayor Flynn and the councilors might want to consider periodic frank discussions to explore priorities for coming to grips with various municipal problems. Bickering between the mayor and the council, so evident during much of the White administration, would serve no purpose and do nothing to provide a fiscal blueprint for the Bay State's oft-maligned capital city.

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