Boston's Flynn at midterm: turning his rhetoric into substance

Halfway through his four-year term, Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn is starting to turn rhetoric into reality. His late-blooming success -- in deflating the city deficit and in deploying programs to help struggling neighborhoods -- has quieted criticism that his efforts were more symbolic than substantial.

Last week, in his State of the City address, Mr. Flynn said the city was emerging not only from a fiscal crunch but from racial intolerance and economic inequality. ``In neighborhood after neighborhood,'' he said, ``the era of insecurity and confrontation has given way to the politics of caring and compassion.''

Many political experts here say Flynn's compassion scored only public-relations victories at first. The former antibusing leader -- one longtime observer calls him a ``born-again liberal on social issues'' -- would play basketball with black youngsters, ride snowplows with city workers, rush to help victims of fires or violence, and -- most of all -- show people of all colors and classes that their mayor cared about them.

The personal charm and energy of the self-dubbed ``neighborhood mayor'' have unquestionably boosted morale and eased tensions among city residents. According to a recent poll, almost 80 percent -- including a large proportion of the black community -- approve of the way he has managed the city.

But because of inexperience, Flynn stumbled out of the blocks on social and economic planning, says Samuel R. Tyler, executive director of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. ``You'd expect a slow start from a new administration,'' he says. ``But Flynn didn't even begin with a 100-day plan; so only now are we beginning to see the development of his ideas and programs.''

At the end of last year, the mayor passed a flurry of new initiatives designed to build economic and political bridges between the booming downtown area and poorer outlying neighborhoods.

Among other things, Flynn raised the ante on the city's linkage program, which requires downtown developers to pay into a housing fund; initiated parcel-to-parcel linkage, which ties the development of a prime downtown site with underdeveloped parcels of land in struggling neighborhoods; created five neighborhood councils to help plan local development; and established a job-training program.

So far, however, these bridge-building programs have yet to show any measurable impact. But their foundation -- a stable city budget -- was solidified in June, when Flynn won unprecedented state approval for new excise taxes on jet fuels and hotel/motel rooms.

``It was the signal accomplishment of his administration thus far,'' says John W. Delaney, a Bank of Boston vice-president and member of The Vault, a group of business and banking leaders. He explains that Flynn judiciously joined area leaders to convince the legislature of Boston's need for more revenues.

Even though downtown development was booming, they argued, the city's ability to solve urban problems was undermined by a 2.5 percent limit on property taxes and by the withdrawal of federal funds -- including the proposed elimination of $18 million in revenue sharing.

``When I look at federal budget proposals, I no longer expect to see the New Deal,'' says Flynn, the son of an immigrant longshoreman and a cleaning woman. ``But we do not deserve a raw deal, either.''

Under the current administration, however, the city deficit has dropped from $39 million in 1984 to $15-$20 million last year, thanks mainly to a shorter leash on spending, Mr. Tyler says. An estimated $20 million from new taxes could reduce that even further, he adds.

With the fiscal ship on the mend, Flynn feels he can steam ahead toward his larger goal of economic justice.

Late in December, he got a controversial condominium-conversion regulation passed that protects tenants from real-estate investors. The law, he says, was ``premised upon the simple theory: Housing should shelter people, not taxes.''

Though the comment received a thundering ovation last week, his push for regulations has irked more than a few people in the real estate community. They say the rash of recent regulations will drive away private developers. Even many people in the community at large, like lawyer and former mayoral candidate Lawrence DiCara, say that ``Flynn has placed too much emphasis on housing regulations and not enough on housing production.''

According to Joseph Slavet, director of the Boston Urban Observatory, ``Flynn has begun to be sensitive about setting performance goals'' -- and those include housing production.

In his address last week, in fact, Flynn did what is unusual for him: He set a specific goal of 3,400 new and rehabilitated units in 1986. Although some criticize the target as too low to meet the city's need of 4,600 units by 1990, most applaud it as an attainable step in the right direction.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Flynn can translate financial stability, untested programs, and new goals into a city that builds strong bridges between all races and classes.

``He has brought a vision to the city,'' says City Council President Bruce C. Bolling, the first member of a minority ever to hold that position. ``But now we need to see concrete results.''

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