By John Lynds
With the ongoing racial tension sweeping across the nation and calls for police reform in almost every major U.S. city there was an emotional debate last week in the City Council over Mayor Martin Walsh’s proposed budget.
Since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, big city Mayors like Walsh have heard the calls to restructure police budgets loud and clear.
Walsh proposed to reallocate $12 million in Boston Police overtime funds to invest in social equity and inclusion programs in Boston.
The Mayor’s proposed budget passed by a slim margin in an 8-5 vote after some councilors argued the cuts to police spending did not go far enough.
In a surprise move, Mission Hill City Councilor Kenzie Bok broke ranks with uber progressives on the Council and voted to adopt Mayor Walsh’s budget.
Edwards joined Councilors Frank Baker, Lydia Edwards, Liz Breadon, Annissa Essaibi-George, Michael Flaherty, Ed Flynn and Matt O’Malley in voting to pass the budget.
City Council President Kim Janey and Councilors Ricardo Arroyo, Andrea Campbell, Julia Mejia and Michelle Wu all voted against the budget.
In a statement after her vote to approve the budget Bok, who serves as the Council’s Ways & Means Chair, said year’s budget process has come in the cauldron of COVID-19, collective fury about police brutality, and the role of systemic racism in every aspect of our collective life.
“Over the past weeks, the City Council has heard many calls to reduce and reallocate the City’s police budget in order to create alternative institutions of community care and invest more in communities of color,” said Bok. “In mid-June, the Mayor reallocated $12 million from police overtime to other purposes, but advocates have called for $40 million, and a real participatory leadership role in building the alternatives.”
The difficult question, said Bok, that came before the Council’s vote was whether to accept the Mayor’s revised budget, or to go into a 1/12th budget, where this year’s departmental allocations extend into the new fiscal year. Because both personnel contracts and other costs are scheduled to go up on July 1, under a 1/12th budget many departments would begin the process of laying off some staff or cutting services in order to close their budget gap.
“We also would not lock in any of the new allocations in this year’s budget, including the $12 million reallocated away from police,” she said. “To me, risking the loss of those new allocations was unacceptable. This year’s operating budget has by far the highest allocations ever for affordable housing and public health. It includes new money for food access, immigrant advancement, and language access that will help the City build programs that are actually adequate to our huge needs on those fronts. We are also finally getting funding for an urban forestry plan, which will allow accelerated tree planting in areas of the city with greatest need.”
Bok said some of her Council colleagues felt that the city could temporarily shift to a 1/12th budget in order to pressure the Mayor, reach a budget with even more money for these priorities in a couple of weeks, and contain the fallout for key city departments.
“As I talked with colleagues, I did not find that we had a collective counter proposal or feasible timeline to make that plausible,” she said. “My analysis was that if we went to a 1/12th budget we were instead very likely to end up there permanently for the year. I am expecting the State to lower the amount of money it sends to us. As soon as it does that officially, we would have to decrease our budget forecasts. If that happens after we pass a budget with new community-focused investments, we can make collective decisions about which departments to trim or when to pull money out of reserves to cover the gaps.I am also not willing to precipitously lay off city workers in the middle of a pandemic when it can be avoided.”
Bok added that one further factor complicated the picture when it came to calls to make police budget cuts. Any cuts made by the Council can by law be overridden by the Mayor in the interest of public safety.
“So without a structural change to the police contract, deeper cuts to that department are likely to be illusory,” she said. “If we make them in theory but not in practice, we will take them out of reserves, which will further reduce funds for everything else we’re trying to pay for. That would be a false victory, which isn’t something I’d accept. For that reason, I laid out a plan for how I’m going to use the Ways & Means Committee to drive a real 10 percent reduction in the police budget over the next year.”
Bok said the real cost drivers of overtime and the police budget overall are locked up in the police contract, which is up for renegotiation this year.
“The bargaining has to happen between the (Mayor’s) Administration and the unions, but the public policy conditions and expectations for what will be acceptable can be set by the Council, which has to approve any final agreement,” said Bok. “We will hold a Ways & Means hearing on that contract as a policy document in the coming weeks, and follow it up with further work to set those expectations.”
She also expects the Council to hold a hearing on alternative visions for reallocating police funding, and another on how the Council can build more real participatory budgeting into its process.
“I heard from advocates a deep frustration with the limitations on public testimony at the end of a hearing as a method for public engagement, and I’d like to assess what mechanisms would be more meaningful—even within the limiting constraints of our current City Charter,” she said. “I know that some will disagree, and I look forward to talking further. As a new City Councilor, I am deeply conscious of my obligation to weigh all aspects of hard decisions like this one about the budget, to use my best judgment, and then to give my constituents as thorough an explanation as can.”
In Mayor Walsh’s budget the reallocated Boston Police overtime funds will fund the following;
• $3 million for the BPHC to begin implementing the eight strategies he outlined in his declaration
• $1 million to support trauma teams and counseling services at the BPHC
• $2 million in new funding for community-based programs, such as violence intervention grants, youth programming, language and food access, Immigrant Advancement, the Age Strong Commission and the Human Rights Commission
• $2 million for additional public mental health services through a partnership between the Boston Police Department and Boston Medical Center Emergency Services Program or BEST
• $2 million to support economic development initiatives to support minority and women owned businesses
• $2 million to provide additional housing supports and youth homelessness programs.