Council approves Walsh’s FY21 budget in 8-5 vote

Dissenters say budget is ‘business-as-usual’

The Boston City Council on Wednesday voted to approve Mayor Martin Walsh’s FY2021 budget, after a two-hour conversation during which councillors aired thoughts about police reform, potential layoffs, and the risks of stalling the local economy.

The Mayor’s operational budget passed 8-5 with councillors Frank Baker, Liz Breadon, Lydia Edwards, Ed Flynn and Michael O’Malley in favor and Ricardo Arroyo, Andrea Campbell, Kim Janey, Julia Mejia, and Michelle Wu in opposition. The BPS budget was passed 11-2, with Wu and Cambell casting opposing votes; and the capital budget passed unanimously.

Councillor Bok, the Chair of Ways and Means, voted yes, and urged her colleagues to pass all budget items.

“This budget comes before us at a very hard time, one at which we are confronting systemic racism, police brutality, and deep inequalities that economic impacts of covid-19 are only worsening,” Bok said. “The new money in this budget [is] going almost exclusively to the things people have been calling for when we talk about shifting priorities.”

Bok noted that the overall budget boosts affordable housing funding by 40 percent to $18 million, increases BPS funding to $80 million, and public health funding to $14 million.

“If we pass this budget those new numbers become the new base for all of those departments,” said Bok. “Whereas, if we don’t pass a budget and go to a 1/12 budgets, we lose these gains in housing and public health and go back to this year’s budget allocation — which includes a larger police budget.”

“If my colleagues had a viable plan, one that I could believe was not gambling livelihoods with critical services, I would be with them on this,” said Bok. “This is a question of political judgement. But the council can not speedily negotiate a new better budget without a counter proposal.”

At-Large Councillor Annissa Essaibi-George of Dorchester also voted yes, saying that while the Walsh administration’s budget plans are “far from perfect,” they support homelessness services and education funding.

“This is a very difficult time and I am moved by and applaud residents and colleagues advocating for change,” said Essaibi-George. “We need to dig up the root causes of systemic racism that no budget will solve. We need to look at all of our departments across the board. However, I’m aware that there are many who can’t wait for another version.”

District 4 Councillor Andrea Campbell called it a “business-as-usual budget” during an “unprecedented time.”

“The implication that rejecting the budget will be the Council’s failure to provide essential funding to our departments is ridiculous, when it is the Mayor’s budget that is unsatisfactory and doesn’t go far enough to respond to the desperate needs of our communities,” said Campbell. “Long before covid-19 and the murder of George Floyd, Boston was found to be one of the most unequal cities in this country.”

District 5 Councillor Ricardo Arroyo, who represents parts of Mattapan, Roslindale and Hyde Park, noted that the BPD overtime budget is much higher than the entirety of most other city budgets, including the office of immigration advancement, youth engagement and employment and public works.

“Imagine waiting decades for funding in your communities and being told to wait with an impending recession in which every conversation we’ve had about budgets is that we won’t have more money to allocate,” Arroyo said while holding back tears.

“The realities in Boston are stark, 99 percent of our city’s contracts go to white men, this is because of systemic racism... I ask myself: does this budget reflect the love I have for our communities? The answer for me is no and so is my vote.”

District 4 Councillor Lydia Edwards, who voted yes, said voting ‘no’ on the budget wouldn’t lead to meaningful structural change.

“The question is: ‘Does the yes or no vote give us structural change?’ The answer is ‘no.’ Voting no on this budget is not going to bring change; it's about the statement of what that no means,” she said.

“A longer process that gets to the 10 percent is the right way to go. I don’t need the hashtags, I don’t need the talking points. I’ve been pushing for structural change… I’ll be damned if anyone questions my Blackness based on any vote I take as a Councillor.”

“I intend to break the wheel of this merry go round farce of budget negotiations. I am sick of it. It does nothing but pit us against each other. It requires us to change the charter and put it to the ballot. This is structural and it’s really hard and takes a lot of work. The easiest thing I could do is vote no on this budget, but I didn't take this job for temporary victories. I'm in it for the long haul. I’m voting for the budget and pushing for systemic change.”

At-Large Councillor Michael Flaherty said the budget represents “quality” investments that shouldn’t be gambled with, but added that it’s “not perfect.”

“We need financial stability and predictability now more than ever. Our communities would be put in a vulnerable position and this budget will do a lot of good for our city. We can continue to move forward towards change without sacrificing,” he said.

District 6 Councillor Matt O’Malley said he hears both sides of the argument, but his conscience compelled him to vote yes.

“Some of my colleagues argue that we can reject this budget and get to work, “ O’Malley said. “We don’t know that. We do not know that we can prevent layoffs if this budget were to fail. I also want to thank Councillor Edwards, who I think demonstrated some incredible leadership in her remarks earlier.”

District 3 Councillor from Dorchester Frank Baker voted yes, saying he wanted to “cut and paste” what O'Malley said.

“We need to go into this next year with financial confidence. I think the responsible thing to do here is to pass this budget. I consider myself a city worker first and have taken layoffs. It’s not easy for people, especially those with families” said Baker. “If we have a vote and think people can get laid off, we shouldn't be voting no on that.”

District 9 Councillor Liz Braedon said she agreed with Edwards, adding that there is “so much more that needs to be done” to address systemic racism although voting down the budget “is not the way to go.”

“This crisis has called us to do better,” Breadon said. “This is a time of great trauma with an unprecedented outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter calling for systemic change. But I do feel that rather than throwing it all to the wind and taking a chance, this budget lays the foundation for lasting change if we are willing to do the hard work to make that happen.”

At-Large Councillor Michelle Wu voted no on the budget saying she wouldn’t be satisfied with the “scale of change” it would bring.

“Passing this budget is a message to those calling for equity, justice and relief in our streets that they should be satisfied with incremental change,” she said. “I refuse to be complicit in the inertia that structural change is too expensive or that it’s not the right timing.”

At-Large Councillor from Dorchester Julia Mejia also voted no, saying: “I’m going to be fully my true authentic self.”

“I am no longer interested in having drip-drop incremental changes that expect us to continue to hope, pray, and wait some more to finally have the type of budget that our people need today,” she said.

After two hours of conversation about the budget, Council President Kim Janey thanked her colleagues, the Mayor and his administration, and the many residents and advocacy groups that reached out with concerns about the budget.

“Never before in my life has there been an opportunity to enact transformative change as there is right now. This moment before us will set the tone for generations to come. A lot has been said about the budget-- I’ll say this: in my 2 and ½ years on the council, it is the best budget I’ve seen,” said Janey.

“While there are several items that I am really pleased about on this budget, I can not stress enough that what we do does not happen in a vacuum. It’s important that we keep all of the lessons we’ve learned as we make this important decision.”

Ahead of the vote, a majority of Boston’s City Council, 8 of the 13 members, on Friday delivered a letter to Walsh demanding that he cut the police budget by 10 percent and reallocate more than $300 million to social programs, such as mental health and recovery services.

The councillors also called for putting $300 million toward housing programs, creating a fund for minority-owned businesses and adding more social workers and counselors to Boston Public Schools.

When Walsh declared racism a public health crisis on June 17, he also announced that he intends to funnel $12 million from the police department’s $60 million dollar overtime budget to other programs. The councillors’ call for a 10 percent cut to the full $414 million police department budget is much larger.