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Wu checks City Council on budget items

Councilors are learning limits of their power

Anna Lamb

Last Wednesday, the Boston City Council Ways and Means Committee met for a hearing to discuss modifications to this year’s proposed budget — a meeting that highlighted the newness of the current budget process, which gives councilors increased influence over spending decisions.

In a referendum passed last year, Boston voters gave the city council the power to amend the mayor’s proposed budget. The previous process allowed the council only to adopt or reject the spending plan. On June 8, the council exercised its new power by passing an amended budget to be sent back to the mayor for approval.

In turn, Mayor Michelle Wu rejected many of the council’s amendments, sending a letter to the body Wednesday morning ahead of their meeting explaining her reasoning.

The bulk of the rejections come from an interpretation by the legal department on how councilors are allowed to move money around.

According to the mayor and her administration, councilors are limited in their decision-making when it comes to intradepartmental spending — moving money around within a department — and money intended for line items within a department must have a clear source. Councilors have now been told that they cannot directly mandate how dollars are spent within a line item.

“I think it’s appropriate for the council, both now and throughout the year, on behalf of your constituents, to continue to push department heads to ensure that services are being delivered in a manner that’s responding to constituent needs,” Boston Corporation Counsel Adam Cederbaum told council Wednesday. “It’s just our interpretation that without appropriation, it’s not something that can be approved or disapproved as a budget matter.

Further clarifying what the new directive from the mayor means, Councilor Kendra Lara lent her own understanding to the chamber.

“The example that’s coming up for me right now is that the mayor can increase the line item on the city council’s staffing budget but can’t tell us that we need to use that to hire … a budget analysis person,” she said.

One direct example of an amendment shot down under this principle was incoming Councilor Gigi Coletta’s ask for additional parking enforcement officers in East Boston. Because she had made a specification for the officers to go to East Boston instead of allocating the money generally into the staffing line for the parking clerk, her amendment became one of among the $8 million worth of amendments denied by the mayor.

Much of Wednesday’s hearing included discussion of the new information, with several councilors expressing dismay over the late-stage directive handed down by the city.

“Is it fair to consider the fact that we were not set up for success?” Councilor Julia Mejia said Wednesday. “There has to be some sort of responsibility that the administration is considering taking on in terms of their own accountability and transparency and setting us up for success.”

Councilor Frank Baker also expressed frustration with the administration’s slow-paced decision-making.

“When we were all going through this process, when we were sitting in this room, there should have been people from the administration here,” Baker said. “Why weren’t you guys there?”

Cederbaum repeatedly apologized for his inability to answer councilors’ pointed questions and expressed hope that the process would be smoother next year.

The other half of Wednesday’s hearing was spent listening to public testimony and going through councilors’ other amendments not approved by the mayor. Notably, the Boston Police budget is still in dispute, with Wu denying the council’s proposed slashing of the overtime budget.

Now armed with a new understanding of the budget process, Ways and Means Chair Tania Fernandes Anderson said that further hearings are to be scheduled ahead of the final vote next week.

“More hearings and meetings will now occur,” the councilor said in a statement on social media, “as we do our best to ensure that the city of Boston, particularly its most marginalized and disenfranchised communities, can benefit from a budget that will begin to address their needs.”