Moneybags Menino

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  May 17, 2010

Moran and 11 other Boston-based representatives sponsored a budget amendment to call the mayor’s bluff: a carrot-and-stick approach that will provide the $3 million Menino claims the branches cost to run, but only if he keeps them open. (Menino’s active behind-the-scenes attempts to stop that amendment suggest that Moran is right and that Menino has motives beyond cashflow.)

But the people most frustrated with the mayor’s claims of poverty are the folks just across the fifth floor from him. City councilors are privately fuming at what they consider an underhanded, immoral, and possibly illegal PR campaign (he’s obligated to support the arbitrators’ decision) to shift blame for a botched labor negotiation and make the councilors look like the bad guys for approving it.

Money, money everywhere
Menino has also tried the patience of some of his allies at the State House. Since the current economic crisis hit, Menino has relentlessly lobbied for, and ultimately obtained, major legislation to add finances to the city’s coffers. One municipal package gave him the ability to charge new hotel and meals taxes; another let him tax telecommunications poles.

Neither was an easy vote for a legislature and governor acutely sensitive to “tax-and-spend” charges. So, there was some anger this year when Menino seemed to blame state funding for his unpopular decision to close branch libraries.

Still others are asking why, if the city is really in such dire shape, there has been no discussion of a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote — which would allow the city to raise additional property taxes. Used literally thousands of times by municipalities large and small in the commonwealth, it is something Boston has never even attempted, and which city officials provide no strong argument against.

Likewise, many in City Hall finally have had enough with Menino’s constant narrative of budgetary woes. Most have long given credit, despite their frustration, to Menino and his top budget aide, Lisa Signori, for their tight-fingered control of the purse, a stewardship that has kept the city’s bond ratings sky-high and helped Boston to weather economic turbulence better than most big cities.

But, as one former City Hall aide puts it, “If we’ve been saving for a rainy day, it’s pouring now.”

And yet the administration is holding back pockets of money on top of the General Fund used for the budget. That’s above and beyond even the 2.5 percent reserve required by state law (for Boston only, because of its regional importance), which is $27.5 million, and in addition to the “overlay reserves” (to cover potential tax abatements and other obligations) of $207 million.

For starters, the city has transferred to the FY ’11 General Fund only about one-third of its $139 million in “free cash” — the amount of usable funds, after accounting for statutory obligations. That leaves $94 million unused.

There is also the previously mentioned $22 million Deeds Excise Fund, which sits essentially dormant. Another $58 million has been built up in the Parking Meter Fund; the city will transfer only $15 million of that to use in the FY ’11 budget, leaving $45 million. The Convention Center Fund has another unused $14 million. The firefighters also point to $24 million in a Surplus Property Disposition Fund, which the city says will be reduced to $18 million after the coming year.

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