Moneybags Menino

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  May 17, 2010

That’s close to $200 million being held back from the General Fund, at a time when schools are cutting sports programs and the city is cutting back on youth summer jobs.

The firefighters union also makes a much more incendiary accusation: that the city has far more free cash than it claims — as much as $200 million more.

City officials strongly dispute that, and correctly note that free cash is certified by the state, not the city.

But the state’s calculations rely on a base number provided by the city, and the union’s accountant insists that the numbers don’t add up — that the city is providing a starting number far below reality.

That’s a tough charge to prove. The administration does subtract a variety of city obligations from its audited cash figure, legitimately, to arrive at the figure it provides to the state. But without a detailed accounting, it’s hard to determine whether someone is padding those calculations.

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No more trust
Aside from the free-cash-undercounting allegation, city officials don’t dispute the existence of most of these funds. They do argue that some of the money is restricted to certain uses — the Parking Meter Fund is designated for traffic-related expenses, for example — and that fiscal prudence calls for reserving other amounts, such as the $94 million in free cash.

“Given the catastrophes that are happening around the country,” Signori tells the Phoenix, “including municipal bankruptcies, these are sound practices that prevent the government from getting overextended.”

Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, notes that none of these funds are exactly secrets to those who look closely. In fact, there are other funds the firefighters did not include, such as the $6.5 million in the Cemetery Trust Fund.

But, until now, nobody has tried to push that money into the public conversation — in part because, in better times, those spare funds seemed less important, and in part because those aware of the funds, like city councilors on the Ways and Means Committee, have not wanted to anger Menino.

Things have changed. Mike Ross, City Council president, has brought in Thomas Kochan, a labor-relations expert at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, to review the arbitrator’s award and determine the true cost to the city — an implicit slap at Menino’s credibility, and one seldom seen during the so-called Mayor for Life’s 16-year reign.

To be blunt, there are city councilors who are pissed off at the position in which Menino has placed them. By leaking the firefighters award prior to its release, in an apparent violation of an arbitration agreement and perhaps of state labor law, the administration spun the public on an exaggerated, if not outright deceptive, interpretation of the award.

The administration has consistently claimed that the contract will cost the city $74 million, strongly implying that the city will need to cut a check in that amount for retroactive pay to the firefighters for the four years covered by the contract, which ends this June. That is not true. That figure includes projected costs for FY ’11, which is not part of the contract; it also does not subtract several million dollars of cost savings, such as the union’s higher share of health-care-insurance premiums.

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