Inside Boston’s political back rooms, there is a growing suspicion that Mayor Thomas Menino is sitting on millions of dollars — tens of millions, maybe as much as $400 million — that could be used to save vital city services, such as, among many examples, four branch libraries and eight community centers that are slated to be shuttered.
The firefighters union, Local 718, has been meeting with councilors, influential insiders, and select reporters — including the Phoenix — to explain why it believes the city is misleading the public and is in much better financial shape than it lets on.
Those allegations came just after Menino released his budget proposal axing $60 million worth of staff and services in mid April and a state arbitrator ruled last week that the city must pay those firefighters roughly $40 million in retroactive raises.
That politically unpopular contract sent the mayor and his minions into overdrive, loudly insisting that the city can’t afford it, and calling on the Boston City Council to negate the ruling by voting to deny the funding — a move it can legally make, but never has in its history.
Even some who think the firefighters’ contract is outrageous are finding themselves asking why the city is apparently sitting on money while shutting down services.
To take just one of the firefighters’ examples of squirreled-away cash, the city has $22 million sitting in the Deeds Excise Fund, a relic from an era when the city split fees with Suffolk County. That alone would cover one-third of the cuts Menino announced last month, in his proposed $2.5 billion budget for the 2011 fiscal year (FY ’11). In fact, just a quarter of that $22 million could cover the coming year’s cost of the four branch libraries, the eight community centers the city will no longer staff, the mounted park rangers’ horses also on the chopping block, and the $600,000 cost of the city’s mounted-police unit, disbanded a year ago.
The firefighters are not the first to accuse Menino of overstating the city’s straits. The Boston Teachers Union has uncovered similar results, says its president, Richard Stutman. “As part of our deliberations last year on the wage freeze,” he says, “we hired an independent consultant and found that the city is in much better financial shape than it lets on.” And in his mayoral campaign last year, businessman Kevin McCrea repeatedly insisted that the city was exaggerating its fiscal woes to justify unpopular cuts.
Still others, including some of the city’s state representatives, have taken issue with Menino’s claim that the city cannot afford to keep all of its branch libraries open. They believe Menino is simply using that excuse — “crying poormouth” in the words of one Beacon Hill staffer — to carry out his plan to reorganize the libraries.
“If the [Boston Public Library] Trustees are looking to close libraries, just say so,” says Michael Moran, state representative from Brighton. “But don’t use difficult economic times as the reason, when that’s not the reason.”