FinComm's work isn't getting any easier. They are, after all, the lone public safeguard against waste in a fragile economy. There are other financial oversight groups, like the privately funded Boston Municipal Research Bureau (BMRB), but they don't do the same work or bring the same level of scrutiny.According to BMRB president Sam Tyler, FinComm has authority (and subpoena power) to dig where others don't. "We don't do exactly what they do," he says of the BMRB. "We're in the trenches, but not to the extent of actually staking out workers from trenches and following employees who are using public time for private purposes. . . . We work more on the policy side."
Not everyone is so kind. Some observers say FinComm has been neutered by a state-appointed board that is pre-approved by City Hall — though Menino spokesperson Dot Joyce says the mayor wields no control over the commission or its appointees. Others say the commission is superfluous, or worse — that it has overstayed its welcome.
"I don't think we need the [Finance Commission]," says City Council President Steve Murphy. Though the councilor acknowledges the commission's accomplishments — Murphy credits Cahill with bringing the North Street property issue to his attention — he believes it's wrong for a state-appointed board to meddle in Boston's affairs. "[In FinComm's absence], the City Council would have to roll up its sleeves and do a lot more work," says Murphy. "But I think that would be appropriate."
Murphy may be overstating the council's jurisdiction over contract spending. But the councilor shares the common conviction among City Hall insiders that Boston's books don't necessarily need much oversight. Boston has its highest bond rating in its history, he points out, as well as an advanced performance-management system, Boston About Results, that is praised by outside observers as a major money-saver. There's also the mayor's Administration and Finance cabinet, which, Joyce notes, recently hired an outside agency to investigate "impropriety" in Boston's Veteran's Services department.
Still, in a city where teacher jobs and even schools face the guillotine with regularity — and where penny-pinching is a purported priority — it's hard to argue that a stronger FinComm would be a bad thing. The commission costs taxpayers less than $200,000 a year. Cahill and Levangie save more than that in any given week.
"If I had two more people," Cahill says, "I'd feel like I could get to a deeper level of investigation. If I had 10 [more] people, I'd be the biggest outlaw in the City of Boston."
Chris Faraone can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @fara1.