Back in June, when the city of Boston was struggling with its budget for fiscal year 2021 amid the financial burden of the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Walsh said municipal layoffs were off the table.
Now, six months later, Walsh has apparently stayed true to his word.
The city has not laid off workers or taken leave of absence since the crisis began, despite cutting its original budget proposal by around $ 65 million, according to Budget Director Justin Sterritt.
In fact, the city’s total workforce is expected to increase from around 17,700 in January 2020 to around 18,030 in January 2021.
As the pandemic began, downsizing and vacation days hit other cities in almost every region of the state as local officials tried to balance their budgets under Covid conditions.
“We have been really steadfast in our desire to limit layoffs and service savings,” said Sterritt. “And to be honest, I think we’re probably one of the few cities or major cities in the country that has made it.”
The city council approved $ 3.61 billion budget, an increase of 3.4 percent over fiscal 2020 spending, according to official figures.
To help cut spending, Boston has put in place a six-month hiring freeze on non-essential positions, which Sterritt says will be extended until the end of this fiscal year on June 30, 2021. Officials have also limited overtime in certain departments, cut spending on travel and equipment purchases, and delayed sales of the city’s bonds until the fall, he said.
The police budget of $ 404.2 million is down about 2.4 percent from fiscal 2020, in part due to the mayor’s redistribution of overtime pay of $ 12 million to other departments to help Addressing racism he identified as a public health problem.
According to Sterritt, the city has added positions in a few areas, including nurses, social workers and supervisors in the school system, as well as some positions related to the environment, public health and economic development.
On the public health side, Sterritt said the city has made “a substantial investment” in neighborhood trauma teams – groups of social workers and clinicians who respond to trauma events. Some long-term posts have also been created in the Public Health Commission using part of the police’s newly allocated overtime funds.
In total, around 330 full-time positions have been added to this year’s budget, including 279 in the school system, four in the Public Health Commission and 47 in other city departments, according to the city.
Jim Durkin, legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, which represents government employees across New England, said city workers were pleased with the support Walsh’s administration gave them during the crisis.
He said Walsh has shown “great respect and appreciation” for public sector workers. “Because they are needed at work, our members did not have the luxury of safely sheltering in confined spaces, but the Walsh administration worked with us to make sure they were as safe as possible,” said Durkin . “We’ll never be able to rule out risk, but by working with the mayor and his team we’ve been able to reduce the risk of exposure.”
Pam Kocher, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, said the city benefited from multi-year sales growth, partly due to new developments, which helped the city avoid downsizing that had impacted a few other large metropolitan areas. Boston ended fiscal 2020 with a budget surplus of $ 15.3 million. This was the 35th year the city produced a surplus.
“When Boston got into this difficult position for the city government, the community and the businesses in the city, it was in a pretty strong financial position,” Kocher said. “That definitely made a real difference to the city.”
While the city was able to balance its budget without downsizing, it was not immune to the effects of a pandemic-era economy. With the state allowing companies to postpone paying local taxes like room and meal taxes and hotel taxes until April 2021, officials are working with limited information about local revenues, Sterritt said.
And since the state has seen another surge in cases where Governor Baker reversed some reopening policies, he said revenue for businesses like hotels and restaurants are likely to continue to be affected. The city’s budget for fiscal 2021 projects excise tax collections to decrease by around $ 38 million, or nearly 19 percent, according to the research bureau.
“It is definitely an area of concern that we are a little less informed about than usual because the state has delayed these excise duties,” said Sterritt. “But we are certainly monitoring this as a potential risk area.”
However, more than 70 percent of the city’s budget comes directly from property taxes, a source of income that has made officials a little more optimistic during this period. Kocher stated that a decline in this area would not be immediate due to the delay between the time it is set and property tax bills are paid. However, it typically takes a prolonged economic downturn to significantly affect property tax revenues, she said.
The remainder of the city’s revenue comes from state aid, which is expected to stay at $ 464.2 million this year, and local revenue such as interest on investments, fines and fees, licenses and permits, and departmental income, which is expected to increase by around $ 464.2 million this year 1% will decrease by 1.2 percent. Total sales are estimated at $ 3.6 billion for fiscal 2021.
Going forward, Kocher said, Boston is still facing unforeseen expenses due to the pandemic and it will be important for the city to make the most of CARES Act resources and FEMA reimbursements to see the economic impact of the crisis on residents to decrease. According to the research office, the amount of funds that the city receives from external sources such as grants rose by around 20 percent from fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2021.
Sterritt said the city’s first concern will be keeping services intact. “We have made basic urban services a priority,” he said, “so over the past seven years we have focused our planning efforts so that we will be able to thrive when times are not good.”
Meg McIntyre wrote this article for the State House News Service.