Following Tuesday’s four-and-a-half-hour hearing of the city’s Ways and Means Committee, which included testimony on its fiscal ’21 budget, City Councilor Kenzie Bok reflected on how the municipality is responding to these uncertain times in terms of dollars and cents.
“In the past week, we’ve heard from advocates and community leaders about the budget, and one of the areas they spoke on was the portion spent on the Police Department,” Councilor Bok said. “Last year, the Police Department was allocated $414 million, which includes a $16 million overtime budget. The city’s budget needs to be reduced overall because of the economic crises. We need to take some money out of the budget so it might make sense to take it out of there or from other relief-related items.”
During the pandemic, Councilor Bok believes these funds could be better directed towards expanding Mayor Martin Walsh’s Summer Jobs Program, as well as increasing language and food accessibility, especially since the city’s Food Access office now only has a staff of four.
“The Public Heath Commission also needs the work now more than ever,” she added, “and in that context, it has become more important to ask where our marginal dollars are going and how they can be spent on healthy, equitable recovery from COVID-19.”
Councilor Bok said some burden must be lifted off the Police Department, though, which is now tasked with many duties outside of routine law enforcement.
“One thing we’ve done over time in this country is increasingly militarize and shift more responsibilities on [the police], such as dealing with mental health or other issues that might be better handled by professionals,” she said.
As it stands, 15 percent of the city’s budget is allocated for the Police Department, but Councilor Bok questions whether these monies should be shifted towards other priorities like affordable housing or the city’s public library system instead.
Councilor Bok also emphasized how the pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on different demographics.
“The crisis over the past couple of weeks has really underscored the pain of communities of color,” she said.
On June 3, the City Council rejected the proposed budget without prejudice.
In essence, Councilor Bok said the City Council considered two separate budgets – one for Boston Public Schools, which accounts for about one-third of all annual funding, as well as a second budget that incorporates all other expenditures.
“Both of those went back to administration to be updated and resubmitted,” she said. “Unfortunately this is the first time in 10 years we’ve had to reduce the budget because of the pandemic.”
The June 3 vote also came in response to the current social and political unrest.
“After a week of reactions and conversations about systematic racism, we revised the budget because we need to speak to the moment we’re living in and recognize we can’t maintain the status quo,” Councilor Bok said.
Meanwhile, the city has committed to investing an unprecedented $3 billion in its infrastructure, which includes building new, accessible pathways on the Back Bay Fens, as well as making improvements to the Boston Common and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.
“It’s more important now during this economic downturn to invest in Boston, and really create valuable public access and infrastructure in the long term,” she said. “We’re also doubling-down on street tree planning and the addition of an arborist position, as well as a comprehensive forestry plan for the city.”
Councilor Bok added: “It’s important because 10 percent [of the city budget] is spent on addressing climate change, and that’s a big investment, along with affordable housing, which is a crisis within a crisis in the city.”
To help address this “crisis within a crisis,” Councilor Bok said the proposed budget has allocated funds for a city-level rental voucher program, as well as for initiatives focusing on housing renovations and building new construction to combat homelessness.
“We’re waiting for the Mayor’s administration to get input from the public and the council, and they will resubmit [the budget proposal] at a hearing next week,” she said. “There will be more hearings after that, and then we will vote on it June 24 during the last City Council meeting before June 30 [the last day of Fiscal ‘20]. It’s an evolving situation, but this is the gist of where we are.”