2011 city budget troubles affect JP

David Taber

The coming year is shaping up to be a rough one for city services that affect the neighborhood, Mayor Thomas Menino said at a recent sit-down meeting at City Hall reviewing the administration’s proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget.

“We are trying to do the best we can to provide services for the City of Boston,” was Menino’s assessment of the situation at the April 15 meeting. The meeting with reporters from community newspapers included staffers from the city departments of Administration and Finance, Constituent Services and Intergovernmental Affairs, among others.

At the same time, thanks to a favorable bond rating and taking advantage of low interest rates, the city is investing heavily in public infrastructure projects, Administration and Finance staffer Merideth Weenick said in a presentation at the April 27 meeting of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC).

“Five years ago, during the [last] recession, we reduced our borrowing to $60 million. We cut it in half,” she said at the JPNC meeting.

In JP, those new projects include renovations to the Brewer-Burroughs Playground, expected to happen this year, as well as continued funding for the redesign of Centre and South Streets, among other things.

American Relief and Recovery Act funding will help with street work on Centre Street between Monument Square and the Arborway, and on Washington Street heading to Roslindale, Colleen Keller from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services told the JPNC.

This budget season—with proposed cuts to the library system and Boston’s community centers, lack of clarity about federal funding for schools—is proving more hectic than most.

Some pieces are moving faster than the city Office of Administration and Finance can map them. A city map given to reporters at the meeting that was meant to indicate projects included in the city’s five-year capital plan for new construction and renovation projects did not include planned renovations to the Jamaica Plain and Egleston Square branch libraries.

When asked about that omission by the Gazette at the April 15 city hall budget briefing, a staffer from Administration and Finance said those two projects were omitted because it was unclear until after the map was produced whether those two branch libraries would stay open.

Those projects—$8.5 million in improvements for the Jamaica Plain branch and $710,000 for the Egleston branch, have been in limbo for years, and remain “to be scheduled” in the $1.5 billion 2011-2016 capital plan.

The city projects a $2.5 billion operating budget for 2011. That is a 2.5 percent increase over last year when the budget shrank—for the first time in modern memory, leaving the Boston with an over-$100 million shortfall. This year, despite the rosier revenue projections, inflation and other factors—including healthcare costs, which city officials say are rising faster than inflation— mean Boston is facing an about $50 million shortfall.

And, Menino acknowledged at the April 15 briefing, budgeting for next year has been “difficult.” Comparing the decision to close branch libraries favorably to a decision by the town of Mansfield to eliminate its entire high school sports program, Menino said, “I think [closings are] the prudent thing to do.”

The continuing economic downturn means that even in some places where Menino plans to level-fund services, such as the city’s youth summer jobs program, the allotment will not go as far.

The city is committed to spending $4.3 million on summer jobs for teens, but an unemployment rate still above 9 percent means more adults are competing for work that would normally go to youths, the mayor said.

City Hall did not respond to follow-up questions by the Gazette asking for summer youth job projections for the coming year.

Ongoing questions about federal and state aid to the city mean significant questions also remain about funding for state-identified underperforming “turnaround” schools and for new programming for English Language Learners (ELL) in the Boston Public Schools.

Massachusetts was unsuccessful this spring in its application for federal “Race to the Top” funds to support new programs at turnaround schools. The state identified 12 city schools as underperforming, including English High, the Agassiz and John F. Kennedy Elementary Schools in JP. With state aid, support for those schools “in the hundreds of thousands” instead of in the millions, Lisa Signori, head of Administration and Finance, said at the briefing. “It’s not what would have been available,” with Race to the Top funding, she said.

Early in the briefing, Signori noted that Boston is receiving about $30 million in state aid this year in federal stimulus funding. That funding source will disappear in 2012, she noted. “We need to be prepared to adjust to that loss,” she said.

Asked later by the Gazette if the city is committed to continuing to fund an expansion of ELL programming largely funded by federal stimulus dollars, Menino said, “Our commitment is to make sure every student is able to learn.”

The mayor also expressed faith in the work being done by school committee member Claudio Martinez, who is co-chairing school committee ELL Task Force. “Claudio Martinez will not allow us to fail,” Menino said of the JP resident and head of the Hyde Square Task Force.

Boston Public Schools plans to discuss the possibility of closing some elementary schools and reorganizing its student school assignment system in community processes that are scheduled to begin soon, but those changes would not happen in the next fiscal year. [See related article.]

Despite state funding cuts, Menino said, the city was able to preserve funding for community service officers—police liaisons to the community—at its district police stations. “Originally on the cut list was the community service offices,” he said. “We were able to work with [Police Commissioner Edward] Davis” to maintain that program, he said.

The city, as the Gazette has previously reported, is paring back on operations at libraries and community centers. The Gazette has learned that Boston also plans to cut its Park Rangers mounted unit. Mounted rangers were on the chopping block last year, but were saved after a fervent advocacy and fund raising effort led, in part, by JP residents. [See related articles.]

Local capital projects

While improvements to the JP and Egleston Square branch libraries remain on hold, JP will see a few ongoing public improvements in the coming year. Those include:

• $2.7 million toward a $5.5 million continuing renovation of the Curtis Hall Community Center at 20 South St.

• $295,000 of $370,000 allocation for new equipment and renovations at the Brewer-Burroughs Playground.

• $160,000 toward $860,000 in improvements to the William Devine Golf Course in Franklin Park.

• $150,000 for the planning process to redesign Centre and South Streets.

Projects being continued with allocations from the previous fiscal year include:

• $5 million for the replacement of the HVAC system at English High.

• $353,000 for the renovation of the South Street Mall and Courts.

Correction: The print version and, previously, the on-line version of this story both described the Louis Agassiz school as a K-8 school. It is an elementary school.

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