Boston hopeful that federal coronavirus aid could be ‘game changer’

Boston budget officials say the city remains on track financially to keep going without major further cuts — but big bucks rolling in from the feds would be a “game changer” for the coming fiscal year.

“We’re confident we are going to end this year in balance,” Justin Sterritt, the city’s budget director, told city councilors during a Thursday hearing.

He said that Boston’s property tax revenue — by far the largest source of income in the city’s $3.6 billion annual budget — actually came in $49 million above what the city expected. That plus an unexpected extra $9 million in state aid made up for excise tax revenue, which was $57 million worse than expected, for this fiscal year to date.

The budgeters cut their excise tax revenue forecasts last year as it became clear the pandemic was here to stay, but the reality is that the revenue from those taxes — food, fuel, hotels and car registrations — came in much worse than even those lowered projections, he said.

The city has to pass a budget by the end of June, as the new fiscal year starts July 1. For the coming fiscal year — fiscal 2022 — officials at this point are not expecting to have to move forward with layoffs, but there remain many unknowns, officials said.

“It has been a priority to maintain head count and not pursue layoffs, and that will continue to be a priority,” said Emme Handy, the city’s chief financial officer.

Sterritt outlined how the $121 million in CARES Act money from the large federal coronavirus bill last spring has been spent, largely going toward city expenses, public health measures, the school district and business aid. Sterritt said the city has held back just under $10 million as “emergency” funds, in case the city quickly needs to recreate the Boston Hope field hospital or some other immediate pandemic need.

Sterritt said they’re optimistic that the federal coronavirus relief bill that’s being debated now would have the large amounts of local aid that Democrats want to put in it. He said the potentially hundreds of millions that the city could get “would be a game changer.”

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