City Council Candidate Chat: Stephen Murphy

This is the 24th in a series of conversations with candidates for Boston City Council. I interviewed at-large councilor Stephen Murphy.

David S. Bernstein: Why are you running for another term? And, are you interested in running for the open state Treasurer’s seat again next year?

Stephen Murphy: Treasurer is an office that’s always interested me. I think it’s the best public office in the Commonwealth, and I think I’m suited for it, with my background and experience. But I’m running for re-election to the city council on my financial acumen this year. There’s tremendous changeover in city government – a new mayor, a minimum of four or five new members of the council – my feeling is that in a time of economic uncertainty, turbulence if you will, you can keep a steady hand and a person in leadership on the council at this point in time, and I’m offering myself as that steady hand and that financial steward.

One thing Mayor Tom Menino gets credit for is effectively managing the city’s finances, keeping the bond rating up and so forth; are you concerned, as you listen to the mayoral candidates, about whether that same sort of fiscal management will be continued going forward?

A new mayor brings in a new team. This mayor has had a great team in terms of finances. Maybe some of [the candidates] will keep some of the top-flight financial people that Tom Menino has had at the helm, I don’t know; but it is the prerogative of a new administration to bring their own team on. From my point of view, everything we do starts with how much money you have available to do it. If you don’t have the money, you can’t fulfill anyone’s wish list. It’s crucially important.

You headed the PILOT Task Force, on Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, and the upshot was a plan that I think was going to bring in some $25 million for the city; I still hear people criticize PILOT; did you accomplish enough with that?

It’s supposed to bring in over five years an extra $30 million, about $6 million a year, but it also increases or ramps up the benefits that each of the institutions are paying, not just cash benefits but direct service benefits to the city. The increase this year was a palpable one. We had a net decrease in local aid from the state of $19 million, so thank God we have the PILOT increases to offset that. Otherwise it comes in the form of increased property taxes. When I first got on the council, we used to get about 55 percent of our money from property taxes, and 30 percent from state aid. This year it was 68 percent from property taxes and 17 percent from state aid. The state has kind of walked away over the last 10 years. We don’t get income taxes, and we don’t get sales taxes, those all go to the Commonwealth. We are constrained by property tax, and further constrained by Prop 2 ½. The only thing that isn’t limited is new growth, and thank God for the South Boston waterfront and places like that, where we’re continuing to grow the city.

There’s a lot of new growth coming, at least theoretically, in the city; will that start to ease some of the financial problems?

I think so. There’s also a way to spend money. You spend it on programmatic needs and non-programmatic needs. I had a conversation with the mayor and his financial team a couple of years ago, when we were talking about closing libraries, about refinancing convention center bonds. At the end of the discussion we moved to refinance our convention center interest obligations, and saved $18 million in interest. That money, instead of going to a non-programmatic need like interest payments, went instead into the General Fund to be used in the budget for programmatic needs. Those are the types of things I’ve been able to accomplish as a financial leader on the city council.

There could also be a new stream of income from a new casino in East Boston. You rejected Dan Conley’s attempt to get the council to move toward a city-wide vote, but even assuming it remains an East Boston vote, are there concerns you have about what the mitigation package should include for the city?

Certainly I have concerns about the mitigation package. The mayor has taken hold, with the tacit support of the East Boston officials, of the negotiating process. I don’t know if that’s in the state legislation that it falls to the mayor, but in this case our mayor is someone who is not easily denied, and he’s taken the initiative to negotiate the mitigation package. We all want to see what the mitigation package is, and if it’s good for the people of Boston. But I think the mayor’s heart is in the right place, and I think it will be a good mitigation package when it gets done. I rejected Dan Conley’s call because he had sent me a letter saying we should be holding hearings in all parts of the city about the casino question. There were two parts to that. One part is that under the legislation is created what is called a Governing Body, and it’s the mayor and the city council together. We could have held 10 hearings all over the city, chasing our tail without knowing what the mitigation package is, and then have the mayor come in and say: “whatever you guys do, I’m going to veto it anyway.” Is that a productive use of our time? I don’t think so. And I secondly don’t think that the casino question should be the overarching reason why [a councilor] gets a vote or doesn’t get a vote after two years of having a record on a whole myriad of issues. The casino thing could steal the oxygen from other municipal issues, and I didn’t want to play into that. So I sent the DA a strongly worded letter as to why I believed his letter was not valid on its face. You reported that [laughs] hours after it happened!

I want to ask you about a controversy from early this year, about how the vote went for Maureen Feeney to become City Clerk. And there was also concern about the redistricting process, where Bill Linehan was chosen to chair it, when he seemed to have a direct interest in how he was drawing his own lines. Do you feel that, while you’ve been president, the council has been fully open, transparent, and fair in going about its business?

The redistricting piece was never more open, and never more transparent. We had two full years of it, culminating with districts that everybody was happy with – well, we’re not going to get sued over it. I don’t know if everybody’s happy with it, but it seemed to work for everybody. I think it was all very transparent. The other part of transparency is I just put the city of Boston’s checkbook online, through my own motion last year. That’s now in what they call a soft launch; if you go on you can see the city’s finances online.

And the city clerk vote?

The city clerk vote was a judgment call by the city council president, myself, at the time, that we could have waited until March when [Rosaria Salerno’s] term was up, or just taken the vote on the first day. I had plenty of backlash from the Globe about the process that led to Maureen Feeney becoming the city clerk, and it was funny because at the same point in time the governor was picking Steve Crosby, in a process that was more closed than ours, to be the head of the gaming commission. There was not a hue and cry over that. It was simply that the city council should not be picking the city clerk, apparently. The city council had picked the clerk since 1909, and for the first time ever we had that open process, and people actually applied for it online, and were interviewed, and it came down to former city councilor Feeney getting the job. But the gist of the Globe‘s piece was that we, the city council, shouldn’t have jurisdiction over the city clerk. The salary is $120,000, and the Globe cared deeply about that, but didn’t care about the hundreds of millions of dollars that the Gaming Commission is going to oversee – not to the same degree that it cared about the little quirk in the charter that gives us the authority in choosing a city clerk. I’m still getting beaten up by the Globe over that; every so often they take a run at me.

I want to ask you about one last thing, because there has been a major change in your life since your last re-election, and I’m wondering whether the new Mrs. Bridget Simmons Murphy has made you a better councilor?

[Laughs] I better be careful, you’re trying to get me into trouble. Bridget Simmons Murphy is a great addition in my life, a stabilizing force, and a great partner. Let me say that for the record.


Read more Boston City Council Candidate Chats. This interview has been edited for length.