Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Interview with Susan Passoni - Candidate for Boston City Council

On Monday evening, I got the chance to talk with Susan Passoni, a resident of Boston's South End who is running for Boston City Council Seat formerly occupied by the late Jimmy Kelly. Since then, Passoni has been endorsed by the Boston Globe. The election will be this Tuesday, May 15th where she will face South Boston resident Bill Linehan.

Passoni told me that she's running for the City Council because she's frustrated by the high cost of living in Boston, the continued rise in crime and the need for continued improvement in the public schools. She noted that she would like to see more police officers on the street, and a return to community policing. She'd also like to see more predictable funding for programs that target at-risk youth.

We chatted at length particularly on various ways the City of Boston could relieve some of the pressure off the property tax. Passoni noted that Boston currently collects 57% of all its revenue from real estate taxes, and 42% of that is borne by residents. She suggested that Boston raise the cap on high-value commercial property and ask large non-profits, particularly universities, to pay their fair share for the services they take advantage of. She was not ready support a potential meals tax in Boston, though she agreed that cities and towns should have the ability to levy these taxes. She noted that her experience in finance makes her particularly suited to make sure Boston is making the most out of the money it collects.

One of her more intriguing ideas was to work with local universities in trying to bolster underperforming schools. In addition, I asked her about the proposed BU Biolab in the South End; she said that she is "not a fan."

If you're interested in supporting Susan Passoni's campaign, you can call her campaign office, which is 617-262-6626, visit her website or drop by 59 Dartmouth St in the South End and they'll put you to work.

Read the full interview inside
Q: I'll start with the obvious question: Why are you running for Boston City Council?

It's pretty simple. I ran for this same seat in 2005 and the reason I chose to run then was because I was frustrated by the fact that many of the people that were living in the city of Boston – families, working middle class – were leaving the city because of the high cost of living here in terms of housing, whether they were renters or owners, and the continued rise in crime and the need for continued improvement in our public schools.

I'm running again because, if anything those issues have only worsened. When I ran in 2005 the city of Boston was in the top ten most expensive cities to live in, now it's in the top five. I don't need to tell you what's happened with our murder rate. So, I think we need different solutions, different approaches, better ways to understand the problems and that is something I would like to bring to the table in terms of my background.
Q: Well, let's talk about some of your ideas for some of those solutions. What do you think the city can do to lower the murder rate?
I think first and foremost one of the things we have is our unsolved murder rate is one of the worst in the country. Whether it's bringing in better technology, more police on the street, we need to resolve some of those unsolved murders because many times they're repeat offenders. So that would be one thing. We definitely need to ensure that monies that were committed by the Mayor -- when Commissioner Davis came on board he promised them additional funding -- make sure again that money was spent wisely, bring back more community policing, programs that are targeting our most at-risk youth, a lot of those programs have been cut drastically. We're seeing the consequences of that and so I think we need to focus on bringing back some more funding to these programs so they can have a more positive impact. Also, hiring more police.

So those are some of the things I would ensure that not only the money was spent wisely and effectively, but that it was continually budgeted year after year so that we saw improvement. Just because you throw whatever the number is, five or twenty or thirty million incremental dollars into our public safety budget doesn't necessarily mean that that's going to be the fix-all. So, we need to make sure that the methods we're deploying in terms of trying to bring murder rates down, aggravated assault rates down, that we continue to build on that, and I think that's really key.
Q: Now, in terms of funding, I read a Brian McGrory Column last week where Councilor Sam Yoon introduced the idea of a half-percent sales tax in Boston that would be earmarked specifically for public safety. Is that something you'd be interested in supporting?
It's definitely a step in the right direction, but it's not enough. I don't have the article in front of me, but if I'm not mistaken they were talking about generating maybe $30 million a year in doing so? That's not an insignificant amount of money, but how is that going to be divided? It's one thing to say you're going to give it to public safety, but does that mean it's going to go directly to police? Is it going to go some to fire? Is it going to go to programs I was talking about like some of these youth programs that are very instrumental in bringing down a lot of the youth violence that we've seen in recent years? So, I don't know how it's going to get allocated, that's going to be one thing.

I think we need to look at a bigger picture solution in terms of generating incremental in order to make a huge difference because we're talking about $30 million on a $2 billion budget. I think you need to be looking in the hundreds of millions, especially when you think about all the other areas in the city that we're seeing challenges in. Again, the real estate tax problem we have here.
Q: I think that something that's on the minds of not just everybody in Boston, but also everybody in Massachusetts, is the heavy reliance on that real estate tax. What do you think the city in particular can to take the pressure off of that?
I think there are a variety of things you can do. First and foremost, right now if you look at the city of Boston, it gets about 57% of its revenue from real estate taxes. However, where the real bite comes from, the shift is being borne more and more by the residents. In the past five years the percentage of real estate taxes for residential property has gone from 30% to 42%. In five years. That's a big swing.

I think if you were to talk to residents throughout the district or throughout the city I know in the conversations I've had it is the same thing over and over: "I've had this house in my family for three generations, my kids can't afford to live in this town. It kills me that I can't see them that often, but what's killing me even more is that I'm on a fixed income and I'd love to be able to pass this home onto them, but I'm not sure I can do that." Or, "I bought my apartment in the 1970s in the South End and I thought it was great, but now I'm paying a third of what I paid for the apartment in real estate taxes. I can't afford that anymore." A lot of these people are the fabric of the community. They're really important to embrace and try to make that pressure less intense, because it really has intensified in the last several years.

So one of the things I would look at is if residential rates are going up, that means commercial's going down. The way it's structured in the city of Boston is there's a cap on how high commercial taxes can go. I'm not talking about small businesses, I'm talking about the large, multi-story office towers that we have in the downtown area, etc. These buildings are getting taxed on assessed values that are pretty much 50% of what they would be assessed at whereas residents' taxes are based on roughly 90% of their assessed value. So I think we need to have a better balance there. That's number one.

Number two is that over half our land is occupied by tax-exempt organizations. Collectively, these organizations contribute 1% of revenues. Now, granted it's completely arbitrary payment, it's not required, but the problem with that is that we need to get more in return for the services we provide to these organizations. I recognize that a lot of these institutions are fledgling; they're barely surviving. But for those that are more financially sound --
Q: Some of the larger universities, I don't think anybody's going to argue that they're going out of business any time soon.
Or that they're going to move. Especially if they continue to expand as well. I think if you were to walk around the city of Boston 20 years ago, and left and came back and saw how much these universities have expanded, I think it would be shocking to anyone just in terms of the sheer density that they have commanded in terms of their property.

So I would argue that if these institutions are going to sit on half our land and collectively are only contributing 1% of our revenue, that we need to get more in return for the services we're providing, whether it's emergency medical, fire, police, snow removal, in some cases trash removal. I would be a proponent of pushing that, and having worked in the corporate world and private sector for 20 years, I'm very accustomed to negotiating and dealing with CEOs and COOs and people of that level. That's effectively what it would be like negotiating with the university. That's something that I would really like to work on, to see if we can have a better balance, to get something in return for the land that they're sitting on.

If they can't, if an institution isn't willing to step up to the plate, maybe they could do something in kind. We have a lot of schools in the City of Boston that are not doing well, and if they can take some of these schools under their wing or maybe bring in programs that have been cut, like arts, music, physical education, mentoring programs, special education. As I'm sure you know, a lot of these colleges and universities have fabulous education departments and they have students who would love to practice in an environment. I think it would be a mutually beneficial relationship that we can build, and I would love to see that happen as well.

When you're looking at a university like Harvard University that's got a 30 billion dollar endowment, that's probably generating between $150M+ in interest, and they're contributing $1.5M to the City of Boston a year, I really struggle with that. Especially now that they sit on more land in Boston than they do in Cambridge.

The other issue is, BRA has a number of parcels of land in the city, thousands of acres, that's probably worth, I don't know, maybe $2 billion give or take. If we were to remove those tax waivers, that would probably bring in about $50M+.

Then we have a lot of tax breaks for developers. That's another significant nut. So when you talk about trying to diversify revenues and trying to generate incremental revenues to fund programs and add more funding to our public safety or our public works or whatever the division is, you can't just rely on one thing. You need to have a multifaceted approach to ensure that you have this continual stream, because you can't just rely on one thing, and that's something that I would really try to work hard on because of my finance background.
Q: One other potential source of revenue that I know the Mayor and Governor are pushing, is to allow cities and towns to raise their own meal and hotel taxes. Would you support that if the legislature would allow it?
I would definitely look at it. I don't want to do it to the detriment of our travel and tourism business, but at the same time the real key of that legislation to me is the home rule that exists in Massachusetts. It's effectively legislation that allows municipalities to self-govern. However, there is a complete oxymoron in that because the one thing they're not allowed to do as municipalities is really control their revenue. They're not allowed to underwrite a bond. They're not allowed to raise fees or taxes unless they go back to the state legislature.

To me, I don't know how you can be a self-governing institution, or organization, or municipality, or township, if you don't have the ability to do that. The analogy I always use is, say you have a 12-year old kid and you say, it's time for you to go out on your own and I'm really supportive of that, and they're completely dependent on you for money because they're too young too work, and then you're like, "See ya!" You can't do that. You really need, in order to be able to do the things to make a city thrive, more often than not it requires funding of one sort or another. That, to me, is the most important part of that legislation, breaking that financial stronghold that the Commonwealth has.
Q: You're on the board of the Excel Academy Charter School. Would you like to see more charter schools in Boston?
Personally, I would like to see improvement in our public school system. I really would. I am a huge advocate for education and to me, what's so important about it is that I know what a good education did for me, and the opportunities it provided. I think every child in the City of Boston should have those same opportunities. If you have a good education, it gives you choice. You may not want to go to college. You may not want to go to business school, or graduate school. But at least if you have a really good education, you can make decisions like that. You can say, I'd rather be a tradesman, or I'd rather be a fireman, or maybe I'll get an associates degree. But it gives you choice, and to me that's so powerful. To be able to put that in a child's hands, the sooner we get to them the better.

Like I was saying earlier with some of the universities, if they could step up and work with some of our most challenged schools, where a large percentage of kids are failing the MCAS and we could really turn that around. Again, not that I think the MCAS is the be-all and end-all of measurement, because it's not. Nevertheless, it is a guide. If we could give these kids the ability to pass an exam and give them encouragement and support and involve their parents, it gives them an incredibly powerful effect, I've seen it happen in Excel as an example, and it can be done. Just because these kids don't have the means, it doesn't mean they don't have the minds. I really think we need to focus on what it's going to take to get these schools, to get our kids to have the best education possible. To me that's a priority. And in some communities, unfortunately, you don't have schools.

So in the meantime, as we're working towards improving them, let's do give some parents choice, so their kids have a chance. But I don't think it's one or the other, and that's too often the argument. We have to do it concurrently. We have to work on improving our public schools, making sure they're the best they can be, giving teachers the flexibility and the curriculum so they can have an impact, and getting parental involvement, because that's such a critical part of it as well, and I think you can really see a change.

What I would advocate for is, let's look at best practices. Whether it's a public school, a pilot school, a parochial, a charter, whatever it is, why do these schools succeed? What have they done to ensure that these kids can move on to higher education? And let's apply them to our most challenged schools, to see. Not all of these solutions are going to work, because a lot of it could be cultural, but you know what, at least you're trying to take a different strategy and trying to take what's continuing to be a problem with our achievement gap. That, to me, is very important.
Q: Today was the first day of the Biotech Conference in Boston, and there were protests regarding the BU Level 4 Biolab. Do you have an opinion on the construction of that lab? That would be in your district, if I'm not mistaken.
It's in my neighborhood. It's probably half a mile away from where I live. I've never been a fan. The one thing I am totally, completely supportive of is bringing new businesses to our city. We need an economic revival, and that's how you're going to do it, by bringing business and industry to the city of Boston.

With the Biolevel 4, the concern I have is that first and foremost, it's in a very densely populated area, not to mention the fact that it's abutting a major access in and out of the city. If anything were to happen, and I'm not even talking conspiracy theory, let's just be pragmatic and say it could be 4:00 Friday afternoon in July, and everybody knows what 93 looks like, it is bumper to bumper and moves maybe at 5 or 10 miles an hour, and if you had a situation, let's say like a traffic helicopter could lose control and crash into the biolab, what's going to happen? How do these people get evacuated?

The other issue that I also think is critical is, do we have the right legislation in place for oversight? I know Representative Gloria Fox has underwritten some legislation. I think it's critical that that gets passed, because we don't have the legislation in place that would oversee a facility of that type, because we've never had one before.

In addition to that, my other concern is that our police and our fire and all our other public safety officials, are they well-equipped, well-educated, well-trained, for haz-mat removal, evacuation procedures, the proper uniforms and garments they have to wear to ensure their own safety. These are things that I still don't believe have been fully covered, and that's a concern. If you're going to put something in, these to me are very critical things to get done. What's an alternative evacuation route? If it happens and 93 is jammed, where do people go? Where do they get out, in the South End and lower Roxbury? How does that happen? I don't know, it just seems that we don't have enough options in terms of getting in and out of the city that are big enough, that are going to allow people to get out efficiently, quickly, and with no casualties. That's my concern. I hope that Representative Fox moves forward on her legislation and others will follow in her footsteps.
Q: How can people get involved in your campaign, even though there's not much time left?
We would love help, and they can either call our office, which is 617-262-6626, or they can visit our website, which is There's a link there or they can email us at One of those three ways will either get you in touch with Reuben Kantor or Ed Marin, who works as our field director, and we would love to put you to work. We're at 59 Dartmouth Street in the South End between Warren Avenue and Appleton.