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Mayor vows more beautiful, safer city

By Andrea Estes, Globe Staff | January 12, 2005

Mayor Thomas M. Menino pledged last night to use $1 million in leftover Democratic National Convention funds to beautify city neighborhoods and said he plans to hold parties across the city to celebrate Boston's 375th birthday this year.

With an election to a possible fourth term 10 months away, Menino returned to familiar themes in his 12th State of the City address. He pledged more affordable housing and better schools and crime-fighting measures.

After a year of working on a national stage as host of the convention, Menino sought again to portray himself as the neighborhood mayor, as he did after coming to office in 1993.

Calling himself "everyone's neighbor," he shied from big policy pronouncements, choosing instead to reinforce images of a mayor who has not forgotten his humble origins. It's a formula that has earned him high ratings. He emphasized his schedule of ribbon cuttings, groundbreakings, and classroom visits. He promised parties.

"For the city's birthday, we will host events in every neighborhood of the city, inviting all of our residents to share in the celebration of Boston's great epic, the story of neighbors who support one another where it matters most," he said. "Whether your family has lived in Boston for one year or for generations, we will celebrate you with honor and pride." Aides said officials hope to raise private donations to pay for the parties.

Menino, 61, was greeted with a standing ovation as he took the stage at the newly renovated Cutler Majestic Theatre. The crowd of more than 1,000 -- including Governor Mitt Romney, Red Sox chief executive Larry Lucchino, former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran, and Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi-- interrupted his speech with applause 19 times, reflecting what Menino later called an upbeat mood "all over the city."

Saying that a surplus of cash from the Democratic National Convention "will allow the city to shine for years to come," Menino said Boston will undertake a citywide beautification program. The convention host committee voted Friday to give the city $1 million, out of a $6.5 million surplus of private donations.

"Everyone felt proud about how the city looked before the convention," said David Passafaro, president of the convention Host Committee. "They can put the money in the fund, invest it, and beautify neighborhoods, with flowers or sidewalk repairs, for years to come. The mayor requested a sum of money, and the board of directors looked very happily at the request." The committee will decide later how the rest of the money will be spent.

Menino, asserting last night that the state of the city is strong, boasted of an improved quality of life citywide and touted accomplishments that include improving city schools, making streets safer through Operation Neighborhood Shield, and approving more than 3,600 units of housing in 2004.

"When I first became mayor, I saw a school system that failed to educate our students," he said. "I saw violence and crime that threatened our neighborhoods, and I saw a bleak housing market with 'For Sale' signs throughout the city."

Menino said he would expand recreation programs to "strengthen the fabric of our neighborhoods" and produce safer communities. He also pledged to spend $1 million to bridge the healthcare gap between minority and white residents.

He vowed to increase the number of kindergarten slots for 4-year-olds by 50 percent, adding 500. He also pledged to provide within five years the chance for all 4-year-olds to go to full-day kindergarten. "Boston will be the first city in the nation to achieve this," he said. That will cost about $2.4 million from the city's budget, aides said.

He introduced a modest plan to target human service resources in high crime neighborhoods, called B-SMART, and pledged to grant city permits for 10,000 new units of housing by 2007.

While past speeches have contained major new policies and programs, there were no proposals that would significantly change the way the city operates.

He lamented the city's reliance on property taxes to fund services, saying Boston needs new revenue sources, but he did not propose any.

The Democratic National Convention, which he mentioned only twice, generated $163 million in economic activity, he said. The convention added millions to the state's coffers in meals and sales taxes, but the city was able to keep only a tiny share, he said, sparking a long ovation. Menino has unsuccessfully battled Beacon Hill for more control over such tax revenues in the past. He did not propose any new initiatives last night.

Councilor at Large Maura Hennigan, who is considering a run against Menino this fall, accused the mayor of letting his political ambitions dictate his agenda for the city.

"Boston's neighborhoods should shine each and every year, not just during the 375th anniversary or an election year," she said. "We had an opportunity last year, during the DNC, to showcase all of our neighborhoods, but we focused only on the ones surrounding the FleetCenter while neglecting the others."

She also accused Menino of making promises that he doesn't keep. "They do a few things; then the plan fizzles," she asserted.

In one State of the City speech, for example, the mayor pledged to open five neighborhood schools. Only three have opened, she said.

School officials said yesterday that the city could not find appropriate sites for the two additional schools and state financing for the construction was no longer available.

Leonard Alkins, head of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, described Menino's speech as "smoke and mirrors," with assertions that clash with reality.

"Do not insult my intelligence by saying we have one of the best public school systems in the country," he said "It's a disgrace. I don't care what kind of bogus awards they're giving to the superintendent of schools. They don't see what we see.

"And crime? The mayor must live in a different city than I see here," Alkins said. "Crime is on the uptick. We have so many unsolved murders in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. Is it something we ignore because it's in the black community?"

But others said the speech was a credible way to launch a campaign, though Menino did not specifically mention a reelection bid or acknowledge that he pledged in 1993 to serve only two terms.

"He's comfortable in the job, and he's obviously seeking reelection," said George Regan, a media consultant who served as press secretary to former mayor Kevin H. White. "It sets the tone for what the campaign will be about. Boston is a very livable city. He wants to continue that feel-good theme. If I were designing an ad campaign around the speech, it would be that this is a livable city that can only get better."

Said former city councilor Michael McCormack: "In the speech, he's doing what he does best, the urban mechanic model that focuses on schools, housing, and healthcare. His speech is about how he's delivered on his past promises and will continue to work hard to make sure Boston residents enjoy outstanding delivery of municipal services as defined by the mayor.

"If you look at the history of the 11 years of the Menino administration," he said, "it's not about grand promises. It's about delivering services."

From The Boston Globe

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