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Cutting costs, corruption on Hub’s legislative agenda

St. John Barned-Smith

Mayor Thomas M. Menino revealed the city’s legislative agenda for the new year last Thursday, a wish list aimed at enhancing Boston’s fiscal flexibility while featuring initiatives from paving the way for single-sex schools to giving Boston police the ability to ticket wayward cyclists.

“In these challenging economic times, we cannot rely on business as usual,” Menino said in a statement. “Now more than ever, we need the necessary reforms … to make the changes that will protect our strong foundation, the gains we have made, our priorities, and move our city forward.”

One proposal that Menino wants Boston’s contingent in the state Legislature to prioritize in the new session involves instituting changes to the state’s accidental disability retirement allowance.

Under the mayor’s proposal, the amount of disability compensation that state employees could receive would be based on a percentage of their regular average yearly salary from the 12-month period preceding their retirement.

The Mayor’s Office says the changes would tamp down on what it called the “king for a day” abuse of the disability pension system. The stormy issue of systemic abuse earned headlines when the Boston Globe reported in January 2008 that more than 100 city firefighters had significantly increased the size of their tax-free pensions by claiming career-ending injuries sustained while they were filling in for superiors at higher pay grades, with some substitute stints covering only one day of work.

Another Menino priority would allow Massachusetts municipalities and townships to have the same bargaining power as the state when buying health insurance.

As it stands, “cities and towns must individually negotiate and approve any health benefit plan change with unions,” according to a Mayor’s Office statement. The proposed initiative would allow towns to purchase health plans for multiple unions, or, conversely, to band together to buy health care in bulk.

Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonprofit organization that researches public policy and budget issues, said the proposals would afford the city some room to breathe in the face of funding reductions.

“Those are very important changes,” Widmer said. “At a time when the state is going to be cutting aid to cities and towns, this absolutely critical legislation [would] give the cities and towns the power to cut their own costs.”

Cutting costs and making government operations run more smoothly was a constant theme in crafting the agenda for the new legislative session, according to mayoral spokesman Nick Martin.

“Given the current economic climate, we are pursuing legislative initiatives [not only] to generate revenue at a local level, but also [to] combine that with initiatives to improve government efficiencies,” Martin said.

The mayor is also proposing legislation that would attempt to clarify policies regarding promotion and career advancement for police officers and firefighters, as well as a bill that would allow for the creation of single-sex charter schools and several bills related to energy efficiency.

Menino also wants to spread across the state tenant protections already in effect in Boston. Those protections enforce the rights of residents of foreclosed properties, instituting a statewide just cause eviction policy, a pilot diversion program and statewide foreclosure registration.

State Rep. Martin Walsh said he plans to sponsor some of the tenant-protection legislation promoted by Menino in the State House during this legislative session.

“One of the things [the legislation] does is … prevent tenants who’ve paid their rent and are in good standing from being evicted,” the Dorchester Democrat said.

The bill also allows tenants to pay their rent directly to banks or mortgage companies, as opposed to defaulting landlords, if the property in which they live has gone into foreclosure.

Other specific bills would alter the building code to allow “landlords to sub-meter individual tenant space” in commercial office spaces larger than 10,000 square feet. The bill is designed to promote energy efficiency, which the Mayor’s Office identified as a key goal for the new session.

On the issue of public safety, Menino’s agenda supports the installation of surveillance cameras in school zones to monitor drivers who exceed the 20-mile-per-hour speed limit, as well as those who fail to stop when school buses drop off and pick up students. According to the Mayor’s Office, the bill comes in response to the death of Marie Conley, a Boston Police Department crossing guard killed in a car accident while working last October.