It seemed an obscure item, buried on Page 342 in Volume II of Mayor Thomas M. Menino's budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1: The city of Boston plans to use $2.025 million in loans for "site investigation and engineering services on two piers at Marine Industrial Park."
That section of the budget whizzed through the City Council last week with a unanimous vote and nary a question.
But the obscure line item is actually tagged for a controversial plan: studies of the mayor's proposed site for a new City Hall on the South Boston waterfront.
Councilor at Large Michael F. Flaherty, who has vehemently opposed moving City Hall, grilled city officials at a public meeting yesterday about the expense, saying it seems ill advised when schools and other critical city services need more funding.
"Spending millions of dollars on a study when we already know the public is opposed - it's like opening a window and throwing money out," he said.
In an interview after the hearing, he said that he did not realize he had already voted to approve the funding for the studies. Nor, he said, did he realize that the council had approved $850,000 last year for a study of the site, known as Drydock 4. Flaherty accused the administration of slipping it into the 417-page budget in a bid to fool the council.
"The way they listed it, no one would know that that was Drydock Number 4 or for moving City Hall," Flaherty said. "Had it said that, I would have voted no. It wouldn't have passed."
City finance officials said the expenses, like all those that make up the city's multibillion-dollar budget every year, are plainly listed by Cabinet position and not buried in an attempt to pull one over on councilors or the public.
"It's not hidden; this is the way the document's structured," said Lisa Signori, the mayor's Cabinet chief for administration and finance. "The page number is irrelevant. There's an index."
Countering Flaherty's political barbs, city development officials said money for the studies is part of the capital expense budget and could not be used for operating costs such as those for schools and other city services.
Furthermore, said Larry Mammoli, director of engineering and facilities management for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the results of the study will be necessary to determine future development of the city-owned site, whether City Hall is built there or not.
The City Hall relocation proposal has drawn heated opposition since the mayor first announced his vision for a waterfront facility in December 2006. The criticism has not only flowed from city councilors such as Flaherty, a South Boston resident, but from architects who want the current City Hall preserved. Some have petitioned the city's Landmarks' Commission to protect the behemoth concrete structure, a brutalist-style Cold War era building constructed in the 1960s.
The proposed studies are for site inspection and evaluation, including environmental reviews. The scope of one study includes determining whether Drydock 4 site can accommodate buildings with a total area of 476,000 square feet, including a year-round performance center, a parking garage with a capacity of 300 to 400 cars and public spaces in and around the buildings. The pavilion, which the mayor wants to host cultural events, is expected to be about 105,000 square feet.
One city watchdog, Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded group, said yesterday that he supports spending the money to do the studies.
"I don't think that's a logical site for a new City Hall, but it's conceivable that there could be other projects and therefore a need to assess what development could be built," Tyler said.
Flaherty, seeking to delay the City Hall move, called in March 2007 for an in-depth yearlong study of the proposal by a consulting firm and said he wanted to form a task force that would study other possible locations for a new hall.
He opposes the South Boston site because he says it would not blend with the character of the neighborhood, because businesses in the area are opposed, and it would be inconvenient for many Boston citizens to gain access.
Council President Maureen Feeney created a special council committee to examine the proposed move in January. Flaherty, who was named chairman, has yet to have any hearings.
Yesterday he proposed a new study: how to keep City Hall where it is, but make it better. Flaherty said he hopes to begin hearings after Labor Day.
Donovan Slack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.