Who's The Boss? The Next Mayor Should Remember That Basic Services Are Not Just Favors For The Few.

Posted: April 30, 1999

Ed Rendell became a local hero by giving Philadelphia fiscal stability - and pizzazz. Yet city residents are still disgruntled with their government.

They feel ill-served by a Rubik's Cube bureaucracy. They cite slow-motion employees who couldn't care less. ("What I think of as a right," said a participant in The Inquirer's Citizen Voices, "they think of as a favor.")

They see an insider game where neighborhood blight gets fixed faster if you're tight with the ward leader; where a well-connected felon can get his mitts on millions intended to help the homeless, where big donors reap lucrative contracts. These citizens are brimming with ideas, but they see an entrenched system that doesn't listen.

What's more, they know the tax burden pushes businesses as well as residents to the suburbs. Not only do Philadelphians want wage-tax reductions to continue, they also wonder if the Rendell pace should be quickened. Yet they're aware tax-cutting will become very hard if an economic downturn cuts revenue and raises the demand for services.

They don't count on Harrisburg or Washington meeting the city's needs.

In a nutshell, the city government ought to give excellent service no matter who you are. It shouldn't throw tax dollars down rat holes or lavish them on pinstripe patronage. It must be open to the ideas of the ultimate bosses: 1.5 million residents. And these efforts must fit into a long-term vision of a lower-taxed, quality-service city that can compete for employers and residents.

So how are the five Democratic candidates responding to these concerns?

On making city government more customer-friendly and efficient, they're all for it, natch. John White Jr., for example, cites the service improvements he made as executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Marty Weinberg touts mini-City Halls in neighborhoods - which likely would serve as rest homes for party hacks.

None of the candidates' platforms in this area comes close to the bold, detailed blueprint recently published by the City Controller's Office, titled Philadelphia: A New Urban Direction. It's crammed with bright ideas, such as making sure all city departments use the same map for dividing the city up into service areas and providing a lot more services via the Internet.

This book also suggests areas where the civil-service system ought to be made more flexible. In their platforms, the candidates have shied away from this level of specificity. State Rep. Dwight Evans supports "the right work-rule changes"; former City Council President John F. Street supports unspecified "productivity reforms."

Work rules, compensation and benefits will be an early challenge for the next mayor because major contracts expire in 2000. The common vow among these wannabes is to be "firm but fair" - or mush to that effect.

One can only speculate how each would measure up to this big-stakes task. Mr. Evans, an independent-minded lawmaker who has especially riled the teachers union, sounds determined to win major contract changes. As former members of Council, Mr. Street and Happy Fernandez deserve credit for supporting Mayor Rendell's demand for money-saving concessions in 1992. Most of organized labor lined up behind Messrs. Weinberg and White; union leaders must see something there they like.

Given the limits on city revenue and the need for more tax relief, Philadelphia must streamline its operations. Here again, the candidates should crib more from the controller's playbook.

Mr. Weinberg rightly stresses that the city and the school district could save millions by consolidating purchasing - a point that the controller's report supports. The option of privatizing certain functions also has money-saving potential, but with the exception of Mr. Evans, these Democrats' agendas stay away from that hot button.

As for Philadelphians' wish for a government that listens more to them and less to special interests, one important reform would be to limit how much any donor can give to a candidate. In this race, Dwight Evans is the leading voice for campaign-finance reform.

As for other ways to make government listen better to citizens, it's hard to distinguish among the hopefuls. Indeed, there's always a tension between high efficiency and high citizen involvement. Why must the next mayor seek both? Because the citizens demanding excellent service are the boss.

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