No Blank Slate High hopes meet tough tests - crime, a budget, contracts - when Michael Nutter becomes mayor tomorrow.

Posted: January 06, 2008

Shortly after 10 tomorrow morning, Michael Nutter will be sworn in as Philadelphia's 98th mayor and take the helm of a city that is hungry for his leadership and plainly expecting great things from his administration.

After the inaugural party winds down, enormous and pressing challenges await Nutter in his second-floor office in City Hall.

In less than a month, he must craft a budget and a five-year plan that reflect his priorities. He must finish putting together his government. He must find a way to get his agenda through City Council. And he must work out deals with the municipal unions before their contracts expire June 30.

And that's the bare minimum.

For Nutter to get off to a truly robust start, political leaders and city government veterans said, he will need to accomplish much more. Such as making early headway on reducing crime or rolling out new policing strategies. And establishing a solid relationship with Harrisburg. And maybe launching a symbolic, high-profile initiative (like Mayor Street's towing of abandoned cars) that sets a tone for his administration.

And much, much more, all while coping with expectations so high they may well be impossible to meet.

"It's a crazy first six or nine months, until you get through that budget cycle, that labor cycle. There's a lot of issues out there," said Gregory Rost, who was chief of staff during Ed Rendell's second term as mayor in the 1990s.

As challenging as Nutter's early days will surely be, there are reasons to expect his administration will get off to a strong start.

In addition to possessing his own strengths, which include an encyclopedic knowledge of city government and a sharp intellect, Nutter has assembled a cabinet that most observers consider talented and experienced.

He can also draw on a deep well of goodwill, as evidenced by his strong performance in the Democratic primary, his historically wide margin of victory in the November general election, and his near-celebrity status on the streets.

"My sense is, people want him to succeed," said Rost, now chief of staff to University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann. "I think he'll have a nice honeymoon."

The budget as road map

Arguably Nutter's most important and pressing task will be crafting a budget and a five-year plan, which he is scheduled to present to Council in just 25 days.

These won't be simple accounting documents. Rather, they will serve as the first publicly available blueprint of Nutter's first-term goals. He must decide where to invest, where to cut, and which initiatives to tackle first.

That would be tough enough even if Nutter used the same budgeting model Street relied on. He won't.

During the campaign, Nutter promised to "revolutionize" the city's budgeting process by switching to an "outcome" method that ties performance to spending by putting a price tag on every service city government provides, such as filling a pothole or operating a swimming pool.

Although it's not clear if that switch will be completed in the first budget cycle, Nutter's budget won't much resemble Street's.

"Our intention is for the document to look a lot different than how it's looked recently," said Rob Dubow, who will be Nutter's finance director.

Dubow said he, Nutter and others in the new administration already had been looking at preliminary numbers and trading ideas.

"It's lot more than putting out a document. It's really laying out what we think needs to be done," Dubow said Friday while attending a two-day Nutter cabinet retreat at Penn. "But it's not like we've just dropped in from Mars today and have to learn all these issues."

Winning on the fourth floor

Once the budget is done, it will require Council approval - an early test of Nutter's relations with his former colleagues. As Street discovered in his second term, Council can cripple the agenda of any mayor, so getting its 17 members on board is another priority for Nutter.

"The fact is, if Michael can't win on the fourth floor, then nothing's going to happen," political consultant Larry Ceisler said, referring to Council's City Hall chambers.

Council members fervently agreed.

"Having served in Council himself and experienced the tension and consequences of an unhealthy relationship with the mayor, I hope that he will solidify that relationship very quickly," said Maria Qui┬Łones Sanchez, who will be sworn in as a new Council member tomorrow.

Nutter has already clearly exercised his influence on Council several times since winning the May primary, and most members appear eager to get along with him. But the budget - particularly any cuts Nutter proposes - could test that relationship.

A cooperative Council would strengthen the mayor's position in the critical contract negotiations with the municipal unions.

Nutter has been careful in his public remarks on the contract negotiations, saying he will be "firm but fair" and refusing to discuss details. Nonetheless, political observers and union activists expect he will seek concessions on health-care costs and pensions, two highly sensitive issues for organized labor.

Informal discussions between Nutter's team and the unions have begun, and there have been no early public fireworks. If the mood sours and negotiations go badly, Nutter's first six months could be rocky.

Looking for the right splash

There is also a lot of early work to be done in City Hall if Nutter hopes to change fundamentally the way city departments do business and make them more customer-focused, creative and efficient.

"He needs to really back up these new appointees, give them the authority and support to shake up these departments," said political activist Marc Stier, a former Council candidate. "There's going to be kickback, and he's going to have to stand up to it. If he does that sooner rather than later, it's going to really set up his administration."

Developer John Westrum, who has served on a Nutter transition team advisory committee, said he hoped the mayor-elect would give his appointees the political cover to make unpopular decisions.

"What I've seen is there is a desire in city government to do things better, but people feel hampered - that it's always been done that way and there's no way to change it," Westrum said. "Nutter could give his commissioners the mandate, the power they need, to ram through changes."

Nutter would also do well, political observers said, to quickly pull off a tangible, highly visible initiative that sends an unambiguous message about the direction his administration will take. Like Rendell's top-to-bottom scouring of City Hall, for instance, or Street's ambitious attempt to tow 40,000 abandoned cars in 40 days.

Nutter has said he will launch a citywide cleanup shortly after taking office. How and when it will take place is unclear, but it will rely heavily on volunteer labor.

There will also be pressure on Nutter to address the city's crime, one of the most prominent themes of his mayoral campaign.

Declaring a crime emergency on his first day in office would be a dramatic step, but Nutter has backed off his pledge to do that since the primary, and now says the decision will be left to Charles H. Ramsey, his new police commissioner.

City Hall veterans think that so long as Ramsey moves quickly to shake up the Police Department, residents will give the administration months, if not years, to reduce violent crime, which has been falling in recent months.

"I think the people in Philadelphia know that crime is not going to be solved with a stroke of a pen or something like that," Councilwoman Marian Tasco said.

To review: Nutter and his team are expected to overhaul the budget, reach contracts with the municipal unions, start a new crime strategy, pull off a splashy and symbolic citywide cleanup, improve relations with Harrisburg and Council, and on, and on, and on.

All in the first six months.

Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or pkerkstra@phillynews.com. For the latest from City Hall, visit www.HeardInTheHall.com.

Tomorrow's Inauguration

Michael Nutter will be sworn in just after 10 a.m. at the Academy of Music, then give his inaugural address around 11. Most local TV stations will carry his speech live.

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