Stu Bykofsky: Mayor Nutter, too, was a tax delinquent

Posted: August 03, 2009

I AM DOING a Happy Dance, now that the city of Philadelphia has (grudgingly?) decided to collect back taxes from its ne'er-do-well employees.

Better late than never.

Before the storm broke, about 2,000 city workers and their spouses owed the city about $5 million. About 23,000 people work for the city, so that is a very large number of deadbeats.

Once this scandal hit the papers, about 100 deadbeats scrambled to pay in full, another 425 signed up for a payment schedule, but even more didn't. They froze like a chameleon on a branch, hoping that the city python wouldn't find them.

But it has, and they've been told to pay up or sign a payment plan within 30 days or the city will attach up to 20 percent of their salary to satisfy their debts, some of which stretch back decades.

It may mean a few deadbeats will have to cancel their week in Wildwood Crest this year, but I'm not weeping for them.

Are you?

City wages don't create paupers. (That's Wal-Mart's job.) City workers get decent pay and good benefits, and they ought to thank their lucky stars (or ward leader) for their jobs.

One of the mind-bending aspects of the controversy was Mayor Nutter's inexplicable opinion that the city shouldn't discriminate against hiring those who owe it money. It shouldn't be "heartless," he said.

I wrote a column last week spanking the mayor for his lapse of judgment on city shirkers. A few days later, a possible explanation of his belief system emerged from the deep swamp of my memory. It took a while to surface because I was reaching back to 1991.

I was a gossip columnist then, and Michael Nutter was preparing for his first term as a councilman, representing the Fourth District. Then, as later, he ran and won as a reformer. He may be a D, but that R-word works magic for him.

I had information that Nutter owed some back taxes. Federal taxes.

Doing what I am supposed to do, I called Nutter, who confessed that it was true, but pleaded with me not to use it. It was December, a few weeks before he was to be sworn in.

His political career was like a Saturn rocket, and a disclosure such as mine, he was afraid, could cause it to fizzle on the launch pad. (Very naive to think that the political life of a Philadelphia Democrat would be adversely affected by outstanding debts. Remember John F. Street?)

On top of the debt was Nutter's occupation - investment banker.

That's too good to pass up.

But I did.

Why?

Nutter pleaded his case effectively, for one thing, asking me not to blow him up before Day One on the job. For another, he said that he was in the midst of paying off the debt.

I decided to kill the item, and said something like, "In the spirit of the season [it was close to Christmas], I won't run it."

Friday, I wanted to personally review this for accuracy with the mayor, but he had spokesman Doug Oliver return my call. (See what cutting him a break got me?)

It was an "employer-caused" federal-tax debt, paid off before Nutter was sworn in, Oliver told me. The mayor did not recall the amount, Oliver insisted, only that it was a "decent-size chunk of change."

That term is amorphous. Does it mean Mercedes money? Mortgage money?

Oliver also said that there is no "cause and effect" between Nutter's own case and how he feels about people experiencing temporary financial setbacks.

But some of the deadbeats have been delinquent since leisure suits were haute couture.

Despite the denial, I think that his personal experience shapes his judgment, and I think Sonia Sotomayor would agree.

I also think that the blistering backlash Nutter got from citizens, newspapers and talk radio was a much-needed wake-up call. But he still won't deny jobs to tax delinquents.

Instead, the city will require deadbeats to sign a repayment plan before they get their first paycheck.

I know you can say that when the city hires them it can start getting its money back.

True, but it sends the wrong message of tolerance for failures that shouldn't be acceptable.

Look, would you create a policy that sets aside, say, 9 percent of city jobs for delinquents?

Would you make them, in effect, a privileged class?

Ridiculous, right?

Then why would you extend to them the privilege of a public job, paid for by the people who do pay taxes?

E-mail stubyko@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5977. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/byko.

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