Budget vote to determine 'future of the city'

Posted: September 09, 2009

ROBO-CALLS, letters and public notices will be used this week to alert city residents and vendors to looming cuts under the "Plan C" budget.

During a meeting with top staffers and department heads yesterday, Mayor Nutter stressed that the city is on the brink of catastrophe if Harrisburg lawmakers don't soon approve budget-relief legislation.

"Unfortunately, we've moved from the stage of talking and planning to one of reality and implementation," Nutter said.

Some aspects of implementing "Plan C" still remain unclear - in particular what would happen if the city strips funding from the massive judicial system.

To avoid monstrous cuts and layoffs, Philly needs state lawmakers to approve legislation that would allow the city to raise the sales tax temporarily and to defer some pension payments, moves that are worth $700 million over five years.

But the legislation - House Bill 1828 - has stalled amid union protests over pension-reform amendments added to the bill by the state Senate. The state House delayed a vote last week, promising to revise the legislation. The earliest they will vote is tomorrow.

Because of the delays, the city has been forced to submit the Plan C "doomsday" budget, which calls for slashing 3,000 jobs, to the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority. PICA will vote on the plan Friday.

Nutter yesterday said that, between the expected state House vote and the PICA vote, tomorrow "and this Friday will literally determine the future of the city."

Officials yesterday discussed how they would let residents know about the pending Plan C actions, most of which would take effect Oct. 2, if Harrisburg doesn't act. Among their plans:

* Notices will go up at recreation centers and libraries tomorrow, stating that buildings will be closed on Oct 2. Signs at parks will say that the parks will not be cleaned or maintained.

* Libraries will continue lending until Sept. 30, but, as of tomorrow, all materials will be due back on Oct. 1 in advance of the closures.

* Households will receive robo-calls this week, notifying them of the switch to twice-a-month trash collection.

* Layoff notices will go out to approximately 3,000 city workers on Sept. 18.

But some key parts of the doomsday financial plan were not detailed. One big question is just what would happen if the city stops funding the courts, the District Attorney's Office and public defenders.

Nutter last month said that as part of Plan C, the city would eliminate funding for the First Judicial District, the D.A.'s Office and the Defender Association of Philadelphia - offices that received more than $150 million in funding in the previous fiscal year.

Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety, was cryptic yesterday about what would happen if, by Oct. 2, the city had not gotten budget relief from Harrisburg.

"Our courts are going to have to continue," Gillison said. But he said that if the city can't pay the bills, they want the state to pick up the tab for the First Judicial District, which the state Supreme Court has ruled is a state responsibility. For years the state has not provided that money.

Another issue is whether PICA will approve a plan without court funding.

In 1998, then-Mayor Rendell zeroed out funds in his budget for the First Judicial District in an effort to get the state to pay the court costs as dictated by a state Supreme Court ruling. But PICA approved that move only because the city had extra money in the budget to cover the costs in case the state did not pay up.

"The only way PICA approved that plan was if they showed the money was available elsewhere," said PICA Executive Director Uri Monson. "This is not that situation."

Monson said that PICA is researching the city's plan to eliminate money for the court system, noting that it "clearly is the most obvious big issue that needs to be addressed."

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