Grading the mayor's budget performance

Posted: October 02, 2009

NOW THAT the city finally has a budget, how did Mayor Nutter do? It's Our Money, a project of the Daily News editorial board funded by the William Penn Foundation, asked various experts and advocates to grade the administration on its performance. We wanted to know how the mayor handled the processs and the quality of the budget we ultimately got.

(You can visit www.ourmoneyphilly.com and tell us what you think.)

PHIL GOLDSMITH, former managing director under John Street and former Daily News columnist.

Grade: A . . . for now

Comments: Having decided to look for gold in the den of inequity in Harrisburg, the mayor did a masterful job of gradual escalation of the stakes involved, returning home with the booty he needed. But serious financial conditions and challeges remain, such as tackling reform issues like the BRT, ethics, taxes, education, union contracts, an antiquated charter and civil service system, zoning, etc.

While the near-term salavation of the city was in the hands of Harrisburg, the long-term solution rests in the mayor's willingness and ability to walk the talk.

LARRY CEISLER, political and public relations consultant.

Grade: I for incomplete.

Comments: The problem with grading this is we have no idea what went on behind the scenes. If Mayor Nutter's team was taken by surprise by the Senate amendments but managed to get the GOP-controlled chamber to drop these reforms, then the city had a great day in Harrisburg. But if the administration was complicit in the drafting of these amendments to take advantage of a crisis, then the mayor arguably came within an irresponsible whisker of plunging the city into an unnecessary crisis.

Most objective observers would agree there was merit in many of the pension reforms contained in the Senate version. But it is very apparent that we have a very short respite until the next day of reckoning. So if I was advising the Senate, I would say not to throw away those amendments, and as for Mayor Nutter; put those layoff notices in a dry, safe, place - you may need them again.

FATIMAH ALI, Daily News columnist.

Grade: B.

Comments: The mayor was caught in a bum rap with the economy when he took over. With lawmakers dragging their feet on the state budget, he did the only thing he could, threaten to fire 3,000 people.

That took a lot of guts, so it's an "A" for tenacity, outcome and the ability to work well with the valuable friends up in Harrisburg who helped him cut the deal.

But it's a "C" on strategy because by slapping arts and culture, the very amenities that make this city special, the mayor took a huge risk and put a huge dent in his campaign promises to turn Philadelphia into a world-class city, which must include a marriage between the arts, business and culture.

SHARON WARD, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

Grade: B

Comments: The severe national recession has driven many states and cities to the brink, forcing furloughs, layoffs and program cuts. Mayor Nutter managed to avoid the worst of it, making the case early on for additional short-term revenue to keep the city running.

Relying on the state legislature to approve a sales-tax increase was a big gamble with far-reaching consequences. The Mayor did a good job making the case in Harrisburg, but the effort was a heavy lift for the governor and Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans, and contributed to the delay in passing the state budget.

Had the mayor and City Council agreed in May to temporary wage and business-tax changes to solve the budget shortfall, much of the drama might've been avoided.

ADAM LANG, GOP activist who fights for ethical government in Philadelphia.

Grade: D (with extra credit)

Comments: The national economy didn't create our budget problems, merely expedited them. Pensions were already underfunded, health and pension costs already out of control, tax collections already a disaster, the size of government increasing. The mayor had even spent the reserves from an existing surplus.

Mayor Nutter's handling of this year's budget was filled with more bad policy that broke many of his campaign promises. Ending Philadelphia's reign as "most taxed city"? He raised taxes. Fixing pension underfunding? He added $65 million in payments by putting off obligations to the future. Improving public safety? He threatened to lay off 3,000 police officers.

Building a better relationship with Harrisburg? The rest of the state is angrier with us than ever. The only reason I'm not failing him is that he was working with the millstone City Council put around his neck. His initial budget plans weren't great, but they were better than the Council-approved final result.

CHRISTINE KNAPP, director of outreach for Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future.

Grade: B

Comments: With the economy wreaking havoc on the city budget, and without the luxury of time, the Nutter administration struggled to make quick decisions while also engaging the public.

Proposals like library closings and a new trash fee met with a backlash because a case hadn't been properly made for them.

Still, a clear message was sent to the mayor: Residents would rather see the city raise revenues than cut services. The mayor took this to heart in deciding to raise the sales tax, but the city has nevertheless been forced to make some tremendous cuts in staff and services.

I'm happy to see that the administration hasn't been penny-wise and pound foolish. For example, expanding the recycling program and investing in high-tech trash cans is going to save the city millions in waste disposal costs. Keeping the Mayor's Office of Sustainability staffed will help reduce city energy consumption and create dramatic savings. The administration should continue to pursue stimulus dollars and other funding sources to make investments that will help the city save money over the long term.

TOM CRONIN, ex-president of AFSCME DC 47, city's white collar workers' union.

Grade: D-

Comments: This may be viewed as a charitable grade. I don't blame the recession on our mayor, but his history has helped create a climate where cutbacks on city services and attacks on city workers are being called for by the corporate media.

Mayor Nutter, until recently, has been known as a tax-cutter. When you constantly trumpet tax breaks for the rich and powerful, you end up cutting services.

You're a Republican in a Democratic costume. I wouldn't put the Nutter administration on the dean's list. It belongs, as Dean Wormer put it in "Animal House," on "double-triple secret probation."

KAREN BOJAR, president, Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women, although she speaks only for herself here. Bojar volunteered for Nutter during his mayoral campaign.

Grade: "Solid" B

Comments: There's no way a mere mortal could get an "A" in an economy like this. Philadelphia was in difficult straits before the financial meltdown.

No one knows if the national (and global) economic situation has stabilized or if we're in for a double-dip recession. In this financially volatile situation, Mayor Nutter managed to get us through the immediate crisis: He is widely credited with working tirelessly in Harrisburg to get approval from head-in-the-sand GOP legislators for the sales-tax increase necessary to keep libraries, rec centers and all other city services functioning.

Perhaps it would be better if revenue were raised through other means, but there was no consensus on anything else, and it's not at all clear that the mayor could have secured enough Council votes to raise sufficient funds in any other way.

Although some claim the mayor exaggerated the city's financial woes, I haven't seen any substantiation of these claims.

JOE HILL, Chairman, Philadelphia Youth Commission and a junior at Georgetown.

Grade: C

Comments: When the recession hit, cities and states across the country were forced to make tough decisions in a short time. But instead of calling for greater efficiency, making much-needed cuts to his own staff or raising taxes on those who could afford to sacrifice temporarily, Mayor Nutter's first budget cut was levied on the city's most vulnerable, resource-starved communities.

He announced that libraries and pools would be closed, removing the only safe spaces for young people in some of our city's most dangerous neighborhoods.

After the proposal met with opposition, the mayor launched an effective public-engagement campaign designed to build support for tax increases to pay for city services. His subsequent lobbying in Harrisburg was also well-crafted, but the folks who were against the mayor's first slight of the young and poor should not be happy with an extremely regressive tax increase (the sales tax) that promises to effect those with the least the most.

While Mayor Nutter may have succeeded tactically, this budget was neither creative nor courageous in meeting the needs of the vast majority of Philadelphians.

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