A midterm appraisal: Where did magic go?

Posted: March 21, 2010

I can't tell if Michael Nutter, after two years in office, has lost what it takes to be a great mayor - or just never had it.

Maybe my expectations were too high, but I really thought Nutter was going to shake up City Hall. Perhaps the recession has overwhelmed him. Or maybe it's impossible for any one person to transform such an entrenched bureaucracy.

Nutter's term began with such hope and promise. After eight years of John F. Street's prickly personality and embarrassing corruption investigation of his administration, Nutter seemed like the right person to transform the city government.

As a city councilman, Nutter was one of the bright lights in a group of mostly dim bulbs. He understood the city's problems and had displayed the guts to tackle them. Even better, he didn't appear beholden to the Democratic machine or politics of pay-to-play.

But after two years on the job, Nutter is shaping up to be an ordinary mayor.

Granted, these are extraordinary times, and the recession dealt Nutter a bad hand. But rather than using the economic crisis as an opportunity to overhaul City Hall, his administration seems discombobulated by it.

What is Nutter's ultimate vision? Running an honest government? That's great. But is the bar so low in Philadelphia that simply not being corrupt passes for success?

For better or worse, mayors are often defined by one or two major events or themes. Wilson Goode is forever linked to the bombing of the MOVE compound. Ed Rendell brought the city back from the brink of bankruptcy and spruced up Center City. Street towed abandoned cars and survived the feds' bugging of his office. (And was almost first in line for an iPhone.)

Nutter, unless his administration changes course dramatically and soon, will be known as a very nice mayor who preserved the City Hall bureaucracy.

True, the city's budget woes have left Nutter with mostly bad options. But his response to this challenge has been mostly pedestrian.

Rather than find innovative ways to cut costs and increase efficiency, Nutter has mainly looked to raise taxes. This isn't just a Nutter flaw; most government leaders find it impossible to reduce spending.

But the problem is that raising taxes is especially harmful in Philadelphia. The city already has the highest tax burden in the country, and its tax base is shrinking as the cost of the bureaucracy is exploding. Tax increases will only exacerbate this disparity and put the city on the road to becoming the next Detroit.

Faced with similar budget woes, other cities have made big cuts and laid off workers. No one wants to see people lose their jobs, but taxpayers cannot support the current city workforce. Trimming the bureaucracy in a responsible way is not only doable; it's necessary. And it is healthy in the long run.

This is where Nutter has missed his opportunity to alter Philadelphia's direction and secure his legacy as a great reform mayor. In order to grow, City Hall needs to cut its spending, eliminate waste and patronage, and improve efficiency. Instead, the bureaucracy is projected to increase in coming years.

Nutter's first budget ended wage- and business-tax cuts. His second, last year, raised the sales tax after an aborted attempt to increase property taxes. And this year's plan calls for taxing sugary drinks and charging residents $300 a year for trash pickup.

The soda tax is being billed as a health initiative, and the trash fee is wrapped in the recycled paper of environmentalism. Despite the nice packaging, though, both will only add to Philadelphia's tax burden and hit struggling families hardest.

It pains me to watch the mayor these days. I like the guy and voted for him. He is a good public face for the city. But Mayor Nutter is very different from Councilman Nutter.

Rather than aiming high and thinking big, Mayor Nutter is often timid. Even when he tries to flex some muscle, he often retreats in the face of the slightest push-back. (See his failed efforts to: close libraries, take away City Council members' cars, and block the casinos on the waterfront.)

Nutter has also been way too cautious in dealing with city unions. After taking office, he put off negotiating contracts with city employees for a year. For what?

As a councilman, Nutter understood that the structural problems plaguing the city's finances were due largely to the rising costs of pension and health benefits. As mayor, he had his best chance to bend that cost curve downward in his first six months, when his political capital was at its peak.

Two years later, three of the four city unions still don't have contracts. And the deal Nutter reached with the police union is hardly a game-changer.

There is no doubt that being mayor in a tough town like Philadelphia is thankless. And the economy has made Nutter's job even harder. But with baseball season approaching, I wish the mayor would start swinging for the fences instead of laying down bunts.

Paul Davies can be reached at pdavies@phillynews.com.

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