Inquirer Editorial: Make use of city's assets

Posted: July 28, 2011

Any Philadelphia landlord with 2,000 properties in his inventory these days has to have at least a few clunkers that should be put on the market - whether because they're partially vacant, in poor repair, or no longer meet tenants' needs. But which properties should go, and which ones are keepers?

That pretty much describes the dilemma faced by Mayor Nutter, who is official caretaker of hundreds of city-owned and -leased facilities.

Not only does the city have more than its share of buildings in need of an extreme makeover (including some Police Department outposts) but it's also a given that - with budget challenges - Nutter needs to make sure the city isn't wasting any of the rent money.

It's a good move, then, that the mayor has just embarked on a detailed review of the city's holdings. Last week, he directed that a 13-member task force be assembled to look at current and alternative uses for city buildings and facilities.

To chair the panel, the mayor turned to Tom Knox, the businessman and former mayoral candidate. It's familiar territory for Knox, who was recruited nearly 20 years ago by former Mayor Edward G. Rendell to explore management and productivity gains in City Hall. His signature effort back then was to downsize the city's unwieldy vehicle fleet.

Nutter described the property review as an effort to reevaluate "how we do business to become more efficient, more transparent, and more responsive." And that's certainly in line with the smart governing that 2007 voters expected when picking him from a crowded field of five Democratic candidates.

The timing - in tough times - is right, as well, for a more data-driven approach to rightsizing city government.

Since budget constraints will continue to force the city to do more with less, the mayor will be in a much stronger position to make difficult spending decisions if he has done his homework.

It would have been preferable, for instance, had an ongoing detailed review of Fire Department operations been in hand when the mayor enacted rolling blackouts of fire companies. That way, Nutter aides might have been able to determine whether actually closing some locations and redeploying firefighters would have made even better sense.

The Knox-led task force has a two-year deadline to complete its work, but that again seems too long. A speedier review would give Nutter more time to put recommendations to use, rather than produce a report that's shelved for the next mayor to ignore.

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