Times may be tough, but Council keeps an iron grip on its own allowance

Council members consult during a hearing in June. Most members have 6 to 10 staffers. From left: Darrell Clarke, James Kenney, Anna Verna, Blondell Reynolds Brown. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff)
Council members consult during a hearing in June. Most members have 6 to 10 staffers. From left: Darrell Clarke, James Kenney, Anna Verna, Blondell Reynolds Brown. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff)
Posted: August 15, 2011

TIMES MAY BE tough financially, but City Council still has the cash for fat staffs, consulting contracts, out-of-town travel and lots and lots of flags.

A total of $108,254 on flags since 2007, to be exact. That's some pricey patriotism.

Council members keep a tight lid on how they spend their $15 million annual budget, but a recent Daily News review of city records found that they get enough money to pay for sizable staffing and a wide range of outside expenses. Also, most members still drive city cars and get other perks like travel reimbursements.

The 17-member body doesn't come cheap. A report earlier this year from the Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative said Philadelphia's Council was "comparatively well-paid and well-staffed" when stacked against other cities.

In addition, not all of Council's expenditures are captured in its official budget. According to a report released by the city earlier this year, when you add in costs not included in Council's budget, such as benefits, technology support and maintenance, its annual cost rises to just over $22 million - or $1.3 million per office.

And critics question what the public is getting for its money. Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg said there needs to be a real conversation about how much Council should spend.

"It's a considerable amount of money in a city that is at best flat in population," Stalberg said. "This is an era when people are talking more and more about smaller government."

Council President Anna Verna did not respond to a request for comment. Anne Kelly King, Council's chief accounting officer, said Council represents a very small part of the city's $3.5 billion general-fund budget. It has also reduced spending overall since the economic crash, taking a $1 million cut last year.

But where exactly has Council put its money during the current term in office? From data supplied by Council, the city finance department and the city Controller's Office, here's a snapshot of spending over the past four years:

The bulk of Council's spending goes to salaries for its members and their roughly 168 full-time staffers.

Verna has control of the largest staff, with 44 employees in the president's office and six in her district office, for a total payroll of about $3.2 million, including her own $150,904 salary. The presidential staff includes a six-person cleaning operation, four people in the sergeant-of-arms office and a slew of aides assigned to work on policy and legal issues who are shared with the entire Council.

The other members have staffs of between three and 10 people that vary in cost. After Verna, Majority Leader Marian Tasco has the largest staff, with a payroll of $723,345, including her own $128,821 salary.

On the other end of the spectrum is Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr., who has three staffers and a payroll of $375,443, including his $120,233 salary.

In all, Council's current staffing costs $11.8 million. That figure doesn't include the cost of benefits, which total about $4.9 annually for all members and staffers.

Stalberg questioned how much staff Council needs.

"There's two issues. The first is what does it really cost, and a larger issue is what are these people doing?" Stalberg said. "Some of them are working on political chores for the Council members, and some of them are working on constituent service that has the same effect."

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said she needs more than her eight staffers to properly serve her constituents.

"I need more people than I have. There is so much work. My people are so very, very busy," Blackwell said.

Cars

Despite public disapproval, 12 of the 17 Council members still have city cars - Anna Verna, Jannie Blackwell, Donna Reed Miller, Darrell Clarke, Brian O'Neill, Bill Greenlee, Joan Krajewski, Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Marian Tasco, Blondell Reynolds Brown, Frank Rizzo and Jack Kelly.

Since 2008, $82,967 has been spent on maintenance and $72,004 on fuel for Council cars. That money is spent out of the fleet department's budget and is not reflected in Council's budget allocation.

Mayor Nutter unsuccessfully tried to get members to give up their cars several years ago. But Blackwell said members need the cars to do their jobs.

"We need our cars. It's a necessity to do the things you do. I do as many as 14 events each Saturday," Blackwell said.

Outside contracts

Hiring outside help for special projects is another big-ticket item for Council.

Charles McPherson, Council's longtime budget expert, cashed in with a big contract not long after he retired in 2009 with a $528,000 payment from the Deferred Retirement Option Plan and a $113,500 annual pension.

A year after getting his DROP payment, McPherson got a contract as a budget consultant, which paid him $115,000. He's getting a $50,000 contract in September that will run until Verna leaves office in early January, King said.

Longtime Tasco ally Bill Miller's Ross Associates got $140,513 for communications consulting in 2009 and 2010. The politically connected communications specialist Martin O'Rourke has received $106,068 since 2008, mostly for consulting work for Councilmen Jim Kenney and Brian O'Neill.

Attorney George Bochetto, who has flirted with running for mayor in the past, got $233,409 from 2007 through 2009 for handling Councilman Darrell Clarke's gun-violence lawsuit. And the law firm Christie, Parabrue, Mortensen and Yom got $330,816 for legal services relating to zoning and casino litigation.

King said Council hires attorneys when members believe the city Law Department can't properly represent their interests. Those expenditures must be approved by the president's office. And if a member wants to hire a consultant, the money must be available from the member's budget.

Travel

Since 2007, members have spent $31,045 on conferences, travel and transportation. The top spender in that category was Tasco, who spent $12,598 for travel, accommodations and food to attend conferences - as well as another $3,400 on dues for professional organizations.

Tasco said the spending was for her work with the National League of Cities, a national nonprofit group that advocates for cities and towns.

"It's an investment. We have to be out there being champions for our city," Tasco said. "I don't attend everything the National League of Cities has because I am mindful of the city's financial problems."

Furnishings

Since 2007, Council has spent $36,065 on office furnishings as well as $63,179 on computer equipment. King said those expenditures were largely to replace broken computers and to buy furniture for new members who took office in 2008.

"I try to recycle furniture," said King, noting that the new members coming next year will have to deal with used desks. "There's no extra money for new furniture."

An additional $79,593 went to cellphone bills for members.

Other expenses

Here's where the breakdown gets interesting, although these aren't big amounts of money.

But, did you know that Council's Veteran's Advisory Committee gives out flags and grave markers to veterans every year? The committee has spent $31,712 on grave markers since 2007 and $108,254 on flags.

Council also spent $2,602 on "Baker the Sign Man," a sign-painting company. King said it was for signs at O'Neill and Jones' district offices.

And proving that Council still is in the dead-tree business, it spent $352,597 on printing over the past four years, much of that going to print resolutions and provide stationery for members. An additional $215,924 went for postage.

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