DN Editorial: Can-do's and don'ts

Posted: July 25, 2013

KICKING the can down the road - delaying action on the hard problem - is one time-honored political strategy. Why do something today when you can wait until you are safely re-elected, or even longer?

The bankruptcy of Detroit is proof of the flaw in that strategy.

And the lesson we can learn from Detroit, says Jennifer Bradley, of the Brookings Institution, is that "any place that thinks it can kick the can down the road will find the road can drop off abruptly."

Certainly not all of Detroit's problems were of its own making. It had no hand in the collapse of the auto industry and the flight of one million of its residents to the suburbs.

But, successive city administrations did have a hand in letting property-tax delinquencies pile up. And they did have a hand in letting its pension plan roll up huge deficits. And city fathers did engage in the bad habit of floating bonds to pay budget deficits without ever changing the bad habits that led to those deficits in the first place.

Detroit's city leaders kicked the can down the road again and again and again. Until there was no more road.

Bradley, an expert on big cities and co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution, said she believed that Detroit's financial implosion will have a sobering effect on other cities.

"I think it will help focus their mind on looking at their tax structure, on how many jobs they have managed to retain, on how aggressive they are on tax delinquency and abandonment - and understand that you need to get onto those issues," she said.

And although we share many of the problems that led to Detroit's downfall, Philadelphia is no Detroit.

We had our moment of crisis in the late 1980s, when successive deficits put city government at risk of bankruptcy. At that time, the state stepped in, a $1 billion bond was floated to help pay off the city's debts, and a state oversight board - known as Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Agency - was set up to keep an eye on the city's budget.

One of the requirements instituted then was that the city come up not just with a one-year budget plan, but a five-year plan that outlines city spending going forward. It's an early warning system on problems and potential deficits. It was a small change, but an important one.

Although low-key in its approach, PICA has been a success. The fate of Detroit was averted here in 1991 (and beyond) because of the action of local and state officials.

But, the solutions of 22 years ago fade with time. The problems Philadelphia has - not enough jobs, a crushing public-pension debt, high tax delinquencies, abandoned properties and widespread blight - have to be dealt with in the here and now. It is not solely the job of election officials. It is the job of the community at large to promote action, even if those actions cause pain and require sacrifices.

Collectively, politically, civically, we have to resist the temptation to kick the can down the road because, as Detroit shows us, that road will end.

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