Nutter scales back public input on 2011 budget as city’s fiscal challenges mount.
“Last year was a great learning experience for us. And many of the lessons learned last year are more than pertinent this year."
That’s Mayor Nutter, reflecting on the pages of the Inquirer on the successes and failures of last year’s “People’s Budget,” in which Philadelphians were invited to decide whether they wanted to do away with their libraries, their pools or their fire engines. In the end, we agreed to go with a slightly higher sales tax, which set off a major shitstorm in Harrisburg.
Unfortunately, the mayor seems to have drawn the wrong lesson: there aren’t going to be any forums like last year. The public is decidedly not invited to weigh in, and that has caught the attention, and undoubtedly the ire, of the Coalition for Essential Services. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of this group until mid-summer 2009).
Sherrie Cohen, a prominent member of the Coalition, is not holding her breath though, and neither is the Coalition, which is girding, again, for the worst. And they’d be crazy not to. “We know that this is the mayor who wanted to ‘rightsize’ city services,” she says, but he really meant “downsize, though the needs of our city are outsized: Philadelphians have the poorest health of any county in the state, the highest incarceration rate of the nation’s 50 largest counties, the highest poverty rate of the nation’s 10 largest cities, and the second highest rate of hunger in the nation.”
Cohen and the Coalition are absolutely right. Nutter likes to brag about his commitment to education and to the city’s youth, but what was his first target when the shit hit the fan? He went right after the city’s libraries, which (like the one in my neighborhood) often double as school libraries for city schools that lack them. For a mayor who is committed to lowering our unemployment rate, he pulled the rug out from under low-income people who can’t afford computers at home and depend on libraries for Internet access to search and apply for jobs.
Kristin Campbell, West Philly resident and founding member and organizer of the Coalition to Save the Libraries, is worried too.
“With Nutter’s 2011 budget address just a week away, and after struggling with a Free Library system that was gutted by $8 million dollars in 2010’s budget, I'm angry that there has not been any venue for participatory budgeting over the past few months,” she says. “Our libraries are some of the last institutions that offer free educational resources in communities across Philadelphia.”
As it is the libraries are operating on a shoestring schedule. The mayor slashed 20 percent of the library’s budget, eliminating 117 library staff positions. “This included 11 security guards,” Cohen says. “But at the same time, the Free Library established new requirements that branches must have at least four staff members coming into work in order to open, and that one of them must be a security guard. Contract guards were taking the place of the permanent guards, but the budget for contract guards has been exhausted. In the past year, not one permanent security guard has been hired to replace any of the 11 guards who transferred out of the libraries scheduled for closure.”
The result has been less library access and more rolling closures. And with the public essentially cut out of the budget, what happens now is anyone’s guess. The Coalition is undeterred. Argues Campbell: “If the mayor decides to cut these services any further — he better be ready for another groundswell of public outrage.” Let’s hope she’s right.
On a very different note, it’s no secret that the economy is in the shitter and is going to be there for some time to come. This really hit home a few weeks ago when the Weekly had to cut costs, and unfortunately my column is one of the casualties. It has been a pleasure and a challenge writing for the Weekly, but this is my last column. Please visit me at my nook on the Net, brendancalling.com.