The City Budget’s Collision Course

The relationship between Council and the mayor is to blame for our sorry financial state.

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 1, 2010

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Councilman Bill Green said Council didn't get enough credit for saving taxpayer money

We’ve had two weeks to think it over, and the budget still sucks.

For the second year in a row, the city is facing a major tax increase. This time it’s in the form of a 9.9 percent raise in property taxes, after last year’s 1 percent sales-tax bump. Despite the recession, Philadelphia is the only city in a group of 13 peers to raise a broad-based tax two years running, according to a report by Pew Charitable Trusts.

The biggest losers out of this budget, of course, are the residents of Philadelphia, who are left wondering if the city will accept the moths fluttering from our collective wallets in lieu of real money.

Just as troubling as the financial repercussions, the budget and the process that led up to it shed light on serious dysfunction among our elected officials. Were there options that could have prevented or lightened the property tax raise? Of course. There are always options. But with City Council and Mayor Nutter unwilling or unable to work with one another to find compromise and creative solutions that work, property taxes are what we get.

The highest-profile alternative was Nutter’s soda-tax proposal. In its original incarnation, it was projected to raise about $77 million per year. The soda-tax plan was not without its flaws, but its biggest selling point was that it would be a tax of choice. If you own a house, you have to pay property taxes, but no one forces you to drink Coke.

But as we found out, Coca-Cola holds more sway in this town than our own mayor.

“I thought it would hurt across the board, from the store owners to the shoppers,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who opposed the tax.

Blackwell said that Council might have been willing to listen had Nutter shown more flexibility on the rate of 2 cents per ounce.

At least in public, the mayor had indicated all along he was open to input and willing to negotiate. However, it wasn’t until a week before the budget passed that word got out he was willing to drop the rate to .75 cents per ounce.

“Had he tried to negotiate earlier on, maybe something could have been worked out. Maybe not. People had already made commitments,” Blackwell said.

That would be commitments to the beverage lobby, by the way.

The other narrative on the soda tax is that the mayor wanted the national recognition for being at the forefront of the fight against obesity. That’s a much better reason to be on CNN than for flash mobs.

Do you think Council would grant that kind of victory to the mayor?

When he didn’t get his way, Nutter lashed out at city workers, threatening to slash two incoming police classes, close two fire companies and decrease library service to four days a week.

We forgave last year’s clumsy assaults on the libraries as rookie mistakes by an inexperienced mayor. This time, we are forced to seriously consider whether Nutter is harboring some kind of shadowy anti-literacy agenda.

There were other options on the table. Councilman-At-Large Bill Green had identified more than $30 million in additional savings beyond this budget’s $48 million in cuts. Green’s proposal contained no layoffs, instead eliminating unfilled positions across various departments. In some cases, those jobs have been vacant for over six months. Can they really be considered essential to providing city services?

Green and Nutter aren’t supposed to like each other, though, with Green bashing the administration at every opportunity. It’s hard to imagine Nutter granting the councilman political points by acknowledging that his suggestions have merit.

He’d rather lay off librarians.

Another frustration is that the city doesn’t even collect on taxes it’s already owed—$582 million outstanding, according to Revenue Commissioner Keith Richardson. There’s a tax amnesty ongoing in which the city hopes to gross maybe $40 million, not even 10 percent. No one can figure out how to recoup the rest, so law-abiding citizens will just have to pay more.

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