Philadelphians have to bear the (budget) cross too.
In a recent series on cities in crisis, NPR's Michel Martin talked with Nutter about Obama, and about coming into office with high expectations. He said, "Yeah, I know a little bit about that. After you walk on water and kind of get that over with, you get down to the real work."
And that work was appreciated at first. WHYY's Dan Pohlig wrote: "He brought in 'rock stars' of the public policy world. He created positions to make the city government a player in the arts and culture community, to guide its efforts towards sustainability, to increase public safety and health, and to bring authority to planning and economic development. Nutter's first budget promised funding increases for education, the arts, the parks and ethics."
But once the budget cuts were announced, the tide turned, and the library closures were seen as one cut too many. But why?
"It's the one city agency everybody loves," says Amy Dougherty, executive director of the Friends of the Free Library Philadelphia. "Everybody needs and uses the library differently, which is why it's so perfect. It's a world-class system."
Marc Stier--issues chair of Neighborhood Networks and blogger for YoungPhillyPolitics--says, "I ran a citywide campaign [for City Council] two years ago and I spent a lot of time in the libraries, and a lot of time in neighborhoods. And when I asked people, 'What makes this neighborhood work?' they often said the libraries. These institutions are really deeply embedded in our neighborhoods."
No one knows that better than people like Benito Ortiz and his friend Richie, who live in the barrio in North Philadelphia. On a rainy winter day, they stand outside New Journeys in Recovery on North Fifth Street, talking about neighborhood crime, drugs and other problems. But like so many people in Philadelphia these days, they're most angry about the libraries.
"[If they close], the kids won't have nowhere to go," Richie says with frustration. "They'll end up on the street corner selling drugs."
Both men are mad at the mayor, but for different reasons. Now in recovery, Richie has been using the library's computers to email friends and relatives he lost touch with when he was using drugs. Benito, in contrast, uses the library as a place to relax and job search.
Richie is so passionate on the issue, he says he'd rather give up some of his income than have the libraries close. "Take anything except the libraries," he says.
It's a sentiment many Philadelphians have expressed--this willingness to make sacrifices to save the libraries. But given the financial situation faced by the city and the country, sacrifices may soon become a luxury.
|Photo by Ray Skwire|
This week the Congressional Budget Office offered testimony on the economic outlook between 2009 and 2019. The news was bleak: "CBO anticipates that the current recession, which started in December 2007, will last until the second half of 2009, making it the longest recession since World War II. ... It could also be the deepest recession during the postwar period: By CBO's estimates, economic output over the next two years will average 6.8 percent below its potential--that is, the level of output that would be produced if the economy's resources were fully employed."
It's a frightening projection. There are already 4.5 million people on unemployment nationally and the city fares no better. Philadelphia Unemployment Project Director John Dodds says the city faces a particular problem: a labor surplus. Dodds points to November's Pennsylvania Department of Labor statistics, which show that Philadelphia County's unemployment rate is more than 7 percent, whereas Delaware, Montgomery, Chester and Bucks counties fall between 4 and 5.4 percent.
The way things are going, Richie may indeed give up his salary--but it won't be to save the libraries.
While Philadelphians are busy crucifying the mayor, those with a larger view are giving him credit for handling things well. Last week the Associated Press wrote that Nutter's slim cuts were "in stark contrast to measures being proposed in other cash-strapped cities," citing Chicago's plans to lay off upward of 900 employees, New York's layoffs of about 500 workers and Atlanta's layoffs of hundreds of employees.
And before he asked the library administration how they could help, he instituted other changes. The Chief Integrity Officer reassessed contracts and saved the city more than $9 million. The administration cracked down on delinquents, with a potential influx of $27 million. Nutter saved the city $200,000 in vehicle reduction and expects to save $3 million in the next fiscal year. He cancelled bonuses, made pay cuts, instituted efficiencies, raised fees and fines, gave city workers furlough days, made cuts to every department in city government. He's acknowledged the tax structure in Philadelphia doesn't work and that it has to be restructured. He's thinking big and small.
Nutter has said that he based the budget on three fundamental criteria: core services the city government must provide; protecting vulnerable populations; and long-term implications for the city. These criteria weren't arrived at without careful consideration (though the lack of transparency around the process has compromised his credibility).
Steve Agostini, Philadelphia's budget director, says the city's particular crisis has been affected by two factors: "One, what was happening in equity markets created losses in our pension system, which in turn required greater contributions to keep the system funded. And then second, the loss in revenues that are associated with the downturn of the housing market, the downturn in sales taxes and the downturn in business activity in the city, also created a rather sizable problem."
That amounted to a little more than $200 million a year for each of the five years Mayor Nutter had to plan for. Because part of that was almost at the midpoint of the fiscal year, the administration was required to make dramatic changes to the budget so as not to end the year in deficit. Unlike the federal government, the city government is not permitted to deficit spend.
"So that just laid out a whole range of very difficult choices that we had to face," says Agostini. If it hadn't been the library--which, if the closures are enacted, will save the city $36 million over five years--it would have to be something else. And that's where the math gets ugly.
Mayor Nutter won't lay off police or firefighters. He's raising taxes. But there are still battles to be fought. What do you think? Tell us in the comments on this story.
Mayor Nutter’s budget plan doesn’t call for laying-off any cops or firefighters. He won’t be closing the libraries. Good news, right? So why is Philly’s activist community still crying foul?