Philadelphians have to bear the (budget) cross too.
|Photo by Ray Skwire|
"The total city budget is a little less than $4 billion," says Agostini. "Of that, there's approximately $2.2 billion that we treat as nondiscretionary, which means there are expenditures there for which we have limited control--if any control--because they are associated with other independently elected officials who are either part of the constitutional offices or part of the charter offices."
Agostini is talking about City Council, the Controller, the Board of Revision of Taxes, the courts, the sheriff and other statutory offices.
"You can't really go in and mandate they maintain a certain level of funding and decrease their funding based on what you may be facing as a mayor," he says.
Additionally, the mayor can't touch pension payments or the $600 million associated with healthcare for the city's employees. Between fixed costs, mandated expenditures and expenditures adjudicated by other offices, $2.2 billion of the budget has been non- negotiable, leaving $1.7 billion that the mayor viewed as discretionary.
"There's basically a half-dozen departments where all of the employees and all of the expenditures are," says Agostini. "Those are police, human services, the fire department, prisons, the streets department--and then you start looking at things like recreation and library. Police is just over $525 million, prisons is about $235 million, fire is $193 million, human services is $191 million, recreation is $34 million and library is $32 million. You start to add all that up and suddenly you're very close to that entire $1.7 billion. You're left with very limited options because you're spending money in very concentrated areas. A few million here and a few million there doesn't get you to the number to ensure you don't have a gap and you're not running a deficit."
Agostini won't say what other cuts may be announced next month or in March. So far the Department of Recreation has largely managed to shield their services from harm, but what if it's a rec center next time, or a halfway house or homeless shelter or trauma center? What will we do to Nutter then?
The mayor knows the cuts aren't welcome; he told Martin, "We had to make choices between many bad options."
If you live in a community whose library is closing, the choice Nutter embraced may sting. But what if, instead of your library closing, your trash didn't get picked up? What if your fire company shut down? What if police stopped patrolling your block and crime surged? It's wonderful if a child can walk to a neighborhood library, but what about children in foster care? Don't they deserve to be protected?
And Nutter's not the first mayor to contend with the issue of shrinking the library system.
"Library funding in this city has always been something of a political football," says Amy Dougherty. "This is not unlike other municipalities or cities across the country. I was on the Friends of Libraries USA Board, and this is what happens. It happened all over California, it happens everywhere. Rendell cut hours at libraries when he was in. Street tried to do the same thing."
Even Dougherty, who is absolutely opposed to the cuts, acknowledges Nutter faces a unique set of circumstances: "There definitely is a budget emergency here like there is across the nation and across the world. He hasn't manufactured that."
Marc Stier thinks the mayor is under a tremendous amount of pressure. "He's someone who believes in expertise and people with technical skills, at least according to his administration," Stier says. "He's inclined to support the recommendations [the library] give[s] him. That's why he's defending the library's plan. I don't think the plans came from him."
|Photo by David Scott|
Sandy Horrocks, the library's spokesperson, confirms Stier's understanding of Nutter's involvement in the decision-making process. "He did not [choose]. The library did. ... He's in a very tough position. You've got the Department of DHS, and childcare--it's hard to pick what you're going to cut, which child."
Nutter tried to convey that during his final town meeting. He urged attendees to think creatively rather than harangue him. After being at seven other meetings, he said, he finally realized nothing he does can appease people: "You'd like us to not do any of the things we've announced. We get that. ... [But] we're your partners. We're not the enemy." He asked people to help their communities and to think about volunteering. His words fell on deaf ears. The next attendee who spoke was irate: "You say you care about the children ... "
The level of neighborhood organizing and activism this city is capable of is tremendous. In fact, seven residents and the library union sued the mayor to keep the libraries open temporarily--and won. Meanwhile, union firefighters filed a request for a similar injunction to keep the fire companies from closing, but to no avail.
All the activism has shown how far people are willing to go--and how quickly they can mobilize. Early on, four days after the cuts were announced, a Fishtown rally came together "on about 24 hours notice, through word of mouth, emails, flyers, etc," wrote YoungPhillyPolitics blogger Dan U-A. He said there were "hundreds of people, demanding that Mayor Nutter spare their library."
Can this same passion engender a culture of creative solutions in a city that will continue to have its troubles? While our homicide rate decreases, for instance, rape is on the rise. Additionally, a recent report shows that nearly a quarter of our residents lack basic literacy skills. Bloggers have made a connection between this and the library closures. But we won't solve illiteracy by keeping 11 libraries open; we'll solve it by ensuring that children stay in school and have good teachers and appropriate materials.
When community members complain to Nutter that schools in affected neighborhoods don't have libraries, they need also to ask School District head Arlene Ackerman why funds aren't being allocated more effectively. (The District declined to comment for this story.) Other issues--poverty, hunger, homelessness--require innovative problem-solving (and money).
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?
PW's Summer Guide 2015