Despite the mayor’s claims that the budget is stable, even he admits that grave threats to the city’s fiscal health lie around every corner. Expected big cuts in federal and state money plus a $400 to $500 million gap in the School District’s budget for next year have potential for “a devastating impact on Philadelphia,” Nutter says. While tacitly acknowledging that the administration has plans in place to account for the ugly and uglier-looking possibilities, the mayor doesn’t want to discuss them yet, preferring to take at least a week to look optimistically at the city’s budget before the bad news comes down from the state. “We’ll deal with whatever comes down the pipe,” he says. “This budget is a statement of priorities.”
Not all the threats are external, however. There are a number of red flags within our own ledger books, and self-proclaimed citizen watchdog Brett Mandel has set up a website and mailing list to lay out the places he feels the Nutter administration isn’t living up to its fiscal responsibilities. “This is a great city, but it’s not the city it should be and not the city we deserve,” says Mandel, who formerly served on the Tax Reform Commission and ran unsuccessfully for City Controller in 2008.
Mandel laughs about his longstanding role as a prominent Nutter critic. “I get reporters all the time who call me and say, ‘Brett, we need someone to say something bad about this,’” the Fitler Square resident says. “They tell me, ‘only you will say it on the record.’”
“Then folks in the Nutter administration say ‘why are you always going to Brett Mandel?” he says wryly.
But the fast-talking Mandel turns serious when he gets to city finances. “The city’s current five-year plan is balanced on a number of really, really dubious assumptions,” he says.
The biggest problem is the pension fund for retired employees. The fund was already depleted when Nutter came into office, and has only gotten worse since. A recent study found it has only enough cash to meet 45 percent of its obligations, promising ever-ballooning payments in the future.
“If you have credit-card debt, the only way you’re going to pay it down is if you stop charging and start paying, or at least pay more every month than you’re charging. We haven’t been doing that,” Mandel says. He also points out that the budget assumes dubious projected savings for municipal union contracts that have been expired for two years now, and that future real-estate tax projections don’t appear to take into account the expiration of last’s years temporary hike.
To him, the Nutter administration has failed to provide the bold leadership the city needs to right its faltering trajectory. “What are we doing here?” Mandel asks. “If all we’re doing here is managing decline or treading water, at some point we should throw in the towel.”
In the black Tahoe on the drive up Broad Street to CCP, as the music shifts to the Black Eyed Peas “Let’s Get It Started (clean version),” Nutter defends his plans on pensions and the union negotiations.
“The short-term plan is to negotiate a different pension plan for new employees,” he explains. “Reduce the general fund contribution over time, stabilize it, get its unfounded liability much lower than it is today. That’s gonna take a long time.”
Then there’s the lingering question of the “wow” moment. When we look back after Nutter’s years in office, what’s the one thing we remember?
“I know folks like to focus on the one big thing—but this is fifth largest city in America,” the mayor says. “It’s important that you are able to do more than one thing at a time. What we’re trying to do is a number of other things well.”
Nutter again brings up the waterfront development as well as advances in education, crime and sustainability. Then he pauses for a second before continuing. “I think part of the ‘wow,’ quite frankly, is that we guided this city through the biggest recession since the great depression.”
Nutter’s tenure in office, replete with budget woes, union negotiations and all the other headaches that come with being the city’s chief executive, recall memories of Ed Rendell’s first term as mayor in the early 1990s. “On the one hand, our deficit was far greater than anything he’s [Nutter] faced,” Rendell remembers. “On the other hand, it was more difficult for him in a way because it came along so unexpectedly.”
Rendell generally praises Nutter’s first term so far. “First of all, Philadelphia’s made great progress on crime,” he says. “We’ve made terrific progress on refurbishing our image—a transparent government and accountable government, a government of integrity,” he continues, echoing some of Nutter’s talking points.
“In terms of finances, we’re bouncing back. Not fast enough to avoid tough decisions, but revenues are headed in the right direction,” Rendell says. “Some of the big problems, structural problems haven’t been dealt with yet.”
It’s not Rendell’s problem anymore, and the two mayors’ role reversal was illustrated two weeks ago at the Hyatt on Broad Street when Rendell made his official endorsement announcement for Nutter’s re-election. At the end of the press conference, the media swarmed Nutter to ask about the city’s embattled DROP retirement program and school closings due to overnight snowfall. Rendell, on the other hand, faced a mere two reporters who wanted to know what it’s like to drive after having a chauffeur for so many years. When the former governor extricated himself and walked out of the room, he glanced over at Nutter, still buried three-deep in journalists, and amusedly gave the mayor a two-fingered wave, as if to say, “good luck with all that.”
All the talk of budgets and finances can seem abstract, but sometimes, unexpected events provide a stark reminder of the human side of the debate. When appearing before the editorial board at the Philadelphia Tribune last Wednesday, two days after the “Win the Future” conference, Nutter excuses himself at 4 p.m. to visit an injured firefighter at the Penn hospital. Michael McGuire had run out of oxygen while searching for civilians during a fire at a North Philly high-rise, but his comrades found him and pulled him to safety. Now he lies in critical but stable condition.
Nutter hops in the car with Butler and heads down Lombard to South. “South Street bridge, on budget a month early,” the mayor purrs as the car passes over the newly refurbished bridge across the Schuylkill River. Soon, he is broken from his thoughts when the car arrives at the hospital. Inside, he huddles with city officials and McGuire’s doctor to discuss the case in hushed tones before advancing upstairs to check on the injured fireman and greet his family. When he comes back, Nutter leads a short press conference outside. “We’re here for him, he’s a strong guy and a fighter, and we’re certainly hopeful for his full recovery,” he tells the cameras before heading back to his car.
It’s well after 5 p.m. by then, and the car ride back to City Hall is somber. Nutter looks back over his shoulder. “Luke, have you eaten today?” he asks his assistant. Butler answers in the negative. Neither has Nutter. Reflecting in silence for a moment, the mayor gets out his iPod and puts on the Carpenters’ “Close to You,” (Why do birds suddenly appear?), fodder for a joke if the moment weren’t so serious.
PW fanned out into the neighborhoods to find out people’s feelings on the mayor in general, as well as on specific issues. Here’s what you had to say.
How could this be? As councilman, Nutter was instrumental in creating the law to extend benefits to domestic partners of city employees. Once mayor, he hired a director of LGBT affairs, and even raised a rainbow flag outside City Hall for Gay History Month last October.
Critics are uncomfortable with the idea that the mayor can just waltz back to re-election unopposed. “The consequences are we don’t have any vibrant discussion about the leadership of the city, don’t have competing ideas about how the city should be run."
PW's Summer Guide 2015