Passing the buck

Mayor Nutter and City Council continue to negotiate which taxes they should raise to balance the city budget. They should be spending as much effort looking for ways to reduce spending and improve efficiency.

Consider the recent budget hearings regarding the so-called elected row offices, which include the sheriff, register of wills, and city election commissioners.

Mayor Nutter presented his 2010 budget to Philadelphia City Council last month.

A report last year by the Committee of Seventy correctly called for eliminating these offices, as well as the municipal courts’ clerk of quarter sessions.

These outmoded elected posts serve little purpose other than to provide patronage jobs. The offices employ more than 500 city workers. Eliminating the positions could save the city $36 million a year, the report said. Much of the work could be absorbed by other offices.

Voters in Allegheny County, which encompasses Pittsburgh, approved the elimination of six elected row offices there in 2005. The move has saved the county more than $1 million a year and reduced bureaucracy.

Rather than probe the spending and hiring practices of the row offices during the budget hearings, City Council members largely gave them a pass.

Sheriff John Green didn’t even show up. He let his underlings handle the hearing. Rather than press Green’s office about the huge increase in spending on overtime this year, Council dispatched with the questioning in no time.

Register of Wills Ron Donatucci sailed through his questioning in 20 minutes. Council used much of the time to praise Donatucci, a powerful Democratic ward leader in South Philadelphia. His office — which issues marriage licenses and maintains records of wills and estates — employs more than 60 patronage workers, hired mainly because of whom they know.

Marge Tartaglione, the chair of the city commissioners, didn’t show up for the budget hearings, either. Council also treated her office with kid gloves.

Compare that with how Councilman Bill Green has grilled department heads in the Nutter administration about spending and hiring. No one on Council has similarly challenged the antiquated ways of the city row offices. Some Council members didn’t even sit through the hearings.

The lack of due diligence and thorough analysis regarding ways to reduce spending by the mayor and Council makes it all the more difficult to them to argue for higher taxes.

The economic collapse nationally has forced other cities and states to greatly reduce spending. While Nutter has made cuts, overall spending and hiring is expected to increase.

Overburdened taxpayers are being asked to shoulder the added costs, while it is largely business as usual as City Hall. That won’t do.

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