Mayor Nutter reached the midway point of his first term two weeks ago. He started with goodwill, but has come under fire for his management style and rocky relationship with City Council.
Mayors get criticized; that's part of the job. However, the nay-sayers miss something important: Nutter faced one big decision in his first two years and he made the right call.
The worst economic recession since the Great Depression forced the mayor to fill a $1 billion deficit in his second city budget. The mayor had a fundamental choice: Cut services or raise revenue. Nutter decided on the latter.
So while many of Nutter’s critics say his first two years have been uneventful, they overlook what is, in fact, a major accomplishment: preserving the status quo of city services. Everywhere you look, you see consequences of Nutter’s choice: police walking the beat, sanitation workers picking up recycling, doctors providing services at health centers.
Obviously, core services like trash collection and fire fighting are essential to all, but in a city with the second highest poverty rate of any major city, essential services become even more so in a recession.
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And even if you believe the city is bloated with services, and they should be cut, the fact is, the move is notable exactly because Nutter had always been a staunch supporter of tax cuts. And in his first year as mayor, he’d tried to deal with a $108 million deficit partially through service cuts, including the proposed closure of 11 libraries.
The public resisted those closures, however, forcing Nutter to find the savings in other areas. And when his second budget and the $1 billion deficit rolled around, the mayor took a very different approach: He made some cuts, but also proposed raising the property tax and freezing planned business tax cuts.
City Council resisted the property tax hike, and the city ended up opting for a sales tax increase instead. Other than that, the basic framework of Nutter’s budget was implemented. Unlike some cities, Philadelphia had no mass layoffs of city employees.
Again, putting aside the question of whether we have too many services for the size of the city, or the increasing costs of delivering those services, or any of the many other questions that a service vs. cuts discussion would engender, we think it’s fair to acknowledge that the mayor deserves some credit for the shifts he made, especially in his own philosophy. We asked the Mayor how he saw this.
“I was not going to maintain a philosophy and devastate services,” said Mayor Nutter. “People don’t care about my ideology about taxes. They care about the direct impact on their lives. You can’t run a government just based on philosophy. If you have your feet on the ground and your head in the right place, you have to deal with the reality that’s in front of you. The reality for us was that we had no money.”
“We had to maintain services in key core areas,” said Mayor Nutter. “You need to have a social safety net operating. You cannot devastate [city services], even in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The city couldn’t cut anymore before undermining what the government is all about.”
None of this is to say that other assessments of Nutter don’t matter.
But as we look around the country at the pain that the economic crisis has brought to cities and states – California being a prime example-- it’s time to give props to the Mayor for helping the city avoid pain in what is already a painful time.