IF YOU BELIEVE Larry Platt, the new editor of the Daily News, Mayor Nutter hasn't done much in the past three years. In a column published yesterday, Platt argued that the mayor has failed to accomplish anything big in his first term.
This is a common criticism of Nutter these days, but it's completely wrong. It's true that the mayor hasn't radically reformed the way government operates. But in the face of a massive international recession, he's managed something impressive: He's kept city services mostly intact. That's a big deal and didn't happen by accident.
Nutter made this point in a recent kitchen-table discussion in Southwest Philadelphia on the budget. As about two dozen residents munched on chicken, macaroni and green beans (all delicious) in the living room of Helen Divers, a longtime community activist, the mayor defended his budget choices.
"All we were trying to do was preserve our core services," said Nutter. "If you decimate police and fire, if you just throw thousands of people out the door, yes, you will reduce your costs. But what kind of city will you have?"
Remember, things could have been different. Massive budget cuts have happened in cities across the country. According to a report from the National League of Cities, municipalities have dealt with a combined shortfall of more than $100 billion since the recession began. Nearly 70 percent of cities have either laid off workers or imposed a hiring freeze. Almost every city has cut back on programs, with 17 percent reporting across-the-board cuts to all departments.
A survey of individual cities shows the human impact of these cuts. Boston has laid off 500 city workers, while Dallas has eliminated more than 600 jobs. In San Francisco, hardly a hub of fiscal conservatism, the mayor asked departments to cut nearly 25 percent to deal with a $436 million shortfall. Closer to home, Camden just laid off a big chunk of its workforce. Even our old nemesis, Phoenix, has let go of hundreds of police officers.
Nutter's right to ask what would have happened if Philly had pursued a similar course. Despite Glenn Beck's recent rant, we finally seem to be shedding our unfair national image of being unsafe because of crime. Layoffs of public-safety workers could have set our reputation back years - to say nothing of the cost of the actual crime that could follow police reductions.
Nutter didn't just preserve police and firefighter jobs. He also reminded the crowd at Divers' house that all libraries and recreation centers remain open. And he pointed to the city's snowplowing efforts last year as proof that services provided by local government matter.
"Who would have plowed all that snow that we had last winter?" Nutter asked. "Seventy-eight inches, the most ever recorded in city history. Who would have done that? And picked up the trash at the same time?"
Nutter's decision to preserve city services during the economic downturn is probably the most important thing he's done in his first term. He's not getting credit for it partly because it's been a confusing couple of years for the budget (the mayor has frozen business-tax cuts, raised two other taxes, instituted a hiring freeze and reduced the city workforce by about 5 percent, mostly through attrition), and partly because he's tried several other measures that failed (like closing libraries and introducing a soda tax and a trash fee, proposals that still stick in some people's minds). And, of course, much of what Nutter has done is just preserve the status quo - very different from, say, helping get the Convention Center built and revitalizing downtown, like Ed Rendell did, or starting big programs like John Street did.
But the fact that many in the city don't recognize Nutter's accomplishment doesn't mean that he hasn't succeeded. It's just that Nutter's success has been less about what he's done and more about what he has avoided. During an economic crisis, preserving services isn't easy.
I asked Ms. Divers how she viewed Nutter's budget decisions. She told me that her biggest priority was keeping public-safety services intact, especially police, fire and the town-watch program run by the Managing Director's Office.
"We did not want those departments to have layoffs," said Divers. "All of these are very, very important."
She's right - they are important. It's also important to understand that during this fiscal crisis, services weren't preserved by chance. Michael Nutter decided to protect the core functions of local government and then made it happen.