Monday, October 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Officials' urgency and the unreality of the fiscal crisis

I don't mean that the fiscal troubles of our municipalities aren't real. In a very concrete way, both the city and the state had to either generate more revenues or do less spending this year, lest they spend more money than they had. That's fiscal trouble.

Officials' urgency and the unreality of the fiscal crisis

I don't mean that the fiscal troubles of our municipalities aren't real. In a very concrete way, both the city and the state had to either generate more revenues or do less spending this year, lest they spend more money than they had. That's fiscal trouble.

But without knowing the details of government budgets inside-out — and even if you do know them, without witnessing how efficiently services get provided —it's hard to get a sense of how dire the situation is. Is there a lot of fat still to cut, or are we really at the bone? Was Plan C a bluff? Or were we really about to have no court system if the state didn't pass the relief bill?

We need to take our cues about how bad things are from somewhere. And I think one of the ways we do that is to look at our elected officials. How urgently do they seem to be addressing the problem?

There have been a couple of moments this week when I read something about Philly politicos and thought, "not that urgently." First, there was the business about reforming the BRT. Mayor Nutter wants to do away with the ridiculous system where 80 patronage BRT workers are kept on the school district payroll so that they can remain active in politics. But Council doesn't like the idea: "I don't think it's an issue for any of the council members," Marian Tasco told the Inquirer.

It's not clear how much the patronage system at the BRT does or doesn't cost the city. But we know the BRT is a mess, and council's reluctance to address this part of the problem just makes it seem like the members don't really want to change anything — at least, not anything that matters to them (to be fair, they are pushing forward legislation to replace the agency ... just not the patronage jobs). Do they really think the city is in a crisis?

Now, Mayor Nutter may have been on the side of the angels in that one. But then we read today in Clout that the city spent $3,000 last year on hotel rooms for the mayor's police detail at the Pennsylvania Society dinner in New York (Clout observes that there are cheaper hotels available in New York).

Again, not an amount that's going to make or break the budget. But you wonder why, at a time when the mayor was planning to close 11 libraries, something like this couldn't have been done a bit more stingily.

Symbolism matters. It's hard for citizens to accept sacrifices when elected officials don't appear to be taking things that seriously.

Update: Two things I was remiss not to mention: 1) A lot of the local officials I'm talking about here have taken budget/salary cuts. So it's not as though they've made no sacrifices. But items like this still rankle. 2) Another place we're supposed to take our cues for understanding this stuff from is the press. In fact, explaining and contextualizing the budget is exactly what we're trying to do here. Which reninds me: Look for some good stuff about the BRT from Ben next week!

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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