Friday, July 31, 2015

Welcome back, Council. Here's how you can earn your pay.

The DN's to-do list for City Council:

Welcome back, Council. Here's how you can earn your pay.

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The DN's to-do list for City Council:

Did you know there's an election in May? We guarantee you City Council knows it - all of its members will be standing in judgment before voters in the primary. So they may try to approach their new session, which begins tomorrow, with a bit of caution and a desire to avoid tackling the really hard questions.

But they shouldn't. In fact, they can't. With an economic crisis still in full swing and public confidence in government sagging, Philadelphia is going to need bold and maybe even controversial action from its legislative body.

Here are some of the big questions Council needs to address - seriously - starting at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

DROP THE DROP. In August, Mayor Nutter called for the abolition of the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, which allows city workers to pick a retirement date up to four years in the future and collect a lump payment from the pension fund when that date arrives.

A study by Boston College found that DROP, which was designed to save the city money by helping to manage its personnel better, has in fact cost $258 million over the last 10 years. Council has commissioned another study - but instead, it should move swiftly to abolish the program. Of course, that's easier said than done. DROP is popular among city workers - including seven members of Council who are enrolled in it.

PREPARE FOR ANOTHER CITY BUDGET MELTDOWN. Ending DROP won't solve the city's fiscal problems. Tax revenues continue to be lower than anticipated, and the city could be looking at less help from Harrisburg due to a shortfall in social-services funding and a new governor. Council needs to be ready for another tough budget process and some painful choices.

That might be even harder this time around. City government has made significant cuts, raised taxes and increased many fees over the last three years. That means the number of options to deal with a shortfall has shrunk significantly.

OPEN UP ITS OWN BUDGET. If Council is going to get serious about the budget process, it should also shed some light on its own finances. There is very little outside review of its spending, save the occasional audit from the city controller. That needs to change. Council should take a hard look at the basics like staff size, salaries and cars, but also deeper issues like spending on outside contracts and consultants - and share what it finds with the public. Even if the savings aren't huge, this will send a clear message that Council is serious about spending taxpayer money wisely.

WADE INTO THE ALPHABET SOUP. Recent outrages at the Delaware River Port Authority and the Philadelphia Housing Authority show that government agencies need strict oversight from their appointed boards. Council doesn't have any direct control over PHA or DRPA, but there are many governmental and quasi-governmental agencies that it does have some appointing authority or oversight. SEPTA, the Redevelopment Authority and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. are all accountable to Council in some way, and Council should hold them accountable by checking in on the boards and making sure they're doing their jobs.

CUT OUT THE DISTRACTIONS. Council has a tendency, especially during election season, to focus on narrow issues that appeal to specific constituencies. (Remember the debate about foie gras?) We hope that the seriousness of the city's financial situation will help Council keep its eye on the bigger picture this year, and not sweat the small stuff.

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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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