Yesterday, Mayor Michael Nutter released the most detailed information yet about possible service cuts if Harrisburg fails to approve his city budget requests. (Read Catherine Lucey's excellent Q&A) Nutter wants to increase the sales tax from 7 to 8 percent and reduce contributions to the city pension fund. If that doesn't happen, the city plans to layoff 3,000 city workers, including 972 from the Police Department and 196 positions in the Fire Department.
I have seen a number of comments on this blog and others accusing the mayor of resorting to scare tactics. Here is the rationale: Mayor Nutter is intentionally laying off cops and firefighters to get people upset and put pressure on the state legislature. He could easily cut other areas-- health centers, libraries, and recreation programs-- to make up the budget deficit.
There is just one problem with that logic: it's completely wrong. Spending on public safety-- police, fire, and prisons-- dwarfs every other part of city government. About 29% of the city's $4 billion budget goes to these costs. If the city is forced to cut $700 million from the budget, most of it will have to come from the areas where the money is. There simply isn't enough cash in the other departments to make up the budget deficit.
Let's get specific. A frequent target of criticism is City Council. Some have suggested if we eliminated DROP, cars, and a few others perks we'd be well on our way to solving the budget crunch. However, City Council has a relatively small budget of $17 million. In contrast, the Police Department has a annual budget of $524 million. We could completely eliminate City Council, the Free Library ($40M), Recreation ($38M), Fairmount Park ($15M), L&I ($27M) and still be far away from the total Police Department budget.
So, what about the threat of reducing trash pickup? The Streets Department is another of those parts of city government that costs a lot of money. The annual budget is about $142 million, with $100 million of that earmarked for sanitation. Why is it so expensive? Well, it's both labor and equipment intensive work. Some have suggested privatizing trash pickup instead of cuts. It's an intriguing idea, but there is no way the city could pull it off in such a short amount of time. Plus, the city doesn't have enough money to pay current vendors, so why would anyone want to bid for the contract?
The numbers released by Nutter are certainly scary, but it's not a political trick. The biggest cuts are in the Police and Fire Department because that's where the money is. There simply aren't any other options.