Kenney in Wonderland defines failure as success | Stu Bykofsky

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney raps the lectern to make a point during his recent budget address to City Council.

If you announced a goal and failed to achieve it, would you claim success?

Yes, if you were a top executive with the City of Philadelphia, a.k.a. Wonderland, where failing to meet a goal is called success. Getting close is good enough, as if running the city were a game of horseshoes.

Although there were monthly signs the ill-advised, regressive, punish-the-poor beverage tax was laying an egg, city officials smiled like Cheshire cats and said the numbers would improve.

That wishful thinking ended last week when propaganda was replaced by unforgiving numbers, as Mayor Kenney brought his budget to City Council. Revenue from the so-called soda tax was 15 percent below projections.

“To be coming within 15 percent of that original estimate, I think we’re actually pretty proud,” said Anna Adams, the city’s budget director.

The city took in $78.8 million, $13 million below the required $92 million, and she’s dancing a tarantella?

Critics of the soda tax, including me, warned that the more you tax something, the more you make it cost, the less you will sell — especially when the tax is a mammoth 1.5 cents per ounce, making soda more expensive than beer in some cases.

Oh, we thought of that, the city geniuses assured us. They had a formula that took diminished sales into account as customers either would quit buying beverages or fill up in the suburbs. The geniuses got it very wrong. Thank God they don’t work for NASA.

Politicians don’t want to be perceived as failing, so they had to change the subject. Here comes the city’s chief shim-sham shimmy artist, His Honor the Deflector.

“The beverage industry would like folks to think that somehow $79 million in new revenue is a failure,” Kenney said.

It is, when you promised $92 million.

When you pay a single CEO $30 million a year, Kenney said with salary envy and questionable logic, “then maybe $79 million seems like chump change.”

Like the Queen of Hearts, he loves bluster — and bashing “Big Soda” producers and retailers — but any CEO who got earnings estimates wrong by 15 percent would be fired.

The Deflector’s demagoguery has been unparalleled — and unhinged. In his 2017 budget address, he accused Big Soda of charging more for its product than it costs to produce (otherwise known as profit). He fumed that Big Soda has “been taxing the poor for generations.” It’s actually the city that has been taxing the poor — and everyone else — for generations. He did everything but scream, “Off with their heads!”

Camera icon Handout
Philadelphia Finance Director Rob Dubow

More happy talk came from city Finance Director Rob Dubow. “Thousands of children are getting access to pre-K and to community schools that they would not have gotten without this tax,” he said.

Ah, but instead of adding 6,500 pre-K seats by 2023, only 5,500 seats will be added. Will the 1,000 tykes left in the cold agree that this is a success?

Doubtful.

Here’s something else for city geniuses to gnaw on: What makes you think current revenue will remain level? Sales of soda were declining before this first-ever municipal tax levied by a big city. There is no reason to believe the sales slide won’t continue.

And if it does, here in Wonderland we may again hear our city officials continue their Mad Hatter definition of success.