Vice President Joe Biden breezed into town yesterday to announce that Philly will get $10.9 million in federal stimulus funding to hire or retain 50 police officers.
"When you have more cops on the job, more people with a paycheck in your pocket, you have a stronger community and a safer community," Biden said during a City Hall news conference attended by Attorney General Eric Holder, Mayor Nutter, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, Gov. Rendell and governors from neighboring states.
Philadelphia's award is part of the $1 billion earmarked for the Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) Program within the $787 billion stimulus package. City officials said the money should help boost numbers on the police force, which hovers at about 6,600 officers.
"We're slightly under strength now because of attrition," said Ramsey. "What this grant does, it allows us to replace some."
But if the city's budget plans aren't approved in Harrisburg, the COPS dollars will likely just stem the expected tide of layoffs.
Nutter has said that 600 to 800 police officers could be laid off if the city doesn't get state approval for a temporary hike in the sales tax and some cost-saving changes to pension payments.
"If we found ourselves in a circumstance with regard to the potential for layoffs, we'd look at these dollars as a funding source to preserve jobs in the first place," Nutter said.
Nutter said the city will continue to review the budget situation before starting a new class at the Police Academy.
COPS will provide full funding for 50 officers for three years. The city is required to pick up the expenses for the fourth year. This is a change from previous COPS grants, which required matching funds from cities.
Started by President Clinton, COPS helped put 100,000 more police officers on America's streets in the 1990s. But federal funding for COPS was drastically cut back under President Bush.
Yesterday's announcement highlighted the unusual position the city is in - talking about major budget cuts one day, while announcing massive stimulus grants another. And although the city has been awarded millions of stimulus dollars, most of the money cannot be used to deal with the gaping hole in the city's general fund.
"I've raised this issue with the president's folks who were here last week," Nutter said. "These are seemingly conflicting circumstances . . . it's confusing to the public because people can't understand if you're getting all this money from the feds, why can't you use it to preserve services."
Nutter said he asked the White House officials in town last week if they would consider providing cities with waivers to use some stimulus funds for budget problems.
Mark Muro, policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, said that there are many restrictions on the stimulus funds that may be hard to change, but that some more give could benefit cities.
"To the extent that greater flexibility can be built into this thing, its impact can be better maximized by cities and counties," Muro said.
Several cities were denied COPS funding yesterday, among them New York City, Houston, Pittsburgh and Seattle.