Council probes $4 billion city budget, rejects hearing on its own budget

3 x 2 Beth Kephart City Hall photo
Philadelphia City Hall.

Philadelphia’s City Council began the long march last Tuesday toward reviewing Mayor Kenney’s proposed $4 billion budget for the coming fiscal year.

There will be 15 hearings, spread across seven weeks, with a succession of city agencies called before Council to explain how much money they want and how they plan to spend it.

But one sizable segment of the city government will not have to deal with all that.

There is no hearing on City Council’s own budget.  There never is.

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke has flatly rejected annual calls to hold a hearing on his budget, now proposed to be $17,107,546 in the fiscal year that starts July 1, an increase of about 2.3 percent from this current fiscal year.

In 2012, when Clarke was first elected president by his colleagues, he said such a hearing would turn the “process into a clown show.”

Clarke saw me coming Tuesday, just before the first budget hearing started, and knew what I planned to ask.  “No, no, no, no, no,” he said, laughing, before offering a more measured response than in 2012.

He noted that the schedule includes two hearings -- May 3 and May 9 -- at which the public can ask Council about anything in the city budget, including Council’s spending plan.

“So the notion that somehow we’re not accessible during budget season is just not the reality,” Clarke said.

Eight of the  16 other Council members were in the chamber with Clarke when he spoke -- six who are Democrats like him, two who are Republicans. Not one of them would get behind the idea of Council holding a hearing on its own budget.

Most of them focused on process. Would Council ask itself questions, they wondered.  And they rejected the idea of a hearing dedicated to public input on just Council’s budget.

What is so complicated about some Council staffer or member preparing and delivering testimony in a public hearing about how $17 million of our tax dollars will be spent and then answering questions from the very people who paid those taxes?

There is no way else to view this: Council operates under a different set of rules than it enforces for the rest of Philadelphia’s government.

Consider what Clarke’s office said in a news release issued to announce the start of budget hearing season:

“City Departments with operating budgets of more than $5 million are required to testify before Council. Smaller departments may also be called to testify at Council’s request. Every city department and office is required to transmit budget testimony to Council.”

Council’s proposed budget is more than three times the amount used to trigger a demand of testimony from other agencies.

I’m betting there are people and groups out there who hold an opinion about all of this.  I want to hear from you.

Philly Set Go, a political action committee that advocates for millennial voters in city and state politics and government, is already on board.  They plan to engage about this topic with the 5,000 members who communicate with the PAC through an email list and social media.

Speaking of engagement, that Council news release said the public can offer thoughts about the budget by email or phone.  You can call Council at 215-686-3407 or email budget.hearings@phila.gov.

If you think Council should play by the same rules as everyone else, why not tell them?

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