Commentary: Kill Mayor's Fund and give money to the schools

Former Mayor Michael Nutter during the Democratic National Convention in July.

By Jay A. McCalla

For the last several weeks, Philadelphians have been witness to a heated, personalized argument between former Mayor Michael Nutter and current City Controller Alan Butkovitz over spending from the little known Mayor's Fund and whether or not it was all properly authorized.

The overlay of personal insult, a defamation lawsuit, and the questioning of motives has tended to obscure a very basic question:

Why does the the mayor need to lay his hands on $5 million to $10 million (or any portion of it) at the spur of the moment?

Butkovitz released an audit concluding that almost $400,000 of this fund had been spent, in part, on global travel, alcohol, parties, and $100,000 in undocumented credit card charges. As eyebrow-raising as these expenses are, the controller makes the added point that none of this was approved by the board that nominally oversees the fund.

With accusations and disputed accounts filling the air, this may be the proper time to examine the very propriety of the Mayor's Fund itself and whether or not it fulfills the need for transparency, performance, and sober spending.

Continuing with our arched eyebrow, we see the Mayor's Fund claims credit for a partnership with Kiva City Philadelphia, whose mission is "crowdfunded microlending to empower small businesses." The fund also touts its role in creating PowerCorpsPHL, whose purpose is to "increase sustainability while fueling workforce success." If these initiatives are truly as vague as they sound on the Mayor's Fund website, a full review of fund priorities may be in order.

If the fund's goal is to promote our city and encourage economic development, there are plenty of existing entities, public and semipublic, that already do a good job of that. The public agencies have the added advantage of being subject to annual hearings, where the public and members of City Council get to examine spending versus performance. The very idea that this fund is sustained, in part, by money siphoned from the Philadelphia Marathon raises questions only a trained ethicist can answer.

While some may applaud the written guidelines that govern the fund's board, it cannot be overlooked that the majority of its members are mayoral appointees in his administration. Such employees don't usually make a point of refusing requests from the boss.

The only truly independent member of the fund's board is Council Majority Leader Bobby Henon, whose City Hall office was recently raided by the FBI.

Whatever formal spending policies and procedures have been responsibly put in place are immediately debased by the existence of a Mayor's Fund credit card. The possessor of that card can go anywhere and incur any expense authorized or not.

To already cynical citizens who only recently learned about this narrowly accessed "pot of gold," its discovery must confirm every bad thing they've ever thought about free-spending, self-serving. overprivileged politicians.

To those who resent tax increases in the belief the city is wracked with mismanagement and waste, the Mayor's Fund adds to their ammunition.

As if anyone needs a reminder, our public schools were shorted by millions annually by Gov. Tom Corbett, creating an unresolved, long-term shortage of staff, books, and programs.

Our fiscal circumstance is so tenuous that Mayor Kenney canceled his plans to commit $27 million from his recently adopted soda tax to fill the almost $6 billion gap in our pension fund. Instead, he is rerouting it to shore up the general fund.

While Kenney is scrounging to raise money for schools by selling seats (raising a paltry $23,000) in the various mayor's boxes in city stadiums, he sits on an impressive pile of ready cash that has been sidelined for nontransparent purposes.

Now is the time, as an act of fiscal responsibility and reform, for Kenney to liquidate the Mayor's Fund and redirect its proceeds, along with future diversions from the marathon, to our hard-pressed, dramatically underfunded schools.

Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director under Mayors Ed Rendell and John Street and former chief of staff to the late Council President Joseph E. Coleman. jay.a.mccalla@gmail.com

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