An occasional, inconsistent, and improbable series on this year's budget.
The Coalition for Essential Services a coalition of labor, service, and community groups dedicated to getting a "fair budget" passed by Council meaning, in their case, preserving city services and jobs rallied outside City Hall this morning to get Council's attention focused on what they consider the fairest way to balance the city's budget: raising (or "rolling back" to mid-nineties levels) the "gross receipts" portion of the business privilege tax.
This comes as Mayor Nutter's proposed trash fee appears all but dead, and the sugary beverages tax isn't doing much better. Councilman Frank DiCicco has withdrawn his own alternative, a proposed 12% property tax hike, and Councilman Wilson Goode has introduced a two-year 9% property tax hike instead, apparently backed by democratic Council leadership, to balance the budget.
But Council is just starting to hold its neighborhood community budget hearings, and they're already being told exactly what they were told last year: "don't raise our property taxes."
Is it just me, or is it strange that we spend about half a year waiting for Council to make up its mind on given budget?
Anyway: back to the gross-receipts thing.
The idea is this: the gross receipts tax is a tax on net sales rather than revenue/income.
Because large companies can easily hide or move their income, the reasoning goes, the gross receipts tax is the only way to tax the operations of major, national retailers in the area.
One of the strongest arguments against raising this tax is that, because it taxes sales regardless of income, it can tax a business that isn't turning a profit. To answer this challenge, the Coalition is proposing that all businesses with receipts under $500,000 be exempted.
It's an interesting idea, and the exemption is clever - I don't think anyone wants to hurt small businesses right now, but getting a better cut from Coca Cola, etc. it could gain steam.
Council members Bill Green and Maria Quinones-Sanchez have so far been the most interested in potentially revising the gross receipts tax.
Anybody out there want to weigh in on this one? Got a better idea to balance the budget? (And if you're going to say, "cut city jobs," that's fine, but no getting off easy: which department anyone want to take up the line-item challenge?).
A new and likely-doomed blog series, in which I fuss about the city budget. Oh yeah.
"The Government," Mayor Nutter told me, very firmly, "is not growing."
Period. That's it. Read. My. Lips.
Well, he didn't say that, but he kind of implied it. I stammered a bit and waved a piece of paper entitled "City Manager's Quarterly Report" at him, but the mayor wouldn't budge. "The government is not growing," he said, and patted me good-naturedly on the back, as if to say, "But nice try."
It's a claim he's made several times, most notably in a recent letter to the Inquirer:
Several opinion pieces may lead readers to believe the city has relied only on revenue measures to solve the multibillion-dollar deficits it has faced since the world economic collapse. That is false. Excluding pensions and debt service, the city's costs this year will be about $160 million lower than in fiscal 2008. A big part of that reduction has been in personnel costs. Since December 2008, the city's general-fund workforce has shrunk by about 800, and when part-time and temporary positions are added, there are 1,250 fewer employees now than at the end of 2008. And for the first half of this fiscal year, overtime was down by a third from where it was last year.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the government, this man is saying, is not growing.
But this handy chart I made says differently:
|By Isaiah Thompson, Data: City of Philadelphia|
Here's what the chart tells us:
- While it's true that Nutter cut jobs way down from December 2008, that date represented a high-water mark; in other words, Nutter, at the time, was already presiding over the highest level of staffing in four years.
- Starting this year, we can expect to see the city's staff levels go back up, eventually back to where they were in 2005 which was a full three years before the great financial collapse.
- Between 2008 and 2009, the mayor did eliminate actual positions but he also eliminated plenty of vacant positions.
- The number of actual positions, while shrinking, has stayed in more or less the same relative in proportion to the number of budgeted positions.
Look: I'm not some small-government nut. Putting on my columnist's hat for a minute, I don't really care all that much if we do or don't add 100 jobs. It's a small part of the overall budget, and a relatively small part of the overall tax burden. But in a budget proposal which makes virtually no cuts on the one hand, and raises taxes on the other, it's worth asking whether the administration is making its sacrifices this year, too.
Nutter's response, when I first tried to run these numbers by him, was "Talk to Dubow" referring to Rob Dubow, Director of Finance.
Dubow, initially, told me that the city is not adding staff. Until he admitted that, well, yes, it is adding a few positions but not that many, and, he said, the city expects some of these staff investments (e.g technologyth) to result in "efficiencies," which they have not yet budgeted for.
Which is all well and good, but not not quite what the mayor said, when he said, "The Government is not growing."
|Photo | Neal Santos|
At the end of last year, City Paper's Andrew Thompson did a piece on Brett Mandel, the former director of Philadelphia Forward who seemingly checked out of city politics after being disillusioned with Mayor Nutter:
"[Nutter] didn't promise that we would tread water. He promised a renaissance," Mandel says.
And when the campaign was over, he threw up his hands and walked away. "For the last two decades, I've been screaming and yelling about Philadelphia, inside city government, outside city government," he says. "That can be frustrating. Dealing with the political structure is a pain."
We thought he might be back, though. (In fact, the piece mentioned that he had become a committee person for the city's Eighth Ward but just as a hobby.) Recently, he's been circulating critiques of Nutter's budget, which you can read here. Also, he's speaking at Penn's Houston Hall (Room 281) on April 22 at 6 p.m., about such problems he has with the budget. Additionally, he's pushing for a "thorough purge" of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, and asking that reform-minded folk attend new candidates' fundraisers with him.
Can we call it a comeback?
Well, it's time again to identify the inspiring, intimidating, and just plain mystifying depictions of His Honor, Philadelphia's own Mayor Michael Nutter.
The front page of phila.gov almost always features a picture of Nutter but every now and then, that picture is updated. And with each time, with each pic, we get a chance to remark on it.
Before I weigh in on the current picture (above), some history is in order.
|2008: We're-in-trouble Nutter|
I thought, at the time, that Nutter looked "frightened and defensive" and it was posted, after all, in the thick of the city's budget collapsing. Doron Taussig, my former editor, called it "perplexed and slightly angry."
Then came 2009, with a decidedly more cheerful-looking Nutter:
|2009: Confident Nutter|
Last year, I called it "decidedly more confident if less interesting."
|2010: Captain Nutter|
This year's most recent picture (above) takes us back into ambiguous territory: Nutter looks earnest, even concerned a throwback, methinks, to 2008. Yet rather than reacting to something, as he appears to be in Nutter '08, Nutter '10 seems to be demanding our own reaction.
Maybe it's the Philadelphia flag waving in the background. Maybe it's the podium, which resembles the helm of a great ship. Or maybe it's the right hand, lifted in action about to crash down with an angry slam or gently point us in the right direction, we don't know. Regardless, I call this depiction Captain Nutter: Eying the storm, while grabbing the wheel.
But the most important question is: What do you think?
This morning the Pew Charitable Trust released its second annual megasurvey of Philadelphians. You can read the DN's account of it here, or just download the survey for yourself here. The top lines, of course, are the headline-grabbers:
Nutter's approve/disapprove is at 53/32, up from 47/39 last April. 60 percent say they have a very or somewhat favorable impression of him, which, all in all, is a pretty good place for an incumbent mayor who just weathered the Great Recession and skyrocketing unemployment to be in. At the very least, it should be enough to give second thoughts to any potential challengers. (Pew didn't do a partisan breakdown, however; if he does get a viable challenge in 2011, it will almost certainly be from a Democrat in the May primary; his weakness as the Pew people tell me it's always been is among African-Americans and the less educated, two demographic groups that are well represented among Dems. Also, it's worth noting that, because Pew does not consider this a political poll, this poll questions Philadelphians at large, rather than registered or likely voters.)
City Council scores pretty well, too: A 42/34 approve/disapprove, again up a bit from last year. Police Commissioner Ramsey may well be the most popular guy in the city. He banks a 69/11 spread apparently, he's getting the credit for the declining murder rate. Nobody knows much about school superintendent Arlene Ackerman: her approve/disapprove/don't know is 29/20/51. I'm surprised that her handling of the racially charged South Philly High School incidents, in which black kids were beating up Asian kids, hasn't hurt her more, considering how unknown of a quantity she is.
Much to my colleague Isaiah Thompson's dismay, I'm sure, casinos and table games both score well. 51 percent approve of casinos, to 34 percent opposed; 54 percent approve of table games, to 32 percent opposed (you read that right: more people support table games than casinos). So, backroom deals and all, it looks like most people are resigned to, if not excited by, the casinos' presence. I'm on a conference call with the Pew people now, and a DN guy just asked about this: "What's been going down is the number of people who disapprove," one of the Pew reps responded. In other words, the approval numbers have stayed steady, but the opposition has softened.
Oh, and the Streets Department sucks: While respondents seemed OK with library service (58 percent gave the library high marks) and the cops (52/45 in favor), the question of "street repair and maintenance" elicited a bit of ire: Only 28 percent rated Streets' services as "excellent or good," to 72 percent who think they are fair or poor. This degree of unhappiness is matched only on the question of whether the city has enough programs for teens: By a 28/54 margin, the respondents said no.
The cross-tabs yield some interesting results, too. At first blush, the fact that Nutter, who is black, does better among the city's whites than among blacks would seem counter-intuitive: Among whites, he gets a 65/21 approval; among blacks, however, he breaks even, 43/43. That said, Nutter has improved his position among blacks considerably since Pew's last survey, in April 2009 at the height of the city's budget war. Then, only 36 percent of blacks approved of his job performance, versus 54 percent who didn't.
Since Day One, Nutter's strength la largely with well-educated whites, and that's where he performs best now. He gets 62 percent support of those with a college degree, as well as 62 percent support from those making more than $100,000. Curiously, Nutter gets his best marks (59 percent) from the northeast, as well as those over 65 years old (65 percent). That said, except for the black cohort, he gets positive approval ratings across all income, demographic and regional groups.
People like Nutter. His economic policies, not quite so much. Overall, only 47 percent express confidence in his ability to handle the budget, to 46 percent who aren't confident. There's a 47/49 disapproval of his sales tax increase, which, statistically, is a tie. Here again, whites, better educated and wealthier people tend to favor the tax hike; blacks and Hispanics, those with less education and poorer people disapprove, which isn't terribly surprising, given that sales taxes are the most regressive taxes imaginable. At the same time, however, blacks tend to favor a more tax-and-spend approach to city governance, by a 45/39 margin. Whites (39/43) and Hispanics (32/49) lean toward lower taxes and service cuts.
So what does it all mean? With a broad brush, I'd say Nutter weathered the storm. His base among educated whites has held, and his standing among blacks is getting better. To be honest, any tax hike that breaks-even in these polls is a rare thing; people always hate tax hikes, even when they want more services. And given the economic shitstorm of the last year, the fact that he's close to even on any budget-related matters has to be a win. If Nutter survives the next round of budget wars, and the pending union negotiations, politically intact, I'd say he's a pretty solid bet for reelection. The caveat is how differently the people who will show up to vote next May will see things from those who answered their phone for Pew.
Pew says another batch of survey data is coming out later this month, on crime and the general mood of the city. We'll update then.
I'll make it quick. I've got an interview with the mayor, and I thought in the interest of democracy, open-source journalism, and the general welfare of the Good and True People of Philadelphia that I'd open it up to you readers.
What would you ask the mayor? If possible, try to keep it less-angry-screed-like and more genuine-question-that-you-want-answered-like.
No promises, of course, but put 'em below in the comments and I'll see if I can't work some of them into the interview.
The Dad Vail regatta, previously slotted to row across the river to Jersey next year, is back having never actually gone anywhere.
Press release follows:
Thursday, December 17, 2009 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
MAYOR NUTTER, CONGRESSMAN BRADY: DAD VAIL 2010 WILL BE IN PHILADELPHIA
Philadelphia, December 17 â Mayor Michael A. Nutter, Congressman Robert A. Brady, and organizers of the Dad Vail Regatta announced today that the 2010 Dad Vail Regatta will be held in Philadelphia. The announcement was made following a meeting in the Mayorâs Office between Mayor Nutter, Congressman Brady, City officials, and the event organizers.
"Dad Vail 2010 will be in Philadelphia, where it belongs,â said Mayor Nutter. "We never stopped working to bring the Dad Vail back and todayâs announcement is a victory for the young men and women who participate in this event, for the many thousands who enjoy the spectacle, and for all Philadelphians. I want to thank Congressman Brady, Jim Hanna and the Dad Vail organizers, and Herb Lotman who were all instrumental in this process.â
"The Dad Vail Regatta is a Philadelphia tradition and I wanted to continue to work with the Mayor and the DVR board to make sure that this major sporting event stayed in Philadelphia. The effort to keep the regatta in our city was important because it offers our young people the opportunity to compete in the largest collegiate regattas in the country. So it was very important that we continued to talk and work together to ensure that it stayed right here where it belongs,â Congressman Brady said.
City officials announced that the City of Philadelphia and the Dad Vail organizers will seek to reach a multi-year agreement in order to continue to stage the Regatta in Philadelphia. Mayor Nutter and Congressman Brady committed to assist the organizers with identifying potential sponsors. The City of Philadelphia will continue to work with the organizers to identify potential savings and ways to keep costs low, as it does with every potential event host in the city. However Mr. Hanna emphasized that City costs were never a significant factor in these discussions.
|Councilman Frank Rizzo|
Today, at-large Councilman Frank Rizzo introduced a resolution calling for the city to restore mechanical leaf collection, a service which Mayor Nutter cut last November, during the fiscal budget crisis.
The resolution was co-sponsored by Councilmembers Anna Verna, Jannie Blackwell, Curtis Jones, Joan Krajewski, Donna Reed Miller, Marian Tasco and Brian OâNeill.
It passed 14-2, with Councilmembers DiCicco and Green dissenting and Councilman Greenlee absent. (*corrected from an earlier draft, which gave the vote incorrectly as 15-2).
The Mayor's office has said that it opposes re-instituting the service, choosing to spend the money elsewhere: "We're asking citizens to work with us on this issue so we can meet our spending priorities such as police, fire, and libraries," said spokeswoman Maura Kennedy yesterday.
Rizzo, however, saw it a different way:
"There are certain things that the city has an obligation to do," he told the Inquirer.
"There are certain things you canât put a price tag on," he told the Daily News.
Actually, putting a price tag on the service is pretty easy: it cost the city $400,000 annually.
And, it turns out, only about 10% of the city was ever getting the service. And, it turns out, that 10% includes the richest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
Streets Department maps obtained by the CP show that only tiny pockets of the city were receiving mechanical leaf collection services in the first place.
I apologize for the poor image quality, and we're working on getting better maps. A Streets spokesperson confirmed that the different shadings (solid vs. striped) simply refer to different scheduled weeks of collection.
|Shaded portions (only) received mechanical leaf collection in 2008|
Among the pockets of Philly that did get the service, Chestnut Hill and West Mt. Airy seem to dominate in the northwest. Elsewhere: Somerton, Bustleton, and a few other pockets of the northeast; the small gentrified triangle of West Philly that extends west from the University bounded by Chestnut, Baltimore, and 52nd Street; and the swath of Overbrook that hugs City Ave; and a teeny, tiny little pocket of South Philly.
The rest of West Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, the River Districts, and South Philadelphia -- had to rake their leaves themselves.
Asked why these areas - and not others - received service, Streets spokeswoman June Canton pointed out that they have more leaves. And we don't doubt she's right: but they're also wealthier â a lot wealthier, in some cases â than the rest of the city.
There may be "certain things the city has an obligation to do," as Councilman Rizzo put it: but is this really one of them?
Earlier today, "It's Our Money" reported that Willie Brown, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 234 â the guys on strike â had told reporters that Mayor Nutter was "cut off" from future negotiations:
Nutter "has brought nothingâ to the table, Brown said, adding, "I will not meet himâ because of the attacks the mayor has leveled at the union.
About half an hour ago, Office of the Mayor Press Secretary Doug Oliver emailed me the following statement, reprinted here in its entirety:
The Mayor was only involved because he was asked to participate in the discussions. To the extent that his participation is helpful, he's willing to participate. If his participation is problematic, he's willing to stay out of the discussions. It's always been the Mayor's position that his number one obligation is to the 1.5 million people who are trying to manage their way through this TWU strike.
There should be no reason why the negotiations can't move forward. But with a deal like the one that was offered (11% wage increases over five years and no increase in contributions to healthcare) during a time when so many people are taking pay decreases and even losing their jobs, one can't help but wonder why a deal wasn't struck already. Again, if the absence of the Mayor is the only thing needed to strike a deal, the Mayor is more than happy to allow the negotiations to continue without his involvement.
Now, I'm still pretty new in town, so I might not have a perfect feel for how these things work up here. That said, I've been around enough union negotiations to begrudgingly admire the insane, ballsy, never-gonna-happen tack the Transit Workers Union Local 234 took yesterday, when it announced that maybe, just maybe, it would strike at the end of this week, which hey wouldn't you know it? just so happens to coincide with the World Series. Oh, the happenstance.
But to be clear, they don't WANT to strike during the World Series. No, that would be mean, and terribly impolitic during this city's moment in the national spotlight. Just, if SEPTA doesn't give them everything they possibly want, right now, they'll have no choice. And shucks, that would be so darn unfortunate.
"This is the last week we are going to work without a contract," said Willie Brown, local TWU president, whose more than 5,000 members have been working without a contract since March 15.Yet Brown's message to World Series fans was this: "We're going to do everything we can not to have a strike."
Everything, that is, except be reasonable. See, everywhere else on the planet, workers especially government workers have taken to the warm embrace of the words "wage freeze." Because "wage freeze" is slightly less-sucky than "massive layoffs" and "draconian pay cuts." Our friends in the TWU, however some of whom might be considered slightly overpaid are balking at two years of wage freeze, followed by a 2 percent raise the years after. And that's understandable, I suppose. I've spent the last few years in companies with "wage freezes" too, and it definitely is an undesirable situation. But their reasoning that they got raises a few years back, when SEPTA was in even deeper in the hole strikes me as a bit flawed. As in: If you rolled your car down a mountain and flipped it a bunch of times and totaled it a few years back, what's the harm in driving it into the ditch now?
Predictably, the union is refusing to up workers' healthcare contributions, and wants the city to increase its allocation to the union's pension plan. In a normal universe, where the city is cratering in fiscal crisis, these are the kinds of demands that get laughed out of the negotiating table. But this universe is not normal. This is the week of the Series, where thousands of crazy, drunk, poll-climbing, car-flipping freaks will crowd into South Philly to watch the Phils try to repeat. And then they'll want a ride home.
To the TWU, this is, of course, leverage, which is a polite word for extortion. The city hardly wants its moment in the sun sullied by having its major transit system effectively shut down. So the union figures this is their week to make a move. Can't argue with the strategy.
Of course, if the trains stop running this weekend which is also Halloween, wouldn't you know people are gonna be pissed. At SEPTA workers, not the city. And rightly so; I doubt SEPTA workers will find much sympathy in an era of 10 percent unemployment and budgets that already ooze red ink. So when the TWU says it doesn't want to strike, it doesn't. It just wants Nutter SEPTA to blink first. It's a schoolyard dare. The TWU wants to see how much backbone City Hall SEPTA officials have.
I'm curious to see what happens if the tables turn: If Nutter SEPTA turns them away, does TWU have the gumption to follow through, to strike during the Series?
EDIT & CORRECTION: As Gary from the comments pointed out, SEPTA is not a city agency and therefore TWU does not negotiate with Nutter and co. You learn something every day.
- Ask A Man-About-Town
- Award Tour
- Bad Idea Factory
- Below the Curve
- Brian Hickey
- Budget Fuss
- City Council
- City Hall
- CP Abroad
- CP in the Community
- Criminal Justice System
- Day Tripper
- Death and Taxes
- Delaware River
- Dubious Distinction
- End of Days
- Film Fest
- Financial Meltdown
- Free Library
- Gay Stuff
- Get Lit
- Hall Monitor
- Health Care
- Hello, Kitty
- Ice Cubes
- In Memoriam
- Marcellus Shale
- MUST READ
- Mysterious Mysteries
- Non Sequitur
- PA politics 2010
- Parking Wars
- Parks and Recreation
- People Send Us This Stuff
- Philadelphia Police
- Philadelphia Union
- Philly From Scratch
- philly madness
- President Obama
- Print Edition
- Readers Write
- Real Estate
- Rock Bottom
- Screwing Philly
- So Lush
- Sporting Life
- Sports Complex
- State Politicians
- State Politics
- Street Art
- Stuff We Like
- Taxi Drivers
- Tech Fetish
- The Budget Crisis
- The City Paper
- The CLOG
- The Human Condition
- The Mayor
- The Phightin Phils
- The World
- Things that make you go hm
- Tinfoil Hats Off
- Under the Table
- Under the Tables
- Urban Development
- Urban Planning
- urban wildlife
- Video Poker
- We Call Shenanigans
- Web Junk
- Weekend Omnibus
- White House
- What We've Found
- Women's Issues
- Flyered Up!
- How 'Bout That Weather?
- it's always sunny in philadelphia
- get out
- 10-track mind
- Bruce Being Bruce
- Gigantic Surprises
- Hello Canary
- Hello Puppy
- get lost
- Inside The Fishbowl
- Library Closings
- Local Support
- Night Moves
- Skeeze Police
- State Politicians Screwing Philly
- That's a cool stencil!
- Things We See
- This Week
- This Week in Oates
- University City
- What we don't heart
- what we heart
- Feeling Guilty
- Broke in Philly
- Dear Paper Doll
- Do A Good Thing
- Film Fest Schism
- G20-20 Vision
- Great American Heroes
- Pearl Jam Week
- Stars of the Photostream
- Lower Merion Webcam-Gate
- The Cycle
- Equality Forum
- Bureaucrat of the Week