Insider: Take It From an NTI Mastermind — Kenney’s Parks Plan Is Flawed

McCalla: There are echoes of John Street's dubiously conceived Neighborhood Transformation Initiative in Mayor Kenney's proposal.
Mayor Jim Kenney delivers his budget address to city council Thursday, March 3, 2016, at City Hall in Philadelphia. Kenney is expected to ask for a soda tax to help fund several new initiatives including universal pre-K in his first budget address to city council. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Mayor Jim Kenney | Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider. Jay McCalla is a policy consultant who provided pro bono advice to former mayoral candidate Anthony Williams and other candidates last year.) 

Irresistibly, I imagine our mayor rolling down South Broad Street in the back seat of some open-­air sedan from the 1930s, head tilted back, silk top hat, and cigarette holder clenched by incisors — ­totally FDR-style. You see, Jim Kenney has sworn fealty to an ancient Democratic dictum: spend, spend, spend.

Last month, Mayor Kenney announced a massive, six-year capital spending scheme, which, at $600 million, may be among the biggest initiatives in our city’s modern history. He plans to upgrade scores of libraries, rec centers and parks, most of which have been sorely neglected by the same government that now is poised to force-­feed them this one­-time infusion.

The last time our government went to the bond market to borrow $300 million for operating cash (a highly debatable idea), the result was former Mayor John Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. As Street’s Deputy Managing Director, I executed an elaborate, dubiously conceived plan that grossly over-promised residents and ​plunged the city into debt until 2031. Initially, there are some echoes of that borrow-and-spend debacle in the Kenney Plan.

The obvious question for me is: How did Kenney come up with the figure $600 million and what, exactly, will he do with it? How will our 3​53 city facilities​ be sorted and prioritized?

A senior administration spokesperson says ​there won’t be a master plan​. Rather, Kenney’s staff will work with individual Council members to set priorities in their districts. This approach sets the table for almost purely political spending as well as a battle over how much each district Council person gets relative to their colleagues/competitors. That makes Kenney’s proposal more “pork barrel” than plan.

Pork barrels are a reliable Democratic staple because they have the same effect as dropping a pebble into a still pond. Out from the center goes ripple after ripple. With this borrowed $600 million, Kenney will have a bevy of ribbon cuttings and photo ops to carry him through re-election. He will also have created numerous little intersections where favors can be traded.

To labor leader John Dougherty and the boys (and they are overwhelmingly boys) in the city’s building trades, our pork barrel neatly ripples into a gravy train that will provide at least six years of high-demand for union workers. This is an extraordinarily grand coincidence because Kenney just happens to owe Doc a mammoth debt for his political support in the mayoral primary.

Looking past all the political folderol, the Kenney Plan exposes a binge-and-purge approach to our most important civic assets. We starve these facilities from one decade to the next until they become, in the words of City Controller Alan Butkovitz, a “wreck.” Then, we pack on 20 years of debt just to get back to normal.

Chronically underfunded public safety demolitions led to NTI and the effort to confront the high tide of crumbling houses. But Mayor Street decided to use future demolition funds to repay the money he borrowed for NTI demolitions — and thus, when NTI ended, there were precious few dollars for ongoing public safety demolitions.

We are governed by sugar highs and intense spending spurts in the short­ term, followed by neglect and mounting debt. There must be a better way.

Jay McCalla has served as a city deputy managing director, a director for the Redevelopment Authority, and as the chief-of-staff to former Councilman Rick Mariano.