It was supposed to be a change election in Philadelphia. November 8, 2011, the day a city electorate finally awoke from a 50-year coma to say no more to reckless spending and the underlying corruption that fuels it. Suddenly, Philadelphia City Council member was not a lifetime job.
Six new faces were swept into office, meaning one-third of council owe their jobs to the mandate of change. So where is it?
Those new council members, Mark Squilla, Kenyatta Johnson, Bob Henon, Cindy Bass, Denny O’Brien and David Oh, are in office because of voter disgust with Philadelphia’s DROP program, which saps money from the already dilapidated pension fund. And still the DROP program arrogantly exists without debate from the new council or one peep from the Drop DROP Six.
And now council is faced with Mayor Michael Nutter’s 2012 budget. It is a budget that admits to “an anticipated deficit of anywhere between $150 million and $400 million at the close of next year” for the School District of Philadelphia. It is a budget that is filled with the bulge of ever-expanding salaries and benefits for city employees, accounting for 68 percent of the total cost. It is a budget that acknowledges pension fund costs have almost tripled, from $200 million to $500 million, in the last decade, and acknowledges that the pension fund is only 50 percent funded.
And how does the new budget propose to pay for all of this? Not with cuts—indeed, the budget proposes a three percent increase in spending—but with a big increase in property tax payments disguised as reassessment.
The budget must be approved by the council. Hearings are underway now. This is the moment for the Drop DROP six. This is why they were voted into office. The 2012 budget is being debated right now, and almost everything is on the table. The six new members should fill the council chambers with calls to drop the program that is slowly killing the pension fund.
But don’t stop there.
Insist that the budget cut the size of government. Bring the total payroll cost from 68 percent of the general fund down to 65 percent, a small decrease, but a step in the right direction. Limit the increase on property taxes to three percent a year and 10 percent over five years.
And one last thing, put the one budget item you don’t debate on the table: the cost of council. It is the one thing that council doesn’t hold hearings on. This budget grows without any oversight. That needs to change. Right now that budget is listed at $15 million, but it’s really $22 million when you count employee benefits and maintenance. The 17 council members pay 168 total employees. Council President Darrell Clarke is especially gluttonous, spending $3.1 million on 50 employees. Council could show leadership in fiscal responsibility by cutting its own staff and budgets by 10 percent.
Maybe I’m expecting too much, but the Drop DROP Six—Squilla, Johnson, Henon, Bass, O’Brien and Oh—need to do something to live up to the expectations of the Philadelphia voters who bucked history to put them there.
We expect change. This is your moment. We’re watching.