Searching for Mayor Draco

There's a word for Michael Nutter's refusal to cut Philadelphia's bloated bureaucracy: suicide

Think of the City of Philadelphia as a company.

It is not difficult to do. It is second in the area only to the U.S. government in employees with 30,000, and it provides services for a cost. The services are fire and police protection, trash collection, street light maintenance, etc. The cost is the fees and taxes we pay.

Like almost every company in America, Philadelphia is feeling the death grip of the recession. Most companies have to cut staff, perks and non-essential expenses to survive. And many companies find that when they do cut back, they run more efficiently. Companies, you see, get fat and lean with the ebb and flow of the economy. [SIGNUP]

The one thing companies can’t do it is raise prices. The last thing you want to do to your cash-strapped customers is chase them to the competition. That would be corporate suicide.

And that brings us back to the company called Philadelphia. It is strangling itself in order to keep the status quo thick with bureaucracy and patronage. Recently, when it was suggested that the City of Philadelphia cut its sending by 7.5 percent — you know, like almost every company in America has had to do — Mayor Nutter, the company of Philadelphia’s CEO, said the cuts would be “draconian.”

Wow, sounds bad. We wouldn’t want to do anything “draconian.” Draco, in case you didn’t know, was a ruler in early Greece whose laws were so harsh that people were put to death for minor offenses.

And you thought local news was fraught with hyperbole.

Because Nutter didn’t want to be Draco, God forbid, he decided to go with the corporate suicide option. Apparently, in government, it is less “draconian” to raise the cost of living in the city for families already struggling in a bad economy.

Here is the biggest problem with the Nutter option — Philadelphia already has the highest taxes and fees in the country. A Philadelphia family making $75,000 dollars a year pays over 15 percent in state and local taxes. That same family would pay half of that in similar-sized cities like Phoenix and Houston. New York, with all its problems, is at 9.8 percent, Los Angeles is 7.2 percent, Chicago 6.8 percent.

So are city services that much better here than other cities? Do we, as City of Philadelphia customers, pay a fair price for the product we get? No. For the most part, we pay Neiman Marcus prices for dollar store quality services.

I see the imbalance from an interesting vantage point as my home is in Northwest Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill to be exact. Two blocks to the east is Springfield, Montgomery County. Two blocks to the north is Lafayette Hill.

After the last big snow storm, I had to slip and slide in my car for two blocks until I hit clear streets. Twelve days after the storm, my trash was still not picked up. Two blocks away, homeowners had four trash pickups during that span. I am also two blocks away from cleansing myself of the highest municipal wage tax in the country.

The saying goes, “You get what you pay for.” In Philadelphia, you don’t.

And now our anti-Draco Mayor/CEO would like us to pay even more for very little. It started with a 1 percent increase in the sales tax. But, you see, people can avoid the sales tax. Just ask the shop owners in Chestnut Hill who have seen a decrease in sales. Remember, just a few blocks away is a lower sales tax for the same products. So with consumers buying fewer goods and services because of the increase in sales tax, the move probably ended up being counter-productive. If you raise the sales tax 1 percent and that drives 10 percent of the business away, you lose money.

Back to the non-Draconian drawing board.

Another popular way to raise money is to tax vices. But in the “How Not to Be Draconian” playbook, all the good vices like gambling, alcohol, gasoline and cigarettes are taken. Thank goodness for Michelle Obama and her anti-childhood obesity campaign. She has created a new villain to tax and attack — colas and other sweetened drinks. Tax a Coke, save a child.

The 2 percent fat tax would work in a less cynical, more physically fit city. But with our cheesesteaks, soft pretzels and Tastykakes, soda is the least of our problems. Plus doing this, when the city is desperate for money, seems disingenuous at best. It’s like when your mother would take a doughnut away from you because it is “bad for you,” and then she would eat it herself. That would be called a doughnut grab. What the city wants to do is called a money grab.

By the way, the 2 percent sweetened drink tax is not dead, but it will be. In a city where, as South Philadelphia Congressman Ozzie Myers once famously said to undercover federal investigators, “money talks and BS walks,” the tax will be killed by a flood of money from Coke and Pepsi lobbyists funneled into the right pockets. Just watch. The Abscam investigation was almost 30 years ago, but BS is still walking and money is still talking.

Michael Nutter has one last trick up his anti-Draconian sleeve — a $300, across-the-board fee for trash pick-up.

Wait. Aren’t we already paying for that? If the highest taxes in the country don’t include trash pick-up, what exactly are we paying for? Shouldn’t we get something extra for $300 a year? Maybe a really good foot massage, a gift bag, or something, anything for the extra money.

City Council is debating the trash tax, and it is so unfair and unpopular it would be a surprise if it gets passed, at least in its current form.

So what’s next?

Michael Nutter is a good man in a tough job at an historically tough time. But he was elected because he seemed different from the others running for the job. He talked about fiscal responsibility and not doing business as usual.

We believed him.

And now he is letting us down by doing exactly what he said he wouldn’t do. He is acting like every other Philadelphia politician and past Philadelphia mayors by putting off the problems of today for someone else. Philadelphia needs to be run like a company, and Michael Nutter must start acting like its CEO.

Before Michael Nutter comes at us again with sales taxes that don’t work, cynical soda taxes or fees for public works that were supposed to be “already included,” try shrinking the size of your budget, like every good company is forced to do, like every responsible homeowner is forced to do in hard economic times.

In short, we want Mayor Nutter “to go draconian” on a bloated city government. If he gets tough and reduces the size of government, he will be a hero in this city and across the country. If not, well, the city will continue to lose population, revenue and business.

Our family has already made the decision to move out. We are going to follow the customers of those shop owners in Chestnut Hill who have been chased away. Better schools, better municipal services for far less money — I would be a bad consumer if I didn’t move.

Philadelphia, the company, has made “two blocks away” too enticing for its customers.

LARRY MENDTE is a former Philadelphia news anchor. His commentaries are seen at Tribune television stations across the country. You can see them at