Let’s March on Philadelphia City Council!

We'll never be rid of corruption in this city until we refuse to accept it

It is the slowest bank robbery in history, and we are all eyewitnesses.

It is an inside job; the same people who are supposed to be protecting the vault are propping the door open. They even have the nerve to say, “slow down, take your time, we’ll make sure you all get your money.”

The vault is the City Pension Fund. The robbery is DROP, the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan. The people propping open the vault door are City Council members who have been caught red-handed grabbing bags of DROP money for themselves. And instead of copping a plea, they gave the reaction of those who know the fix is in. They say, “what are you going to do about it?” as they continue to hold the door open.

And we are the eyewitnesses who stand there feeling powerless and do nothing. That must stop.

It is the great audacity of institutionalized corruption, and our complacency makes us complicit. The belief that “this is the way things have always been done and there is nothing we can do about it” not only enables the corrupt, but aids and abets them. They are emboldened by our passivity.[SIGNUP]

I think it is time we stop being not-so-innocent bystanders, that we stop allowing evil to triumph because good people doing nothing. We should come together and make a stand, first in Love Park and then at the polls. But first, to sufficiently enrage you, let’s take a quick walk down DROP memory lane.

The program was implemented in 1999 by Mayor Ed Rendell, auspiciously with good intentions, but suspiciously with contradictory reasons. We were told the plan, which allows city employees to start collecting pension money before retirement, would encourage valued employees to stick around. We were told it would encourage other employees to retire. We were told it would be an important planning tool for the city, but it is a tool that has never been meaningfully used.

All of this cloudy logic may have just been a screen for what we weren’t told, that a loophole in DROP allowed elected officials and highly compensated city employees to double-dip into the pension. They can announce their retirement, collect a large lump sum of their pension with interest and then “un-retire” and go back for more. Elected officials took to “resigning for a day” after they were re-elected and right before they were sworn in, right around Christmas, Chanukah and New Year’s when no one was paying attention.

Seven Council members — Marian Tasco, President Anna C. Verna, Joan Krajewski, Frank Rizzo, Jack Kelly, Frank DiCicco, and Donna Reed Miller — have participated in DROP.

There have been rumblings about DROP for years, but in August it was officially exposed as a scam by an independent audit commissioned by Mayor Michael Nutter. It found that DROP cost the city’s already beleaguered pension fund $258 million dollars over the past decade.

Immediately there were calls for an emergency session of City Council to drop DROP. Council President Anna Verna released a statement that she saw no reason for her or any other City Council member to leave the beach to deal with the small problem of $100,000 dollars a day pouring out of the pension fund. They would work on it when Council returned in September. The vault door has been held open since then, and a record number of city employees have rushed in to take part in the cash grab.

The Council President already was assured her cut. She has an estimated $580,000 DROP payment coming her way at the end of next year. It remains to be seen if she is really retiring.

After an agonizing wait, finally, last Thursday, 80 days after the report exposed the problem, council had the unmitigated gall to commission another study. This comes in the wake of a report forecasting that the city pension fund would be insolvent by 2015. You don’t ask for a study in a crisis. You act. They even told city employees not to rush to get their DROP money. They assured everyone that they would keep the vault door open for as long as needed. Estimates are that at least 1,200 employees have enrolled for DROP since the August 3rd report. Some say the number is closer to 2,000 — 100 times the average. And that means in four years all of those people will get their lump sums from the pension fund deepening the city’s financial crisis.

And those of us who live and work in the city will be expected to pay for it in higher taxes and fees. If it gets bad enough, the city will undoubtedly look to the state or the federal government for help, inflicting the city’s political greed on a wider audience.

It stands as the most brazen act of a government’s ethical indifference in modern history. They are counting on the fact that we will continue to watch and do nothing, as we always do. Councilman Brian O’Neill did have a point when he said DROP is “a drop in the bucket” of a bigger pension fund problem. But if you can’t even deal with the drop, how on earth can you deal with the bucket?

Since Council refuses to do something, I propose that we finally take action, that we stop our silent complicity, stop being wounded eyewitnesses to an ongoing crime and take action. Our ultimate weapon is at the ballot box next year when Council is up for reelection. It is time to sweep out the chamber. Get rid of all of them as a statement of a new, angry and impassioned electorate. Make a statement that Council is not necessarily a forever job, that there is accountability.

But long before we do that we should rally outside of City Hall so Council can hear firsthand that we will not be silent any longer. That we are having a shared Howard Beale moment and are “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” I would hope young police officers, firefighters and city workers would join the rally as it is their future security that’s being raided.

I have set up the email address [email protected], and I am more than happy to act as a conduit between organizations and citizens who want to gather in a loud but peaceful display of our discontent. I’ll give details in a future post.

It is time to rise up and be heard before the vault is empty and we are expected to refill it.
LARRY MENDTE writes for The Philly Post every Monday and Thursday. See his previous columns here. To watch his video commentaries, go to wpix.com.