Rest of the State to Philadelphia: Drop Dead
In 1979, Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic didn’t effectively plow the streets after a snowstorm — and as a direct result, he lost his primary election several months later. After similar snowstorms in Philadelphia this past winter, the streets were in deplorable shape — and that’s being generous.
The result? Almost 80 percent of voters just told Mayor Nutter “job well done” in last month’s primary.
That’s the difference. Chicago is “the town that works.” Philadelphia is completely dysfunctional.
Apathy gets you what you deserve. That passive neglect by city residents has led to Philly’s very deserved reputation as a city of colossal failure, with virtually no promise of a renaissance-like turnaround. And the numbers bear that out.
A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust says it all: those who have the means to leave the city do so — as evidenced by 263,000 white residents (one-third of that population) who fled over the last 20 years. Those who can’t flee get further crushed by an abusive and incompetent government.
Since voters keep sending leaders like Mayor Michael Nutter back to City Hall by overwhelming margins, the rest of the state — particularly non-city state legislators — have increasingly been sending a message to Philadelphia: “We don’t care about your problems any more. You’ve made your bed — now lie in it.”
It’s about time.
Up until the ’50s, Philadelphia was the last major city to be run by Republicans. The GOP had become wildly corrupt and eventually lost power to the Democrats reformers, who have been calling the shots ever since.
The transformation can be summed up this way: Philadelphia went from competent but corrupt Republicans, to incompetent and corrupt Democrats, to what we have today: just incompetent Democrats.
Sure, there is still corruption, but, to be fair, Nutter seems to be cleaner than some of his predecessors.
That’s simply not good enough. Truth be told, it’s probably a safe bet that the majority of residents would rather have corruption and competence than just plain incompetence.
Nothing works in the city. Services are poor and unpredictable, despite the staggering costs that residents and businesses pay for them. Opening a business is fraught with bureaucracy, red tape, and, many privately say, extortion — both “legal” and otherwise.
The education system not only is in the hole $600 million, despite 70,000 vacancies in the school district’s capacity, but violence is commonplace, making it a deathtrap for many students. Year after year, its “product” is so bad that a huge number drop out of school, and the rest have virtually no skills to perform even the most menial jobs after graduation. Only about one-third of its 11th graders are proficient in math, and slightly more than 40 percent proficient in reading, according to standardized tests. Yet those dismal figures were “earned” despite massive educational spending and smaller class size. The truth is, the percentages are significantly lower, since the dropouts are not included in the scores.
The pension is catastrophically underfunded, so much that the Nutter has deferred payments for two years, promising to make it up by stroking a check — after his reelection — for $800 million. There is simply no money for that, so, sooner than later, it is a mathematical certainty that pensioners will begin to receive reduced payments, and, possibly, no payments at all.
Crime is still rampant, yet the Mayor acceded to the Police Commissioner’s implied threat to leave, giving him a $60,000 raise — making him the highest-paid employee in the city.
But rather than embark on a course that would clean up the city and reduce the tax and regulatory burden so that businesses and families would actually want to locate in Philadelphia — thus increasing tax revenue — the Mayor and City Council have done what they always do: put the screws to the residents who can’t afford to vote with their feet.
Philadelphia is, cumulatively, one of the highest-taxed cities in the nation. From the job-killing wage tax to the 100 percent increase in the city portion of the state sales tax, and from the (“temporary”) 10 percent hike in property taxes to the business gross receipts tax, taking more of the residents’ money is the only solution known to Philadelphia’s leaders.
And yet, it’s still not enough. So Nutter has gone back to the tax well yet again, this time resurrecting his soda tax proposal and pushing for big fee increases in parking rates. Oh, and he’s lobbying for another 10 percent property tax increase. Remember, that would be in addition to the 10 percent increase passed last year.
Good move. That’s sure to bring in new businesses.
Mayor Nutter’s governing strategy is predicated upon only one thing: handouts from the federal and state government. In fact, he admitted that the city would have been unable to pay its bills last year without federal stimulus dollars.
Up until now, his feeding at the public trough has paid off, as the state always came to the rescue with big bucks. But the game has changed, as neither the state nor the feds have any money left to give. And now that those welfare checks to the city have dried up, the Mayor doesn’t have a clue how to govern.
This should come as no surprise, though, as he has virtually no experience in the private sector. How often has he ever had to meet a payroll, or navigate the bureaucratic minefield when trying to open or expand a business? When was the last time he stayed up at night, worrying about covering his employees’ health care costs? And has he ever had to look someone in the face while handing him a pink slip — because the city tax burden was simply too great to keep that valued employee on board?
Career politicians who sit in their ivory towers, insulated from reality, govern from the only “experience” they know: academic theory. And as the exodus of Philadelphians shows, that simply doesn’t cut it.
Philadelphia doesn’t have the luxury of being Washington or New York, where being downtown is a necessity. Very few businesses have to be in the city, so the margin of error for Philly’s leaders is extremely small. And for those empty nesters and white-collar types who enjoy living in Center City, they are one mugging away from packing it up and moving back to the suburbs.
The lesson is simple: a government that overreaches yet remains incompetent results in a vastly reduced tax base — which in turn leads to a death spiral. It’s a concept any high schooler could grasp, but tragically, is completely lost on this deer-in-the-headlights Mayor.
After years of misguided policies, there are no easy answers, but the future is easy to predict because there is absolutely no political will to affect real change. Contrary to the fairy-tale fluff spewed forth at nauseating press conferences, nothing will improve, more folks will leave, Philadelphia will continue its sad decline — and the Mayor will retire on an enviably-large pension.
Perhaps only then will he finally reap the whirlwind of his disastrous policies — when his own pension check bounces.
What a legacy.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.” Freind, whose column appears regularly in Philadelphia Magazine and nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia. He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com.