We Need a Poet Laureate Like We Need a Hole in the Head

Will Nutter's second term give Philly higher taxes, more murders and iambic pentameter?

I was talking with a Philadelphia small-business owner at a party on New Year’s Day when the subject of Mayor Nutter came up. Like many casual City Hall observers, he had a mostly favorable view of the mayor. But when asked to point to one major accomplishment of the Nutter administration, the business owner’s face went blank. After a pause, he said “crime is down.”

Oh, really? There were 320 murders in Philadelphia last year, up from 306 in 2010 and 302 in 2009. In fact among the 10 largest cities in the country, Philadelphia’s murder rate is the highest. But since the Nutter administration uses the 392 murders in 2007 as a benchmark, it can claim that killings are down.

If, as Andre Agassi famously said, “image is everything,” then Nutter’s first term was a success. Indeed, the Nutter administration has been mostly about style over substance. Few business and political leaders are willing to publicly say the Emperor Has No Clothes, but privately many grouse about it.

As Nutter begins his second term, gone are any hopes for the bold “change” and “reform” he promised four years ago. Just more small ball writ large. But don’t tell the Nutter administration loyalists who still strut around City Hall as if they were on the West Wing, but execute like Vince Young running Andy Reid’s West Coast Offense.

In many ways, Philadelphia is worse off than it was four years ago. Under Nutter, the poverty, unemployment and murder rates are all up. Taxes have gone up three years in a row—ending years of small but steady tax cuts under Ed Rendell and John Street.

No doubt the 2008 financial meltdown upended many of Nutter’s best-laid plans. But Nutter failed to use the crisis to bring about the real reform he promised. Instead, he has used it as a crutch.

Not quite the lofty bar Nutter set when quoting Martin Luther King during his 2008 inaugural address: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Very stirring. Except when Nutter’s moment arrived, he played it safe. Instead of confronting the city’s fiscal challenges, Nutter opted for the quick fix of raising taxes. Not once but three years in a row. In a city with already one of the highest overall tax burdens in the country, Nutter’s tax and spend ways will hamper the city’s growth for years to come. And he probably isn’t done raising taxes yet.

But Nutter does not let the facts get in the way of his feel-good narrative. During an online chat at philly.com last week, a recent Temple graduate asked Nutter what he was doing to attract jobs to the city. Nutter said part of his economic development strategy included “lowering taxes.”

Maybe when compared to the Rizzo years.

Nutter talks a lot about making the city safer and smarter. No doubt both are key to any city’s growth, but Nutter has done little to change the dynamic on either front. He gave his police chief a whopping $60,000 raise and quietly stood by while Arlene Ackerman drove the schools into a $630 million financial ditch.

That’s a far cry from four years ago when Nutter set a goal to cut the city’s homicide rate by 30 percent to 50 percent within three to five years. In fact, Nutter pledged not to seek re-election if he couldn’t reduce the number of murders to the 2002 total of 288. Ah, never mind.

Nutter also called for cutting in half the city’s 45 percent school dropout rate over five to seven years. Not going to happen. While the graduation rate has improved some, it has a looong way to go. Plus, it is hard to trust even the small gains given the standardized test-cheating accusations and the complete disarray and fiscal mismanagement of the school district under Ackerman.

Nutter’s handling of crime and schools captures his overall management of the city. Lots of show, but very little go. Not to worry, help is on the way. Nutter just named the city’s first poet laureate.