Let’s Solve Our Budget Problem With Hookers and Coke

Because drinking till 3 a.m. isn't going to help.

The attention, hype and debate devoted to a bill to allow bars in Philadelphia to stay open until 3 a.m. seems like such a waste of time given recent events. Look around: Murders in the city are soaring; the property-tax system is in disarray; and the school district is essentially bankrupt. The new City Council members sound just like the old ones with no intention of getting rid of the costly DROP pension perk, let alone allowing taxpayers to speak at a public meeting for more than three minutes. And Mayor Nutter’s apparent new modus operandi is to appear in control by cursing.

Given the very real and sizeable problems facing the city, it is amazing that City Hall is spending its energy on a measure to keep bars open an extra hour. City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown pitched her drink proposal to raise $5 million for the public schools as “out-of-the-box” thinking. Maybe if the box is coffin.

Let’s get real. Five million bucks isn’t going to move the needle, given the school district’s combined $330 million budget hole this year and the fiscal year beginning July 1st. More specifically, it’s unclear if Brown’s bill would even raise that much money. It’s also unclear if any revenue raised from the extra hour of drinking will be offset by the costs from an increase in more crime, arrests and drunken-driving accidents. Details, details.

Then there is the philosophical argument as to whether the city should fund public education by encouraging more boozing. Then again, many cities and states are now hooked on funding other government operations by getting folks to gamble away their paychecks. Why not legalize prostitution and cocaine so the government can “solve” all of its budget woes?

That gets to the crux of the problem: the lack of leadership and imagination needed to fix the city’s growing list of problems. Forget the perennials like the city employees’ ticking pension time bomb, the double-digit unemployment rate, and the crushing overall tax burden that is one of the highest in the country.

More pressing, Philadelphia had the highest per capita murder rate among the 10 largest cities last year, and is off to an even bloodier start this year. Mayor Nutter’s solution: Give Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey a $60,000 raise and start calling the criminals “idiots and assholes,” as if that is going to make a difference.

It only gets worse. Just watch the mathematic hoops Nutter is going to jump through to get to the magic number he needs to collect in property taxes this year. The city’s assessments may be uneven, but it is only going to get worse given the recent ruling that could allow many businesses and homeowners to cut their property tax bill in half. Oh, and what about the temporary property-tax hike that is supposed to go away this year?

Meanwhile, the school district’s finances remain a basket case. The city controller estimates the district needs to cut spending by $400,000 a day between now and June 30th just to close the current $61 million budget hole. That’s like getting rid of an Arlene Ackerman every day—without the $1 million parachute of course.

There’s probably plenty of dead wood to cut at the school district, given the student failure, dropouts and violence that dominate the schools. But one lesson that doesn’t get taught at the city schools is accountability.

Just consider the recent major shakeup of the school district’s leadership that resulted in the $150,000 hiring (for six months) of a chief recovery officer, whatever the heck that title means. Never mind that the new temporary head of the school district, Thomas Knudsen, has no education experience and ran the Philadelphia Gas Works, which even after his year’s long turnaround effort, remains bloated with debt and could not be given away.

When there is a change at the top of most failed organizations, the old leadership goes away. But not at the Philadelphia School District. When the dust settled, everyone still had a six-figure job.

That says all you need to know about the state of the city and its public schools. Drink up, everyone.