With the coronavirus and supervised injection sites and a presidential election looming, Philadelphians can be forgiven for missing another blistering report on the city’s finances from our controller, Rebecca Rhynhart. In a report issued at the end of February, Rhynhart, seemingly the only adult in our city government, outlined a billion-dollar spending binge by Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, since he took office — hikes that are the largest in our city’s history.
The binge has been propelled mostly by surging payroll costs across city departments, where we have taken on more bureaucrats to do seemingly the same amount of work.
Here’s one telling example: As the Philadelphia Citizen outlines, the Fire Department added almost 300 people to its payroll and doubled its overtime spending. Also interesting: In seven of 11 of our largest city departments, payroll has expanded in conjunction with overtime spending. That means more workers working more hours, with little to show for it.
This culture of unaccountability permeates the daily function of our local government. Remember the soda tax, the mayor’s marquee accomplishment since gaining office in 2015? The proceeds, which among other things were supposed to pay for improvements to our parks and rec centers, haven’t had the impact we were told they would. As reported by The Inquirer, “Nearly four years after City Council passed the beverage tax, little construction work has begun.”
Kenney’s office issues mealy-mouthed responses when asked why the results he promised have not materialized, even as the tax has been raised disproportionately from working and poor people. But in Philadelphia, you’re either an insider living on the taxpayer’s dime, or you’re left holding the bag.
Outside the Mayor’s Office, Sheriff Rochelle Bilal chose to sack a whistle-blower and have him hustled out by armed deputies for the sin of raising concerns about internal “slush fund” spending. Bilal swept into power in 2019 with a promise to clean up the office.
These types of issues gain some coverage, but not enough, perhaps because they are so commonplace in a city that regularly sends its officials to jail for corruption. But Philadelphians must be laser-focused on the causes of our future misery. While the mayor and his cronies keep spending — and Council seems loathe to address it — we are hurtling toward Detroit status, a city which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, defaulting on its debt — including pensions promised to retirees. Former librarians and civil servants were forced to forgo tens of thousands of savings kept in city-run plans and scores were kicked off promised health insurance.
Do your eyes glaze over at the mention of our city’s pension and health care obligations? Well, it may not be the sexiest topic — but it will affect our home values, our schools, and our ability to borrow money and finance important public projects in the future. And it will throw us into chaos if Philadelphia, like the Motor City, is forced to declare bankruptcy due to overspending and must cut benefits to vulnerable retirees and take the labor unions representing them into messy court proceedings.
We simply will not have enough money to pay our retired teachers and firefighters in a downturn. And as we’ve seen in the last weeks, a downturn could come faster than we expect, for a reason we haven’t considered — like a trade war, or a cyberattack, or a virus.
Sadly, our mayor seems motivated to dance for sanctuary cities, kowtow to PC demands like blocking city travel to “anti-LGBT” Mississippi, and “go after Trump” — but not to do the daily work of governing. Being a steward of our tax dollars — and the obligations we have promised to this generation of retirees — should be the foremost job of a city’s leader. But for Kenney, it’s an afterthought, perhaps because he won’t be around when the crash arrives.
And the average voter? Maybe it’s our famous “Philly shrug,” but nobody seems to be raising much of a peep as the city’s spending hits the stratosphere.
Which is our shame for not demanding more from our leaders.
In the late stages of the French monarchy, it was said that Louis XV acknowledged, simply, that after his reign — during which the crown accrued crushing debt and failed to address France’s long-term problems — would come “le deluge,” a catastrophic, cleansing flood. Due to the callousness, financial mismanagement, and short-termism of the French elite, the people’s suffering eventually reached a breaking point — and a bloody revolution followed.