Since I was sworn in as city controller, my office has worked to make government operate more efficiently and effectively for all Philadelphians. As the city faces a financial crisis and navigates the significant impact of the pandemic on its finances, that work has continued. In my role as the city’s financial watchdog, I believe we owe it to Philadelphians to explore every option to avoid serious cuts to services, layoffs, and tax increases.
The budget Mayor Jim Kenney proposed at the beginning of May includes $50 million in tax and fee increases. He also plans to support a 3.95% property tax increase to generate an additional $57 million for the Philadelphia School District’s budget. With unemployment reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression, and the future of Philadelphia’s economy uncertain, now is not the time to be raising taxes on Philadelphians.
Not only that, but some of the other proposals in the mayor’s updated budget stood out to me as particularly severe. Specifically, cutting the Department of Commerce’s budget by 85% when supporting local businesses should be a priority; the complete elimination of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy and the Office of Workforce Development; and a 20% cut in Parks and Recreation’s budget that will have a substantial impact on its operations.
It’s important to note that the city has increased spending by $1 billion since fiscal year 2016. Meanwhile, critical challenges like the high homicide rate, high poverty rate, and burdensome tax structure remain. With that in mind, I can’t help but ask: Has the city done everything it can to fill its budget gap without raising taxes and fees, or dramatically cutting department budgets?
My office has conducted a review of the mayor’s proposed budget and has identified a path forward to balance the budget without raising taxes. Here’s how:
The Finance Department has budgeted a $50 million deposit into the city’s recession reserve. Instead of preparing for future recessions, the city should use this money to address the financial crisis we are already experiencing.
Despite having increased staffing levels significantly in recent years, the city’s overtime costs continue to increase. By reducing overtime to the level of spending in fiscal year 2011 ($6,000 per employee adjusted for inflation) from a present level of $8,000 per employee, the city could save $45 million per year.
In his proposed budget, the mayor plans to increase funding for the Department of Human Services for increased spending on pre-K and community schools. Keeping the budgets for pre-K and community schools at their fiscal year 2020 spending levels would save an additional $13 million.
Currently, the proposed budget includes $8.3 million in technology costs for the new Police Headquarters building. If the city pushed this project back just a few months until the city’s finances were more stable, it would free up that money.
The city recently gave raises to all four municipal unions and nonrepresented employees, but still has $6.7 million budgeted to the Labor Reserve for wage increases. Additional raises would not be appropriate this year, and the city should reallocate this money.
The savings I’ve presented would fully account for the $107 million generated from the proposed tax and fee increases, while also providing additional savings to offset some of the larger departmental cuts.
We need to remember that the mayor’s budget proposal is just that: a proposal. I encourage our City Council to seriously consider alternatives to the proposed budget. And to the extent they can, I implore the public to make their voice heard during the public City Council budget hearings in the coming weeks. It’s our collective responsibility to provide a scenario in which Philadelphians feel the minimum impact from this unprecedented crisis.
Rebecca Rhynhart is Philadelphia’s city controller.