Over the next few days, It's Our Money will be asking advocates and citizens to tell us which of the ideas Council is reportedly considering for balancing the budget they prefer -- or, if they don't like any of them, what they'd like to see the city do instead. This first installment comes from former City Controller candidate Brett Mandel. If you'd like to write a BtB, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Touching All The Bases To Balance The Budget
If I were a City Councilperson today, I would be disappointed, and not just because the Council baseball team lacks speed, power, and consistent pitching. Council is weighing tax-increase options to balance this year's budget and none of the ideas could be called a home run.
To balance a $150 million hole in his budget, Mayor Nutter has proposed hefty taxes on soda and trash collection. But those new fees would hurt Philadelphians who could least afford to pay, the soda tax may not even be legal, and we endure one of the nation's highest tax burdens to pay for the trash collection the Mayor believes we shouldn't get for "free." Strike one, two, and three.
From out of left field come ideas to increase the Real Estate Tax when we know that real estate taxation is currently so unfair we are about to abolish the agency in charge of estimating property values. Proposals to increase the Wage or Business Privilege Taxes while neighbors and employers struggle to recover from the recession should be out of play.
So what would I do if I were to step up to the plate?
We need to reduce the cost of living and doing business in Philadelphia while improving quality of life and the quality of the city marketplace. We cannot jack up taxes year after year or slash services. We have to spend smarter and budget better.
The Mayor proposes to hike taxes and end the year with a big surplus. If we're not going to spend it, Philadelphians could use that money to support their families, so I'd trim the surplus. The Mayor himself proposed cuts in police overtime, prison costs, and Council spending to save $17 million, which all combine to reduce the hole to $68 million.
It is time we stop returning the $18 million dividend the Philadelphia Gas Works pays the city and time to eliminate the city's "row offices" — the City Commissioners, Clerk of Quarter Sessions, Register of Wills, and Sheriff — and incorporate their functions in other city agencies. These moves reduce the hole to $35 million.
(Some of these things will take a few months to implement. They COULD have been completed in time if the process had started sooner ... but it didn't).
Taking a swing at the hackocracy and eliminating jobs in the Mayor's Office, City Council, the Controller's Office, and other patronage stashes can save more than $5 million. We could save more by reducing overbudgeting for FICA costs, City Council, Refunds, and Commerce Department-Economic Stimulus to reduce the hole to about $24 million.
Re-engineering trash collections by transitioning to modern trucks with two-person crews, taking the paper out of government, and leaving unfilled city positions vacant can eliminate the remaining budget hole. Because tax collections are coming in higher than anticipated, we would even have a cushion for future calamities.
That could balance our budget without even taking a seventh-inning stretch.
Of course, if the Mayor increases future costs during labor negotiations, that's a whole new ballgame.