Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Gold Standard: Time to prune, not plant.

As the Nutter administration and City Council complete their second budget of the recession, a $2.5 million plan to plant 300,000 trees symbolizes the disconnect between the city's fiscal problems and its elected officials.

As someone who served briefly as executive director of Fairmount Park, I believe our park system is one of our most undervalued and underappreciated assets. In the best of times, planting more trees should be applauded. But this isn't the best of times. Far from it.

Still, the administration's tree proposal was part of a budget that included a 10 percent real estate tax hike. Not much pruning there.

Granted, Mayor Nutter subsequently cut the tree proposal (among other things) after the budget passed last week, saying City Council's decision not to pass the soda tax jeopardized the city's cash position.

Let's remember what we faced even before the recession walloped the city. Just before the mayor's inauguration, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority issued a report outlining the fiscal threats facing the next mayor:

  1. A shrinking budget surplus. (It's shrunk even more since then.)

  2. A growing pension-fund burden. (The city got a short respite by deferring payments but will have to face the music in a couple of years.)

  3. An uncompetitive tax structure. (Since the PICA report, the tax-reduction program has been halted and higher taxes added.)

Add to this list the impending fiscal problems of the school district, which is operating on temporary stimulus money and the largesse of the Rendell administration, now in its waning months. A real-estate tax-hike request from the district may not be far off.

And even the recently passed real estate tax hike needed to balance the budget is no sure thing. Based on an admittedly faulty assessment process, it's hard to believe a taxpayer lawsuit won't contest the validity of the tax hike.

The recession has eliminated more than 20,000 jobs in Philadelphia, which already had a poverty rate of 25 percent. It makes you wonder just what our elected officials were smoking when they approved $2.5 million for planting new trees. (Maybe District Attorney Seth Williams should rethink his proposal to go easy on pot.)

In fact, at a time when pruning, not planting, is needed, the budget included 200 new positions, with another 175 set for next year.

As I indicated at the start of the budget process, the city couldn't cut its way out of the $150 million gap. A combination of taxes and cuts would be required. But the cuts our leaders have chosen have been modest, if not illusory.

Counting as cuts items like overtime or not filling some open jobs reminds me of the husband who comes home and tells his wife he saved $40,000 that day.

"How did you do that, honey?" she asks.

"I decided not to buy a new car," he answers.

Many of our service departments have been severely cut over the years (Streets, for example, is down over 50 percent).

We need to be more surgical, strategic and politically courageous in reducing the size of government. But when the administration proposed closing all swimming pools last budget season, then proposed no closings this year, I worried about whiplash as I followed budget proposals that went from one extreme to the other. There doesn't appear to be a coherent strategy or political appetite for sizing up our infrastructure and determining what's needed - and affordable - for today's population.

And City Council is no help.

Like mother hens, its members protect everything in their districts.

We've missed an unbelievable opportunity to make change. The Chinese word for crisis is said to have two characters: one for "danger," the other for "opportunity." In dealing with our fiscal crisis, we've failed to see the opportunity.

As a result, we're still left with fiscal danger.

Phil Goldsmith writes "The Gold Standard" column for It's Our Money.  He was city managing director, 2003-2005.