Mayor Nutter faced down an irritable crowd at a town hall meeting in South Philadelphia last night, defending a series of draconian budget cuts in response to the national economic crisis, and hinting that some pools and libraries on the chopping block might yet be saved with private help.
Throughout the session, in the gym at South Philadelphia High School, Nutter kept bringing the conversation back to the bleak reality: The city has a $1 billion hole in its five-year spending plan, and has to make $108 million in cuts in the next six months.
"The fundamental principle here is, you cannot spend what you don't have," Nutter said. "We cannot borrow our way out of this. We can't hope things will get better."
In response to the budget crisis, Nutter has said he would suspend planned tax cuts, eliminate 800 city government jobs, close 11 libraries and 68 public pools, and reduce investments in parks, the community college, street repaving, and other priorities.
The crowd of several hundred - including a hefty helping of city employees and neighborhood activists - grilled Nutter on a range of topics: What plans did he have to increase revenue? Why not take away the cars of City Council members? What did he expect children to do when pools and libraries were closed? Is the 10-year property-tax abatement still necessary? And what about funding for the Mummers?
At one point, a heckler yelled from the back: "Why not cut your pay?"
"I did," replied Nutter, who reduced his salary by 10 percent and ordered smaller pay cuts for many on his staff.
Though not quite hostile, the crowd was certainly testy.
There were a few hisses and boos, and a handful of tense exchanges. It may have been Nutter's roughest public appearance since he took office.
Still, it clearly could have been worse for the mayor. The crowd was about half as big as the one that filled the same gym for an address he delivered on education in September.
For the most part, the town hall meetings - yesterday's was the first of eight - are informational only.
City workers are surveying attendees on budget priorities, but their answers will be used only to inform next year's budget process. Nutter acknowledged that the feedback he got last night would not change his immediate response to the budget crunch.
He did, however, hold out some faint and murky hope that a few pools and at least one library - the Fumo Family Branch - might be saved with the help of the private sector.
"I feel fairly confident there will be more than 12 pools open," Nutter said.
Earlier yesterday, the mayor announced that three city ice rinks slated for closure would stay open with the support of Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider.
"We're looking at developing additional partnerships," Nutter said at the meeting last night.
He did not elaborate, citing the presence of reporters.
In one of the sharpest exchanges, Karen Brown, a city employee and president of the Southwark Civic Association, suggested that Nutter had funded frivolous activities - such as movie nights in the City Hall courtyard - before the budget crisis struck.
"All these wonderful things you were doing, now I believe you're cutting, the middle class and the poor, the services they need," Brown said. "What are you going to do with our youth in the summer? When crime goes rampant when they have nowhere to go?"
Nutter said no one knew how bad the economic situation was going to be, including his administration.
City Council also came in for a few hits, though no members were on stage and few if any were in the crowd.
Patty Daley, a police officer, asked Nutter why City Council President Anna C. Verna was not in attendance.
"Is she here tonight? Why are none of them here to hear our complaints? Why is that? Should we be their first priorities?" Daley asked.
Robert Grasso wanted to know why taxpayers were paying for vehicles for so many city employees.
"We're watching City Council and a lot of city officials driving around with free cars that they don't need," Grasso said. "Let them use their own cars, like everybody else. It's like the corporate executives going to Washington on private jets to ask for money."
The next town hall meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at Kensington High School. The Nutter administration plans to continue holding regular town meetings every six to eight weeks next year.
More Meetings Scheduled
Mayor Nutter plans to hold seven more town hall meetings on the city's budget cuts. They will begin at 7 p.m. and last about two hours. People are asked to arrive by 6:45. The dates and locations:
Monday: Kensington High School, 2051 E. Cumberland St.
Tuesday: School of the Future, 4021 Parkside Ave.
Dec. 8: John Perzel Community Center, 2990 St. Vincent St.
Dec. 9: Roxborough Memorial Hospital, Wolcroff Auditorium, 5800 Ridge Ave.
Dec. 10: Benjamin Franklin High School, 550 N. Broad St.
Dec. 16: Kingsessing Recreation Center, 5100 Chester Ave.
Dec. 18: Martin Luther King High School, 6100 Stenton Ave.
SOURCE: Mayor's Office