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City details cuts in libraries, pools, fire companies

After 11 days of mounting outcry over its budget cuts, the Nutter administration yesterday tried to assuage critics with more detailed explanations for its decisions to target 11 libraries, seven fire companies, and 68 pools for closing.

After 11 days of mounting outcry over its budget cuts, the Nutter administration yesterday tried to assuage critics with more detailed explanations for its decisions to target 11 libraries, seven fire companies, and 68 pools for closing.

For libraries, the administration released statistics on usage and location, arguing that the 11 chosen were among the less heavily used and the nearest to other facilities.

For the fire companies, the administration released a variety of measurements, including number and variety of calls each handled and length of response time.

It was the most comprehensive offering yet of the data behind the cuts that Mayor Nutter announced Nov. 6 in response to what he said was a $1 billion shortfall in the city's five-year budget plan.

In an inch-thick binder, Chief of Staff Clay Armbrister provided figures showing Philadelphia has more libraries per capita than all other top 10 cities and would remain first in libraries even after closing more than a fifth of its 54.

Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, told Council that it was her idea to shrink the library system to provide better service at existing libraries with fewer resources.

"What we came up with, I think, makes the most sense," Reardon said.

Reardon said the library's choices were based on: keeping all libraries open six days a week; ensuring that no resident lives more than two miles from a library; maintaining afterschool LEAP programs at all remaining facilities; and guaranteeing alternative resources and afterschool programs in communities where libraries are closing.

The decision on which libraries to close was based on how many people were served, afterschool program attendance, building size, and annual visits, Reardon said.

The administration argues that the closures are appropriate even without a budget crisis. Armbrister left little room for keeping libraries open, while leaving open the possibility of preserving public pools through private donations.

The city has more than five public pools per 100,000 residents; Chicago is second with half that number. But closing 68 of 81 pools, leaving 13 "regional" pools certain to be swamped in summertime, leaves Philadelphia near the bottom in pools per capita, and does not sit well with Council.

"Those pools are 10 miles from some people," said Councilman Brian O'Neill.

Recreation Commissioner Susan Slawson said pools, which are expensive to operate and have a short season, were being sacrificed to keep all 172 recreation centers open. Programs will not be cut at rec centers, though some will have shortened hours, officials say.

The 13 remaining pools were spread throughout the city based on geography and concentration of children, with size and condition of the pools, accessibility and attendance factored in, Slawson said. Each of the 10 Council districts will have at least one pool open.

Council members criticized city officials for failing to consult with them on the recreation centers and pools.

"We've been doing these jobs in these neighborhoods for a lot of years, and nobody asked us," Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller said.

Miller and others noted that geographic distances do not account for Philadelphia's social landscape, where rival neighborhoods and gang tensions can make a two-mile trip perilous for city youths.

But Armbrister said he would work with Council to set up a system to keep some pools open with private funds - as long as pools in poor neighborhoods were given the same access to funding as those in more affluent neighborhoods.

"How we do that, we haven't determined," Armbrister said.

Council's reaction to the presentation was mixed, though most members were gratified to get something they could sink their teeth into.

"It's a lot of pain in what we have to hear, but I believe they did a very professional presentation today," Councilman Frank DiCicco said. "They had answers to all the questions."

While he asked Nutter last week to conduct an independent analysis of data behind the decision to remove the fire companies, DiCicco said after yesterday's briefing that he did not anticipate that would happen. In part, that's because the city solicitor issued an opinion stating that the city was not required to do the analysis under its contract with the firefighters union.

Councilman Jim Kenney said yesterday's briefing was the most thorough explanation he had received of the administration's budget-cutting decisions.

"You have people who want to grumble and to grandstand, but when I look at it, I think they worked extremely hard and were extremely thorough in their examination," Kenney said. "Anyone who's got a complaint about it should come up with another idea or ideas."