Mayor Nutter called his 2009-10 spending plan the "people's budget," a testament to the unprecedented level of public participation that went into its development.
This year, though, the Nutter administration has sharply curtailed citizen involvement in the budgeting process, though the fiscal challenges remain huge.
Nutter's 2009-10 budget address was preceded by five months of town-hall meetings, public workshops, news conferences, and open strategy sessions.
But the first public event on Nutter's schedule to highlight the 2010-11 budget was an address last week to the Chamber of Commerce.
And though the mayor has a number of interviews and budget-related public events slated for the next week, there will be no forums, no town-hall meetings, and no formal mechanism for residents to register their budget priorities with the administration before Nutter presents his spending plan March 4.
"Last year was a great learning experience for us. And many of the lessons learned last year are more than pertinent this year," Nutter said yesterday when asked why he had scheduled so many fewer budget outreach events.
The Penn Project on Civic Engagement - which hosted more than 1,700 Philadelphians at a series of four workshops last budget cycle - offered to organize another series of workshops this year.
But the Nutter administration declined, said project director Harris Sokoloff.
"The workshops were not just about getting input for the mayor on where the public was on tax hikes and budget cuts. It was also about informing the public about the nature of the choices that had to be made," Sokoloff said. "It's both sides of that equation that I think are missing this year, and I think that's unfortunate."
But Nutter seems to think that city residents are more familiar now than they were last year with the broader economic conditions that have hurt the city's tax collections and helped to create the deficit.
"Citizens know they've had to tighten their belt at home and that we have to tighten our belt in government. It makes it a little easier to communicate that message. People know this is real now," said Nutter, noting that the administration might partner with the Penn Project on Civic Engagement in the future.
After Nutter's budget address next week, City Council will hold a series of budget hearings that could run until May. Three hearing days are set aside for public testimony, an allowance that many activists consider paltry.
"The workshops weren't perfect either, but it certainly was an improvement over the usual process," said Stan Shapiro, a member of the Coalition for Essential Services and a prominent opponent of sweeping spending reductions. "All we have this year is the City Council process, which is totally deformed and really provides no opening at all for citizen input, which is really tragic."
The administration has estimated that the combined deficits of this year and next will run as much as $150 million. Last year, the city's deficit stood at about $257 million, a gap that was closed through a combination of cuts, fee increases, and a temporary five-year sales-tax hike.
Although some spending cuts are sure to be included in the mayor's proposed budget, it seems likely that the administration will call on City Council to approve new or increased fees or taxes to help eliminate a large chunk of the new deficit. Some possibilities that have been considered are a tax on soda and other sugary drinks and a fee on garbage collection.
Union contracts will also remain a top budget target for the mayor, as three of the city's four unions are still working under expired contracts.
Nutter's budget is bound to assume some savings from those unresolved contracts, just as last year's budget did. But if those assumptions were chancy last year, they are even more uncertain this year. The city's police officers - the only bargaining unit yet to get a new contract - were awarded terms by an arbitration panel in December that ended up costing the city more money, not less.
All of which could have made for interesting discussion at a budget workshop, had any been scheduled.
"I think they found the workshops helpful. I think they also found them exhausting," Sokoloff said of the Nutter administration. "When you're feeling embattled, it can be hard to reach out and draw a circle that brings more people in. I think his administration did that well last year. I think if he'd made that standard operating procedure, that would have been good for the city."