ALMOST a year ago, the
and WHYY launched "It's Our Money," a multimedia project funded by the William Penn Foundation to cover the city budget. At the time, we had no idea that the financial crisis would push the usually sleepy issues of municipal finance to the front page of every newspaper.
To cope with a potential shortfall of $1 billion over the next five years, Mayor Nutter has announced a sweeping plan that includes shutting down 11 libraries, closing most pools and suspending planned tax cuts.
The mayor responded with a series of town hall meetings. Already, he's appeared in South Philadelphia, Kensington and Parkside. This week, he goes to meetings in the Northeast, Roxborough and Center City (for a full list with times and locations, visit www.ourmoneyphilly.com).
The meetings have been well attended, but produced more heat than light. Frustrated citizens line up at a microphone to plead for their libraries and offer cost-saving suggestions. The mayor responds politely, but makes it clear he's not changing his mind.
It's great that there's a dialogue going on, but a number of changes would make these meetings more productive.
We need to hear more from the mayor. At the first three events, he yielded the floor to questions after a brief introduction. It might seem unusual for a public forum, but less time should be devoted to questions so we can hear more from the mayor.
It would be incredibly useful for him to pick a specific decision, like closing a library, and explain in detail how it was made. The administration has done a poor job communicating the rationale behind the cuts. People might be more willing to accept the reductions if they fully understand the process that led to these decisions.
Provide the whole picture. People are understandably concerned about library closures. But the plan to close 20 percent of our libraries represents only about $8 million in savings out of a $108 million hole. There are many things, like the increase in L&I fees and the suspension of planned tax cuts, that are part of Nutter's cost-saving plan.
It's fine to focus on the libraries, but the public has to understand that the cuts affect almost every part of city government. Highlighting only the high-profile items does a disservice to everyone. Again, we need to hear more of an explanation from the mayor.
Get the audience talking to each other. Instead of just providing an opportunity to vent, the forums could be a place to build citizen interest in budget matters.
The mayor should encourage participants to break into small groups and discuss their spending priorities. The groups could be joined by administration officials and the mayor could wander the room talking to people. That would also allow people who might not want ask a question in front of a large group to communicate their concerns.
More from the deputy mayors. Most members of the mayor's cabinet have attended the meetings. That much brain power in one place could provide a lot of information, but most of the deputy mayors remain silent. Some even look bored. It would be better to get these folks out into the audience and allow people to ask them questions.
Provide more info about city departments. City government is complicated. Most people are unaware of all the different programs and activities, except for the ones they use. The three forums have featured a small, seemingly random, assortment of city departments. It would be more helpful if citizens could have access to more detailed information.
The city wouldn't even have to produce anything. Outside groups, like the Economy League, have already developed resources that could easily be distributed.
Do more to involve community groups. Invite community groups to participate by having a table or distributing materials. These forums could be a way to channel people's concerns and anger into productive action. *
Ben Waxman reports for "It's Our Money," a partnership of the Daily News and WHYY funded by the William Penn Foundation. E-mail email@example.com or call him at 215-854-5307.