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Books closed on budget?


IT HAS BEEN three months since Mayor Nutter announced a stunning $1 billion hole in the city budget over the next five years that would require some painful choices.

As in turns out, "painful" was an understatement. Besides the closing of 68 pools, five fire engine and two ladder companies, the mayor's plan to shutter 11 branch libraries has caused an uproar throughout the city. And judging from the temperature of the eight town-hall meetings that the mayor had starting in November, that uproar hasn't abated.

Last week saw the last of these meetings. It's hard to know whether they will lead to any changes in the Nutter plan. The mayor has continued to maintain that he's sticking to Plan A, and that the meetings were designed to give people a chance to hear his reasoning, and perhaps, to vent.

But Nutter would be smart to develop at least a working Plan B. Because those meetings held a few surprises that even the savviest city watchers might not have anticipated. Here are a few that struck us:

Neighborhoods (still) matter. In case anyone was wondering whether this is still a city of neighborhoods, the answer is a big yes. One of the most striking things was how few Philadelphians were persuaded by the argument that all residents will be within two miles of a library. To people fiercely loyal to their communities, other neighborhoods might as well be China. And many residents warned that the closing of pools will lead to trouble next summer if kids venture into new neighborhoods to test the waters. Our question: Why did top administration officials seemed unaware of this basic fact? And a question for the long term: Does this fierce parochialism have the potential to undermine any of Nutter's visions for a modern, sustainable city?

People will fight for their libraries: The citywide dropout and illiteracy rate would suggest that allegiance to books and learning might have been low on the list of worthy public battles, but thousands of citizens showed up at the meetings, and many, armed with newspaper clippings and other research took to the microphones to make their case. What they described was the critical role that libraries play in their communities, as gathering places and safe havens. It's hard to see how such passion wouldn't give the mayor pause. It's even harder hard to believe that nine days from today, the branches could be gone.

Libraries are like casinos.We live in a city with endless examples of the political class ignoring the concerns of the public. Not long ago, the tide began to turn with sustained community protest over the casinos destined for the city. (Note to pols: Neither casino has opened yet.)

Perhaps emboldened by those protests, or perhaps as part of newly activated appetite for civic battles, residents have refused to take the budget cuts lying down. Thousands of them came out for the town-hall meetings, often in bad weather, to make their voices heard.

Whether this is part of a new era of civic activism in Philadelphia remains to be seen. If Nutter amends his plans and finds alternative ways to cut the budget, people might be emboldened by victory.

If he doesn't, they could be emboldened by outrage. And that could be an unpleasant kind of surprise few mayors would want to deal with this early in an administration. *