DESPITE THE fact that we remain under the dark cloud of Newtown, the city can point to some significant high points for the year about to end. They include:
Property values. Just last week, Mayor Nutter delivered to Council some of the results of the citywide property reassessments, and the news is good: Total value of the city's 579,000 properties exceeded expectations, rising from $38 billion to $96 billion. That means not only that Council can move forward on fixing the long-broken property-tax system by instituting Actual Value Initiative, but also that tax rates - and tax bills - are unlikely to skyrocket, which property owners and City Council feared would be the case. There are other implications for the city's bump in value, but after decades of inaction, the completion of the reassessments might be one of the biggest and best changes for the city's future - ever.
Zoning Reform. Almost as significant an accomplishment as property-tax reform, the city's zoning code finally got reformed - the result of years of civic meetings and input, and often torturous work. This means that another long-broken system that has stymied growth and development is on its way to being modernized. This comes with a big asterisk, however, since Council has already begun chipping away at zoning reform. More on that tomorrow when we identify "the bad and the ugly" of 2012.
Catholic education. The announced closing of 49 Catholic schools was a shock to the parochial education system in the beginning of the year, but Archbishop Charles Chaput reversed some of the recommendations when lay people and educators appealed. More strikingly, the archdiocese's high schools and special-education schools got spun off from direct archdiocesan control to a foundation formed for the purpose of managing, and raising funds for, the schools. It's the first plan of its kind in the country.
Public education. The hiring of William Hite as superintendent capped a year of tough decisions by the SRC that has begun wrestling with tough changes to a perennially struggling district. The SRC and turnaround chief Tom Knudsen tackled union contracts and a major school closing plan. These decisions are neither popular nor easy, but for the first time in a long time, it has felt that adults were in charge of the schools. The district may never be out of the woods, since it will continue to face onslaughts from many in state government who think the free-market model can apply to public education.
Pension reform. The Nutter administration pulled off a neat trick earlier this month that diminished the level of underfunding to the city's pension fund by $22 milllion. With innovative and complicated bond financing, the move doesn't increase any costs to the city or add risks to the city's debt structure.
Parks. City Council last month made history when it gave more money to the Parks and Recreation Department. Because of extra money in the general fund, parks will get $2.6 million more for a maintenance team. This is a trend that should continue.