Mayor Nutter introduced a budget last week that increased spending, but, finally, holds the line on taxes and fees for the first time in his administration.
It's a budget designed to keep everyone happy in an election year. Except there is one big problem: Nutter's budget is going to have a very short shelf life.
In fact, the $3.46 billion budget will likely go back to the drawing board on Tuesday, after Gov. Corbett unveils his spending plan. Corbett has promised not to raise taxes. He instead plans to cut spending in order to close a deficit that could be as much as $4 billion out of a roughly $28 billion state budget.
Nutter says the expected cuts at the state level could reduce the amount of money that comes to the city by several hundred million dollars. Philadelphia's public school system is also bracing for some deep cuts in state funding.
In addition, the federal government is in the middle of its own budget battles. With stimulus funding all gone, states and cities can expect much less money from Washington. Nutter said proposed federal funding cuts would amount to a reduction of $149 million for Philadelphia. That number could change as the budget fight in Washington grinds on.
Nutter said the city could not wait to see how much money is coming from the state and federal government. Instead, he argued for making strategic investments. Politically, at least, it's a savvy budget. Nutter can point to what he wanted to do and then blame Harrisburg and Washington for any cuts or reduction in services.
But given the economic realities at all levels, Nutter's budget proposal would have been easier to support if he had reduced, rather than increased, overall spending by about $100 million. Then he would be in a better position to argue the city has already tightened its belt, and can't afford more cuts.
To be sure, the bulk of the spending increase in Nutter's budget is due to built-in increases in pension and health costs, and increased debt service. But that doesn't mean he couldn't have cut spending elsewhere to make up for those unavoidable costs.
Nutter wants to spend $6.4 million more to hire 120 new police officers and $4.4 million more to hire 80 new assessors to overhaul the city's property-tax system.
In a meeting with the Editorial Board last week, Nutter admitted that City Hall remains an inefficient operation, despite some improvements. That's all the more reason to speed up efforts to streamline, eliminate unnecessary programs and jobs, and keep pushing departments to do more with less.
No doubt it is more fun to spend than to cut. But that's how most other businesses and households operate these days, given the economic realities.