It's easy to honor a commitment to government openness and transparency when times are good. It's when difficult decisions have to be made that such promises are put to the test and matter most.
We will never be able to satisfy every neighborhood or interest group. But when we make decisions and set spending priorities in private, we risk making uninformed choices, with harmful consequences for our constituents.
In his budget address to City Council in February, Mayor Nutter observed that the time for "heavy lifting" had arrived. He warned of a "sputtering" national economy and "flattening" tax revenues.
Yet, in the face of these and other daunting challenges - expiring union contracts, skyrocketing prison costs, an underfunded pension system - the budget introduced by the administration and passed by Council increased spending by 2 percent and added new initiatives.
This "win-win" budget depended on aggressive revenue estimates made in the face of a stagnating economy, $50 million in annual savings from a problematic pension bond offering, and spending down reserves. It involved little in the way of "heavy lifting."
We thereby let slip an opportunity to level with citizens. Rather than asking for shared sacrifices, we introduced new programs and spending. Rather than starting a substantive conversation about how to confront our financial challenges, we offered reassurances that our fiscal house was in order. Rather than taking bold steps toward transforming how we deliver services, we largely continued along our prior path.
The worldwide financial meltdown is getting the blame for our unwillingness to do the heavy lifting last spring. But our failure to act prudently then is necessitating deeper and wider cuts now. Important services that impact citizens' everyday lives will be lost as a result.
Despite the strong mandate for change in the 2007 local elections, the mayor and we on Council failed to act with the boldness, leadership and "new day, new way" thinking that citizens expected of us. Philadelphians were unfairly lulled into the belief that a renaissance had arrived merely by dint of an election - that true change in Philadelphia could be realized without having to make tough choices.
The spell has been lifted, and it now falls to us to fix matters. In doing so, we must honor the public input we are getting.
Before cutting the bone and muscle of city services, such as libraries, we need to cut the fat. City Council already has agreed to a 10 percent cut in its $18 million annual budget, and other elected officials have followed suit. We also need to examine non-core services - the new bike czar, the Office of Sustainability, etc. - and make sure we don't sacrifice the tried and true for the new and trendy.
While short-term action is necessary to bridge the budget gap in the current fiscal year, we should not shy away from investments that hold long-term promise. We can address the current crisis using the same old incremental approach - scratching out savings by cutting services, leaving vacancies unfilled, delaying tax cuts, etc. - or we can take advantage of this opportunity to fundamentally transform the way the city operates. For example, we could save hundreds of millions through technology reorganization and paperless government.
Given the projected deficit ($108 million this fiscal year and more than $1 billion over five years), we need both incremental and systemic change. The service cuts and layoffs proposed by the mayor may be the only short-term solution for keeping the city afloat during the economic downturn, and I support the mayor in making them as long as we trim the fat first. But this is also the time for transformative change - and heavy lifting.