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Taxation without innovation

Another city budget raises taxes even as it fails to address serious fiscal problems.

"Fraud." That is the best word for the budget approved by City Council last week. Our leaders would "balance" the budget with a tax increase that is unfair and potentially illegal; spending "cuts" that are not really reductions at all; and new revenue streams that spare those with the right connections.

Worse, the budget is still out of whack in the short term and potentially doomed in the long term.

Council decided to enact a 9.9 percent property-tax increase (hoping we wouldn't notice it rounds to double digits), but the property values on which it's levied are so flawed that we just voted to get rid of the agency in charge of them. It's a disgrace that, knowing what they know, city leaders would press on with a tax increase built on this crumbling foundation.

For anyone counting, this is the third consecutive year in which Mayor Nutter and Council have increased taxes. In a city with one of the nation's most uncompetitive and burdensome tax structures, this is not a proud streak.

Council has also made a number of budget "cuts," but they aren't actual spending reductions. Rather, they have chosen not to reserve $4 million for unanticipated expenditures; to reduce a planned increase in Council spending; and to reduce police overtime and prison-related spending to reflect successful management initiatives already under way.

In other words, nothing was cut. The hackocracy continues to employ too many patronage workers, row offices remain unthreatened by modernity, and the government acts as though no belt-tightening were in order.

It would be wonderful to credit Council's rejection of the mayor's proposed tax on sugary beverages and his fee for residential trash collection as a principled stand for the citizenry. But that does not seem to be the case.

Rather, the city's beverage honchos have reportedly offered a $10 million "donation" through a local foundation to make the soda tax go away. And so it looks as if the tax will disappear faster than New Coke.

Meanwhile, lacking the juice to turn back tax increases, the city's tobacco purveyors will get hit with a tax on cigars and chewing tobacco, and the city's small businesses will get whacked with increased fees for trash collection.

I wish I could end by saying the moves proposed by the mayor and Council, flawed or fraudulent as they may be, will at least balance our budget and put us on the road to long-term fiscal stability. But the current budget and five-year financial plan are balanced only if we assume that, somehow, the coming negotiations with the city's unions will yield no raises and win concessions worth $25 million a year over the next five years.

What of the mayor's threat to slash vital city services if there aren't even more tax increases? Given that the government is overgrown with nepotism and cronyism, threatening to cut police and firefighters is either an irresponsible scare tactic or the result of a lack of managerial imagination.

Buckle your seat belts: We are in for more budget turbulence in the coming months and years. Our leaders have stumbled through another budget without tackling any of the city's long-term challenges. The city's costs are still rising faster than our revenues can cover them. Our burden is still too high when compared with the benefits offered by city government. And this is still one of the few jurisdictions anywhere without a formal rainy-day fund. Philadelphia deserves much better.