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City Hall should give public the 'Full Monty'

Budget details shouldn't be left to our imagination.

Philadelphia's continuing fiscal crisis recently prompted a downgrade of its credit rating. The city's finances have been tenuously balanced with "temporary" tax increases and deferred pension payments. So the coming debate on next year's city budget deserves our careful scrutiny.

But for the public to participate fully in drafting the city's plan to raise and spend public money, we need to be able to see everything - the "Full Monty," so to speak.

While the city budget is debated and approved by our elected representatives, the public doesn't tend to be part of the process. One major reason is that even if we attempt to understand the city budget, the information that's readily available to us isn't very useful.

The budget ordinance passed by City Council is a bland document showing only how much money is allocated to each city department and how it's divided by broad categories - how much for personnel, how much for contracts, how much for supplies, and so on. The city also produces countless pages of numbers that break down spending by subcategory but don't indicate where the money actually goes. Meanwhile, the city's five-year financial plan contains information about departmental accomplishments but does little to link them to spending.

With the services we count on threatened and taxes on the rise, we should be watching the city budget as carefully as we watch our household spending. We can't have access to only a little information about the budget. We need to see it all.

Every year, our elected officials choose to spend our money in many ways. We have seen several instances in which a little public outcry about one of those choices forced officials to reconsider (say, when the mayor reversed a decision to use public money for a trip to New Orleans). If we had information about all of the city's spending decisions, we could undoubtedly encourage elected officials to make more good choices. Maybe we could help find the resources to fund local parades, keep all the municipal pools open, or avoid putting fire companies out of service.

Through a series of right-to-know requests, I have been able to break down the spending of a few sample city departments to better illustrate how they spent our money last year. I have organized and presented the data with some explanatory information on my website, where you can even mark up the information with your own comments and questions.

Like me, you might question some of the spending choices. Why, for example, does the Mayor's Office spend so much on so many lobbying firms? Why do we bear responsibility for a $190,000 payment on a breach-of-contract suit? And why did we pay $475,000 in "Civil Rights Attorney's Fees"?

Why does City Council employ more than 200 employees to serve only 17 legislators? Why does it spend so much for newspaper advertising in the Internet age? And why does it allow its members to hold outside employment when the city pays them so well?

Why does the Managing Director's Office spend nearly $6 million on professional services? Why does it employ so many well-paid deputy mayors to run a government that was designed to operate without them? And for what did it pay out $134,000 in "Other Expenses Not Otherwise Classified"?

Why does the City Controller's Office spend so much money staffing "community affairs"? Why does it employ so many relatives of politicos? And why does it pay a consultant whose office was recently raided by the FBI?

Ideally, a fuller picture of the budget would give us much more information about our agencies' goals, the strategies they're employing to meet them, and the results they're achieving. If the public were truly engaged in setting the government's priorities and evaluating its performance, we could dramatically increase its responsiveness.

A government committed to transparency would provide this information. Until we have one, this accounting of where some of our city departments spend our money is a good start. So, cue the burlesque music and get ready to see it all: the "Full Monty" budget.