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Un-fare deal for Philly

Over the next nine years, a Philadelphia public agency will auction off tens of millions of dollars worth of a limited public asset.

Over the next nine years, a Philadelphia public agency will auction off tens of millions of dollars worth of a limited public asset.

And where will the proceeds go, in these days of dire budgetary need? The city's schools? The dangerously depleted pension fund?

Nope. That cash - to be raised by the auctioning of new taxi medallions - will flow to a newly created state fund, and then be spent over time by the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA), a bastion of patronage in the city, and an agency that rewards its top executives with some of the most lavish salaries paid to public employees anywhere in Pennsylvania.

This squandering of public funds would be an outrage at any time. But Philadelphia and its schools are so fiscally desperate that City Council President Darrell Clarke is pitching the conversion of LOVE Park into an outdoor mall food court just to save a few bucks, while his colleagues ponder erecting billboards on school playgrounds.

Taxi medallions are those little pieces of metal affixed to the hood of cabs that serve as physical proof the taxi is legit, as far as regulators are concerned. And they are worth, in Philadelphia, about $500,000 apiece right now. Maybe more.

Last year - partly in response to a federal lawsuit filed by disability advocates - the state passed legislation granting the PPA the power to auction off 15 medallions a year for the next decade, with some of those medallions reserved for cabs capable of transporting the disabled.

Why not more medallions? Because the current medallion owners lobbied fiercely to protect their investment. "Everybody wants to protect their own turf," says Parking Authority Executive Director Vincent Fenerty. "We could see their point."

I'm not sure lawmakers should be worried about protecting that turf, but the bigger problem is what becomes of the earnings from selling medallions.

Step one: The money leaves Philadelphia immediately, entering a state-managed fund. Step two: The state fund parcels the cash - as much as $60 million - to the PPA to manage its taxicab division.

Fenerty stresses that all of this was done by state lawmakers, not the PPA (which didn't start regulating cabs until 2004, and didn't want the job even then). But, he says, the PPA needs the money to do its job well. "I've got 10 inspectors and about 1,500 cabs," Fenerty laments.

That sounds pretty bad. You know what sounds worse? The School District office charged with overseeing charter schools - which now enroll 61,000 students - has a staff of six.

Where would you put the money?

It was the always-vigilant Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education who brought this gross misapplication of public money to light. Parents United wants the cash to go to the district, less a small percentage for taxi drivers injured on the job.

That's reasonable. It would be equally appropriate for the money to be transmitted to the city's general fund. Indeed, in other cities - including New York and Chicago - medallion sales have been used to plug holes in strapped municipal budgets.

But the Nutter administration seems unwilling to fight for the cash.

"This is an issue between the PPA and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania," Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald wrote in an e-mail. "While the City's Office of Transportation and Utilities is supportive of more taxis that are accessible to the disabled community, neither it nor the administration is taking a position on how the state has determined it wants medallion moneys to be distributed."

More disappointing still is the roster of public officials who could have stopped, or at minimum spoken out against, such obvious waste. That list includes otherwise impressive public servants such as two bill cosponsors, State Reps. John Taylor (R., Phila.) - who did not return three calls for comment - and Brian Sims (D., Phila.) - who was "not available" for comment. City Commissioner Al Schmidt, a PPA board member, referred me to the PPA spokesman.

The charitable explanation here is that the city and its state delegation decided not to pick another fight with Harrisburg while it is waging higher-stakes battles over school financing.

I might find that interpretation convincing if the state planned to keep the medallion money. But it does not. The law is clear that the money will make its way back to Philadelphia. However, instead of being used to fill potholes or pay the salaries of school counselors, the cash will be spent in an agency that is composed almost entirely of patronage workers "sponsored" by the city's political class, including its delegation in Harrisburg.