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  December 25, 2008 Issue                                       

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Commentary: The honeymoon is over; Mayor slammed for cuts

On Thursday evening, Dec 18, Mayor Nutter brought his mea culpa dog and pony show to the academic halls of Martin Luther King High School on Stenton Avenue — literally. In one of the most stunningly insensitive displays of political hubris, the Mayor’s staff had the meeting set up in the entrance hall of the school. According to one City Hall worker, a staffer chose the location because of a wall mural that would serve as background for the Mayor’s podium.

“They thought it would be a good backdrop for the TV cameras,” was the explanation.

If the setting was not enough of a slap in the face to the hundreds of people who came out that night, the fact that an empty auditorium was on the other side of the painted wall was even more galling.

As the Mayor took to the podium to begin to explain how he and his top administration officials decided to carve the $108 budget deficit for the current fiscal year out of the recreation department and library system, the crowd bellowed at him, insisting on an answer as to why they were seated in the hall. “Why we out here?” the crowd yelled over and over again until the Mayor responded as best he could.

“I don’t know,” he said.

The Mayor said that since everything had been set up already, the event would stay in the hall and not move into the adjacent auditorium. It was a bad start on a night that would prove full of recriminations and criticism for a Mayor whose election was one that signified promise, transparency and —– most of all — restoring integrity to city hall.

As Nutter stood at the podium, in front of the mural, the image of the man entrusted to return the city to its residents and not the political elite gave way quickly to the image of a man suddenly overwhelmed with the responsibility of a city in distress and an administration that appears too far removed from the life of ordinary Philadelphians.

Nutter explained that the budget gap occurred after the city’s real estate transfer tax fell more than halfway below the expected amount. The city’s pension fund tumbled 12 percent last month and the forecast for further economic indicators, namely property tax collection in early 2009, is bleak.

“It happened very quickly,” Nutter said of the impact on the city.

Since his Nov. 6 announcement, the budget projections have gotten worse. Nutter called the deficit a moving target, describing the situation as rapidly changing.

“We tried to make the best decision we could in an emergency situation,” he said. “That is what you elect leaders to do”

Nutter further said such a massive mid-year budget change” almost never happens.

To begin the process, Nutter said he and his staff cut as much from administrative costs as possible. They cancelled bonuses, took pay cuts, raised fees and fines, eliminated inefficiencies, reduced the city’s fleet of vehicles, and mandated five furlough days for all exempt employees.

“It was still not enough,” Nutter said.

And it was then that the Mayor and his team devised a plan to cut back each city department. The Free Library’s decision to shutter 11 branches has garnered the most attention by far at previous town hall meetings. Even though the meeting at King was the last of eight such meetings with the Mayor, it was no exception.

Residents and students crowded the hall, standing in lines where space permitted and even on a second floor balcony above the entrance. Siobhan Reardon, director of the library system, attempted to explain the process behind the decision. The Mayor asked her to cut $8 million out of the library’s budget. Reardon said that the library budget is comprised of staff, which accounts for 85 percent, and materials, which accounts for 12 percent.

After cutting $2 million from the materials budget, there was still $6 million more to find. She cut back Saturday hours, eliminated 111 positions and still had to cut more. Reardon said there were two main thoughts on how to close the gap. One was to reduce hours across the system, taking the branches from six days of service to just three. But that would mean the libraries were closed more than they were open, she said. The second idea was to close 11 branches entirely.

The library system has been underfunded for years,” Reardon said. “The budget crisis was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

For many in attendance at the meeting, the closing of their neighborhood libraries, namely the Wadsworth and Cohen branches, may be the straw that breaks the back of their community, they said, leaving their youth with few if any alternatives to street violence and crime.

“The library gave me a safe place to stay,” said one student, a junior at King. “Instead of joining a gang or staying on the street, I took it upon myself to go there and educate myself further.”

The crowd was further dismayed by news that the library closures are to be permanent. Nutter said the administration is working “everyday” to relocate many of the services and programs to other locations in the same neighborhood.

“We are working on it everyday, everyday,” Nutter said.

Another student at King took her turn to stress the importance of the library to her and her friends.

“This is not a minor change” she said. “We need places to go to get on the computer to do research. We don’t have computers at home. You want us to get A’s and B’s and to do what we got to do. Please don’t shut it down.”

Reardon defended the choice of which 11 libraries to close. She said the decision was based on proximity to another branch and usage. Each library that is closing is within two miles of another branch.

There were also some ideas coming from the disenchanted crowd, which at times erupted into more of a screaming match and had to be quieted down. One older gentleman reminded the Mayor that once upon a time the city decided it wanted to restore the William Penn statute that adorns City Hall.

“They went and they got Julius Erving and they started a campaign to raise the money,” he said. “They put kids out in the streets to collect change, and we raised the money for Willie Penn. Declare June Free Library Month and put people out to collect money to save the libraries.”

Another Germantown resident urged the Mayor to abandon his pragmatic approach to leadership and lead Philadelphians in a march on Washington.

“It’s unacceptable,” he said.“ Organize a march on Washington to demand a bailout for the city. If the banks can get it, we should get it. It would be a better message to young people than to come here and say ‘I’m sorry. ’”

Nutter told the crowd that he was in Chicago that morning meeting with Valerie Jarrett from the Obama transition team to discuss bailout funds for the city.

“I listened for a while to them talk, and then I’d had enough and I said to her I only have two questions: ‘How’s it going to work, and how do we get the money?’” he said.

But Nutter has other ideas as well. First he said he intends to come to the people before the budget is written in the spring, not after he’s made all the decisions. He also called for the restructuring of the City Charter, an idea I first raised in an editorial in the Local following the November budget address. As the Mayor pointed out, the charter was created in the 19th century and it’s time to reexamine it.

“We need to look at the items causing some of these issues,” he said.

According to the Mayor, 24 percent of the city’s budget involves the criminal system — police, courts, prosecutors. Another 21 percent is made up of health and pensions. Many of the departments and programs are not even under the executive branch of government.

It is time for that to change, to provide the city with more choices when it is facing an economic crisis of historic proportion. And to prevent future generations for paying for the mistakes of previous ones.