Lest Ye Forget the Tale of the Zombie Budget

A couple of weeks ago I got an impassioned email plea from a group called Save Our Safety Net. “The Washington city budget faces massive cuts that would do the worst damage to the poorest members of our community!” it said. “Call council and say that the city needs to raise taxes!”

The email had a laundry list of, indeed, last-ditch social service organizations that keep people from literally dying on the streets. It was horrible. So I, barely in the city a couple of months, did what I was supposed to do: went to the rally, lobbied city council. I signed the petition.

“You know, I just moved here from Philly,” I told one of the organizers. “We just went through this. Same horror movie: lost revenue, no political will to raise taxes, and so on.”

“How did it turn out?”

“Well, actually, it has been rather a miraculous thing so far. The community really came together, even altered the budget process itself. We ended up forcing the city to raise taxes with an administration that was never going to do it, through the most democratic process I’ve ever seen in a city government.”


“Except that, despite the fact it started in 2008, it’s not actually done…”

The Philly budget saga has been going on three seasons now. Winter, spring, summer…and now, it threatens to stretch into the fall. There is a Republican state Senator in Pennsylvania named Dominic Pileggi whose greatest legislative achievement last year was blocking health care reform that would have insured 42,000 impoverished Pennsylvanians, and this year, starving the Philadelphia government by blocking approval of the sales tax increase that would keep the city operating. He should not be in public office at all.

I get very defensive of projects I have worked on. I am mad about this. Amnesia sets in really fast – and it’s been a busy year – but all you have to do it rewind to the chill dark of last December to remember the civic mood in Philadelphia when Mayor Nutter came out with the first pools-and-libraries cuts. I have never seen so many depressed progressives in my life. Really bad bar graphs in winter. That Obama/Phillies high wearing off reaaal fast, and those thirty seconds that Nutter had to prove to the grandmothers of West Philadelphia that he was going to be different from all the other mayors falling off the shot clock.

Remember that?

I was talking to a libraryista this week, and he was going on about Nutter pro-business grumble grumble nothing ever changes…and I realized that people are already forgetting everything that happened after that.

So I am going to sketch out a brief chronology to remind you:

- Mayor Nutter announces budget cuts
- Friends of the Free Library begin campaign
- Firefighters begin campaign
- Lawsuit filed to keep libraries open
- Mayor holds disastrous town halls where people show up, and scream at him
- Mayor holds PhillyStat, round two of town halls, where people show up again, I think these were a little more sedate.
- Coalition to Save Libraries formed, bringing together library advocates, community groups, and other endangered city services
- Bowing to pressure from Philadelphians, Mayor designs and then holds round three of town halls with facilitated process designed by the Penn civic-engagement DJs to take public input to design the city budget.
- Despite deeply ingrained and not unwarranted distrust of their elected officials, hundreds of people show up AGAIN to design the city budget in these fora
- Coalition to Save Essential Services formed, which was a different yet overlapping Venn diagram from the Coalition to Save the Libraries
- Library lawsuit successful, happy New Year!
- New branch of FFL forms in West Philly as a result of the organizing - I think there might be others. At any rate, many branches of this organization were strengthened by the fight.
- Mayor redesigns budget, including tax increases initially including sales and property tax increase.
- (here’s when I skipped town, so my knowledge of the remainder of the story is a little thin, and needs to be augmented)
- Philadelphians find out that property taxes = bad. Again, they take the time and make the effort to organize, go to city council, lobby, go to the umpteenth rally.
- City council hearings result in more participation
- City council cancels the property tax increase
- Mayor rewrites budget
- Mayor sends budget to Harrisburg. Dom Pileggi sits on it.
- Mayor calls for rallies to put pressure on Harrisburg and YET AGAIN AMAZING PEOPLE SHOW UP AND USE THEIR VOICES, including a bazillion social service organizations, taking day trips out to Media.
- …and this is the quick version.

This has all been amazing. This actually all happened. Hundreds and even thousands of people worked very hard to make all this happen. The amount of learning that has gone on by so many people who had no idea what a real estate transfer tax was has been pretty incredible. It’s the kind of thing that changes a city forever. I tell people in D.C. how proud I am of Philly, that we decided as a city what the budget should look like, that we chose to come together and make sacrifices in order to keep homeless shelters and HIV treatment clinics open.

Just the effort required to make this happen is beyond belief, sometimes. Civic engagement is really hard and really time-consuming. People who aren’t political weirdos actually would rather be doing anything other than showing up to a town hall and talking about L&I; this shit has been going on so long, organizers have had to tear people away from Eagles, Sixers, and Phillies games consecutively. And they did it.

Comparatively speaking, our nation’s capital is completely disempowered. Its the capital of the richest country on the planet, and here we were in the DC office building at 13th and Pennsylvania, begging them to not cut the Grandparents Caregivers program! Apparently DC has, for the last 20 years, allowed national and multinational corporations doing business in the District to get out of paying a portion of their taxes. It was like Philly for many years.

“That’s ridiculous,” I told the chief of staff to my city councilman, Councilman Graham, Ward 1. “This is D.C. It would take the Apocalypse for Starbucks to close its stores in Adams Morgan.”

“For years, we couldn’t get anyone to build anything here,” he said. “Getting a Starbucks in your neighborhood – well, that’s when you know you’ve made it.” He smiled.

I was shocked at his assessment of his own district, and its potential power. Ward 1 includes Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and most of the other really expensive real estate in the district. If there had been a bad financial history for the city in the past, there had been no recalculation since. The city government of Washington, D.C. is afraid. It doesn’t even get self-determination – they face a possible APileggaclypse every year with the federal government! Cities have been beat down for a long time, and even with Mr. Urban President, there are still gonna be a lot more bad bar graphs ahead until things change.

It’s time cities stopped being afraid. Cities just need to figure out a way to own it again. And soon.


The DC budget fight, which really just begun as a public campaign a month ago, is so differently aligned that the comparisons almost can’t be made. I will write them down eventually though, because there is something to learn. One thing that they do have that Philly lacks is a really smart policy thinktank – the DC Fiscal Policy Institute– that is an appendage of the federal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, whence came Peter Orzag. It’s one benefit of having the federal policy class here. There’s also a much more well developed local blogosphere here than in Philly - but with an equally bad digital divide, which still hampers organizing in both cities.

Mais…. ou sont les operatifs?

I’m going to get involved because I miss city politics. It’s the antidote to cynicism, the political space where one can best see the effects of good work – even if cities are the least financially capable, often, to accomplish their own goals. I feel terrible for all these kids on the Hill, little mites in a gigantic federal power structure that they can barely understand, let alone affect. A lot of the people who come here have no experience with local politics – they are often suburbanites, or come straight out of grad school.

There is no reason, really, that they couldn’t learn. And take it back when they go home later. That would really change things, long term.

Is this an inappropriate question?

As between raising property taxes (or some other tax we can raise without Harrisburg permission) and Plan C, isn't the former a bit better?

To be clear, I would hate to raise the property tax because it would be unfair, regressive, etc. But we hate Plan C even more, right?

I hope this is not an inappropriate question.

Gotcha, thanks

Thanks for the reminder. I forgot about the July 1st deadline.

missing timeline pieces

A few missing pieces of the timeline:

-The Mayor meets with Rendell, Neil Bluhm and others at a hotel in Denver to figure out how Bluhm can get his casino built on our riverfront.

-The Mayor flips on casinos due to pressure from Harrisburg politicians, most people suspect he flipped to support casinos in order to get support from Harrisburg politicians for budget needs. That worked out great.

-Rob Dubow comes up just 0.06% short of the 2.0% revenue reduction in revenue that would enable the City to raise the wage tax to close the budget gap (where does that stand now, seems like we may be way over 2.0% or is the sky not falling?). It was suspicious that the City was so short of the mark then, seems even fishier now.

Excellent! And you should add more.

The only thing I really regret is not going more after the vampiric force that is the Eagles. They were bad enough but now... mauled dogs AND a city going broke!!

Plan D

Since the distinguished gentleman from Chester seems intent on ensuring Philadelphia starves to death...

I think it's only fitting if the City returned the favor by filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which would generate a constitutional crisis in Harrisburg. The knee-jerk reaction from HBG would be to try to get the petition filed by the City of Philadelphia dismissed with the argument that the City does not possess the soverignty to do so and showing EVIDENCE to a Federal BK judge that HBG is solely responsible for the City's re-payment obligations.

That would immediately throw ALL of PA's state bond issues (in every single county) into junk status by the credit rating agencies... because Harrisburg would be demonstrating its clear resolve not to exercise fiduciary responsibility before the investing public.

Can't wait for that drama.

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