The Streets of Philadelphia

Tom Cardella

City Council passed its mid-year budget last week. It’s different this fiscal year. Philadelphia found itself sitting on an unprecedented surplus. The mayor reportedly struggled figuring out how to spend it. Let those two sentences sink in for a while. But don’t fear. City Council was around to help him figure out what to do with all that extra money. Hey, it’s kind of like they hit the lottery. This is the stuff political dreams are made of.

How did the City of Poverty wind up with a budget surplus? We’re told the city collected unexpected tax revenue during the fiscal year. That begs the question — how the hell did we do that during a pandemic? The answer? The city saved money because of all the job vacancies they can’t fill. And that begs the question — does the city really need these jobs filled? Note — the number of city employees is approximately 30,000. That number has remained fairly stable despite the decrease over the years in the city’s population.

According to the INQUIRER, most of the bucks in the newly approved city budget – a whopping $210M — go toward shoring up the notorious pension fund. Another $50M is split between the “Rainy Day Fund” and a separate account to help the city “weather inflation.” Funds are also allotted to various museums and other cultural venues. A relatively small amount is set aside for security cameras in an additional Safe Play Zone. Additional funds are earmarked for the Witness Protection Program, despite the fact that previous funds had not all been spent. During that time — and despite the funding — some witnesses got shot who were supposed to be protected.

Understand, I don’t have a problem with using city funds for cultural institutions or saving some for a rainy day. But as the song says, “that rainy day is here.” And it’s no use having great museums if people are afraid to go to them for fear of being mugged or shot. Let’s stop pretending. The quality of life in the city of Philadelphia has gone to crap.

You don’t have to be Cassandra to note the increasing fear that grips all of us when we walk the streets. Philadelphia is a depressed city in so many ways. Example — a Council-approved youth curfew law has been in effect since the summer without any noticeable effect, as far as I can see. Its highly touted crime program seems to be going nowhere, but remains in place. You can’t walk the streets in the tourist or business areas without stepping over bodies of homeless people. (The city continues to hype itself as having the lowest homeless population of any big city in the United States, but you could fool me.) And I’m not a budget analyst, but it appears that the new budget hardly addresses any of these problems.

Like most large cities, Philadelphia faces a severe shortage of police. It can’t seem to fill the vacancies. An astounding number of cops are on disability. In some cases, fraud appears to be involved, according to an INQUIRER study. But while our city leaders argue over the need for residency requirements, Washington, D.C. is doing something about it. It’s recruiting in our backyard, offering an additional $20,000 bonus to Philly residents who join the D.C. police force. We seem to be standing by with our thumbs up our you-know-whats. And this while we have an unprecedented budget surplus.

I have misgivings about the way the mayor of New York City is going about clearing city streets of the homeless. But at least NYC is doing something. Why can’t our city find part of the budget surplus to build more secure and safe shelters? There aren’t enough beds, despite those stats claiming that we have the lowest rate of homelessness in this city. Sometimes there’s not even enough toilet paper, according to what I’ve been told by someone who was in the business of training homeless folks for useful jobs.

For way too long, despite the best efforts of nonprofit groups, we’ve taken it for granted that homeless people sleeping or begging on our streets and subways is part of city life. We’re not doing these poor souls any favors by allowing them to live on our streets. Many homeless are sick and should be treated. Those who refuse treatment and are a danger to themselves or others should be forced to get treatment. The problem with New York’s efforts to do the same are that the city outrageously cut services for the homeless while clearing the streets. The right way to do it is to EXPAND services so that there’s a real choice for the homeless before conducting a sweep of the streets. Again, that’s where our budget surplus could’ve greatly helped.

Finally, in a city full of people struggling to buy food, why couldn’t we have used some of the surplus for a one-time refund for its tax-paying residents? If we inadvertently collected too much revenue from our citizens, why not give some of it back?

One of the big stumbling blocks to using the budget surplus creatively is that city pensions are sucking us dry. When most of the surplus has to go toward shoring up city pensions, something is wrong. What better sign that the city pension system needs reform?

Philadelphia has faced crises before and come back – most notably during the first term of then-Mayor Ed Rendell. The next mayor will face a difficult challenge. Business as usual doesn’t work. The recently passed budget shows little promise that the streets of Philadelphia will change anytime soon.