The city of Philadelphia is currently experiencing a major budget crisis. Philadelphians are also feeling the effects of the broader economic downturn in many other ways, including a rise in unemployment. The purpose of this paper is to lay out a Green agenda for responding to these two crises.
Budget Crisis, Round One: The Libraries
On November 6, 2008, Mayor Nutter’s office released a document called the “City of Philadelphia’s Response to the Budget Crisis.” This document explained that the city is facing a one billion dollar budget shortfall over the next five years. To balance the budget, the Mayor announced a number of cutbacks, most notably the intention to “close 11 libraries and eliminate Sunday hours at three regional libraries.” The eleven library branches are the Durham, Eastwick, Fishtown, Fumo Family, Haddington, Holmesburg, Kingsessing, Logan, Ogontz, Queen Memorial, and Wadsworth locations. This announcement encountered broad opposition and outrage from Philadelphians, especially in the affected neighborhoods. The Coalition to Save the Libraries formed as a result, and held a number of protests at these branches in November and December, 2008. As these protesters repeatedly emphasized, from the standpoint of the city’s needs and its budget, closing the libraries makes little sense. It results in only $8 million dollars in savings, less than 10% of the 2009-10 budget shortfall estimated in the November document from the Mayor’s office. But the cost in reduced services for children and local residents would be extremely heavy, as branch libraries serve as important community centers for after-school programs, job-seekers, and the city’s many low-income residents in need of internet access. Local libraries are precisely the kind of community investment that pays economic dividends in the form of a better-educated populace.
The campaign to save the libraries culminated in a class-action lawsuit against the city on behalf of library patrons. The suit argued that the Mayor is not legally permitted to close the libraries without City Council approval, since a city ordinance states that “No city-owned facility shall be closed . . . without specific approval . . . from City Council.” Judge Idee C. Fox ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on Dec. 30, 2008, requiring that the eleven library branches remain open until the Council decides otherwise. In response, the library system has cut back hours at all branches. As of this writing, the Mayor has pledged to keep all library branches open with reduced hours until at least June 30, 2009. It is unclear what the fate of the libraries will be after that time.
Budget Crisis, Round Two: New Cuts
Round One was a community victory – Philadelphians worked together to save their local libraries. But it turns out that Round One was just a preview of bigger battles to come. On Jan. 15, the Mayor announced a new estimate of the city’s five-year budget shortfall. This new estimate added an additional one billion dollar shortfall to the one predicted in November 2008, meaning the city is short two billion dollars over the next five years. The Mayor has asked each city department to create proposals for cutting 10%, 20%, and 30% of their annual operating budgets.
However, this time around, and as a direct result of the community activism of Round One, the Mayor has taken a different approach to balancing the city budget. Instead of unilaterally making budget cuts and then announcing his intentions, this time Nutter is seeking input in deciding what to cut. Greens endorse this move away from unilateral decision-making and toward citizen participation. It remains to be seen whether this process will truly be more democratic. Nonetheless, it is a step in the right direction. This, and the existence of an already well-organized citizens group ready to take on future challenges, is the legacy of the Library protests.
Green Priorities for the New City Budget
1. Most importantly, in a difficult time in which sacrifices must be made, the guiding principle behind our decisions should be: Economic sacrifices should be made by those most able to bear them, instead of by those least able to resist them. Around 25% of Philadelphians live at or below the federal poverty line. These citizens can least afford cutbacks in the already fairly minimal services provided by the city. Decisions on budget cuts should not harm these vulnerable individuals. For example, the City is currently giving away $25 million to help the Barnes Foundation relocate to the Parkway from Lower Merion. Perhaps that project should be put on hold until better financial times.
2. No tax cuts, including the planned wage tax reduction, and no more real estate tax
abatements. According to a recent poll by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Philadelphians favor reduction of tax cuts over reduction of city services. When asked about solving the budget crisis through either cutting services or suspending plans to reduce the wage tax, only 27% of Philadelphians favored the former plan, while 43% favored the latter plan.
3. Seek out alternative revenue sources: In balancing the city budget, the focus should be not so much on cutting services as on tapping into alternative state and federal revenue sources, doing a better job of collecting delinquent business and real estate taxes, etc. And if the federal government is going to borrow one trillion dollars, some of that money should be available to the city of Philadelphia to balance our budget.
4. Make sure that the budget formation process is truly democratic. Nothing in the process outlined by the Mayor’s office requires the Mayor to take into account the results of the public discussions. Only continued pressure from the citizens of Philadelphia can ensure that.
5. Seek federal funds for valuable infrastructure expansion such as public transit, sewer enhancements, school repair, and green building renovations. Currently, Mayor Nutter is asking for $125 million in federal stimulus funds to build a casino at Market East. Instead, this money should be invested in infrastructure that will be a benefit to Philadelphians for years to come. In particular, Greens encourage the Mayor to fully fund the Philadelphia “Office of Sustainability,” whose goal according to the Mayor’s office is to “produce Philadelphia’s first Sustainability Framework by April 2009, which will lay out a detailed plan to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the U.S. by 2015. Many of these initiatives will lower future energy costs as well as lay the foundation for job and income growth in the emerging green economy.”
Philadelphia and the Broader Economic Crisis
The time is right for a real progressive sea change in American politics, but it is not clear whether President Obama, Governor Rendell, and Mayor Nutter are prepared to take advantage of the current political climate. Here are some suggestions for a Green response to our current economic crisis. This should be a time not just for belt-tightening, but for moving toward a significantly greener Philadelphia by:
1. Expanding and restructuring public transit
2. Expanding recycling initiatives
3. Offering local, state, or federal loans for making homes, businesses, and public buildings greener
4. Raising gas taxes to cover more of the real cost of driving, including roads, services, safety, and congestion.
Here are the next steps for realizing this Green agenda in Philadelphia.
1. A Green presence at budget forums. Here is the announcement from the Mayor’s office:
“The University of Pennsylvania Project for Civic Engagement has announced the dates and locations of four community workshops to gather citizen input for the City of Philadelphia’s 2010 budget process. Mayor Nutter announced at a press conference last week that city officials will participate in these workshops to examine with citizens the real budget alternatives that will be generated by city departments.
All workshops begin with registration at 6:00 pm. Registration is vital to the process of dividing participants into evenly sized, diverse working groups. The program will run from 7:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Here are the dates and sites:
Thursday, Feb. 12th – St. Dominic’s School, 8510 Frankford Ave. (Northeast)
Wednesday, Feb. 18th - Mastery Charter School, Pickett Campus, 5700 Wayne Ave (Germantown)
Thursday, Feb 19th – St. Monica’s Catholic School, 16th and Porter Streets. (South Philadelphia)
Monday, Feb. 23rd – Pinn Memorial Baptist Church, 2251 N. 54 TH Street (West Philadelphia)”
2. Join the Save the Libraries Coalition and work with existing efforts to resist unfair budget cuts.
Mayor’s statement, Jan. 15th, 2009: “With the country losing 524,000 jobs in December, bumping the unemployment rate to a 16-year high of 7.2 percent nationwide and 8 percent at least in the city of Philadelphia, Philadelphians are justifiably worried about the future and about the quality of their lives in our great city.”
Available at http://www.phila.gov/mayor/issues.html
P. 4 of “City of Philadelphia’s Response,” Mayor’s office, November 2008
“Lawyer threatens suit over library shutdowns,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Friday, Dec. 19th, 2008