Playing With Fire: Philadelphia Gets its Priorities All Wrong (again)

In November of 2008, eyes already on the prize which was finally moving from Philadelphia to points south, I brought you a story about how the City of Philadelphia has continued to provide taxpayer-funded automobiles for city council members, elected officials who make in excess of $112,000 per year, and yet simulaneously asked the federal government for help in making up a $108 million budget shortfall.

In August of 2009, I brought you the story of how Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter threatened to shutter the court system in the City of Brotherly Love in order to procure approval from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for a plan which would allow the city to increase the sales tax in the city from seven to eight percent and defer pension payments relied upon by so many.

Finally, in September of last year, a piece from the city’s local NBC affiliate made the Assigned Reading section here at America’s Right, detailing how city officials were forced to borrow $275 million from JPMorgan Chase just so it could pay vendors, including several social service agencies and other providers.

So, for those who not only understand the burden of crushing debt and the pain and sacrifice needed to reverse an adverse financial situation but also for those of us, like myself, who are currently trying to do just that, the latest piece of news out of my former hometown should have come as no surprise.  Yesterday, see, it appears as though Mayor Nutter made good on his threat to effect “rolling brownouts” among the city’s firehouses, temporarily furloughing firefighters company by company so as to cut down on the cost of overtime pay.

I first noticed the threats a little more than a week ago, as the headlines would pop up as I Googled information relevant to studying for the Bar Exam (like, for example, hotel rates for next February), but I thought nothing of them, as everybody knows that threatening cutbacks and closures and layoffs with regard to emergency services is Rule No. 1 in the mayoral handbook when it comes to shaking down the county, state or federal government for funds.   Yesterday, however, three fire stations went dark.

Now, it seems as though each and every time a story relating to Philadelphia’s budgetary woes comes to the forefront of a given day’s news cycle, I feel it necessary to point out one major thing — priorities should be the city’s top priority.

This is a city, folks, which will effectuate rolling brownouts and shutter fire stations–undoubtedly putting its residents and their possessions at risk–all in order to save $3.8 million in overtime costs, and yet has included in its 2010 operating budget $1 million to the Managing Director’s office for expansion of the mural arts program, $2.3 million to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, $12.7 million for “personal services” (i.e. free transportation) for city council, $3.9 million to the Office of Arts & Culture & The Creative Economy, $38 million to the Office of Supportive Housing, and $32 million for the Department of Recreation.

Surely, in all of that, there’s enough redundancy and frivolity to scrape together the $3.8 million necessary to keep the fire stations open.

Furthermore, and even more importantly, this is a city which in 2010 will pay $215 million for debt service alone, up from $172 million in 2008 (the year Nutter and his flunkies looked for federal help with a $108 million budget gap) and $199 million in 2009. In other words, the amount due as the minimum payment on loans to the city actually exceeds the amount of the budget deficit.  That’s akin to the Schreiber family earning $3000 per month, having $4000 in monthly bills, and a $2000 minimum payment due on our Visa card.  At that point, gee whiz, it’s probably time to quit spending and start a vigorous reassessment of our financial picture, because the spot loans and momentary augmentations of revenue will only get us so far.

Will rolling closures of the city’s fire stations save Philadelphia money?  Of course it will.  Blame the unions for rising overtime costs.  However, the city of Philadelphia shuttering firehouses in the name of cost savings during the heat of summer when the city’s younger population is home from school with nothing to do is not so different than some Joe Sixpack buying a boat, spending even more money on the paint job and electronic gizmos but skimping on the life jackets — when somebody dies after the boat capsizes, it doesn’t matter how fancy the sails were.

Sure, Mayor Nutter says that closing fire stations doesn’t compromise safety, yet in a city which is filled with row homes sharing a common wall and which sees its share of fire-related deaths–Philadelphia averages roughly 50 deaths and 150 injuries each year–every moment counts when it comes to fire services.  While fire companies will cover for one another from time to time because of special events or security-related obligations, shuttering stations in order to save money which could easily be trimmed elsewhere borders on reckless.

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Comments

  1. Dee says:

    If something happens, it won’t be his fault. It will be the fault of those who wouldn’t give him more money. I have never understood why the taxpayers of Pa. are paying for government cars plus mileage and per diems. When I went to work, I paid for my own car, gas, and meals. I can understand some expenses but nothing like they get. My husband worked for a large company in Pittsburgh and as time went on they limited the amount that employees could spend for meals when they had to go out of town. I don’t think that Pa. government employees have a limit. It sure doesn’t seem like they do.
    Welcome back, Jeff.

  2. Pitiful priorities says:

    We didn’t start the fire
    It was always burning
    Since the world’s been turning
    We didn’t start the fire
    No we didn’t light it
    But we tried to fight it (half heartedly)

  3. Sam says:

    Pride cometh before the fall..ing embers.

  4. Mayor of ashes says:

    This sounds like a SimCity bad strategy.

  5. Boston Blackie says:

    “has included in its 2010 operating budget $1 million to the Managing Director’s office for expansion of the mural arts program, $2.3 million to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, $12.7 million for “personal services” (i.e. free transportation) for city council, $3.9 million to the Office of Arts & Culture & The Creative Economy, $38 million to the Office of Supportive Housing, and $32 million for the Department of Recreation.”

    You forgot rule #1 when looking for additional funding in the public sector is to cutback first in the areas that the voters see day in and day out – namely police, fire and teachers. Who even knows what is actually in a city / state budget. Most people would be shocked. My brother went to Penn in the 70′s and would come home with stories of the Rizzo brothers. They made Boston politics look like chump change.
    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  6. Genghis says:

    Jeff,
    You say blame the unions for the overtime-I beg to differ. Nutter hasn’t hired a class of firefighters in over 2 years, and that is the reason for the overtime! There simply aren’t enough firefighters because they refuse to hire them!

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