The Extremely Ordinary Budget of Philly for an Extraordinary Time

The budget process at city hall is entering its final stages, and perhaps the spending plan would have met the current extraordinary moment if our elected officials had listened to a sixth grader. At a rally in early May outside of the Philadelphia School District headquarters, Jordan Henry of Lingelbach Elementary took the microphone and told the crowd, “Normal was never enough. “

The pandemic has challenged everything from schools and healthcare to transportation and libraries. And in the midst of that, the all-too-common black police murder crisis came to a head with the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing aftermath. protests.

READ MORE: Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council prepare for ‘marathon’ negotiations to finalize Philly budget

These moments, spread over a year of immense disruption, were a stark reminder that “getting back to normal” should not be Philadelphia’s goal.

Mayor Jim Kenney doesn’t seem to see it that way.

For his April Budget Speech, Kenney’s theme was “the eventual return to all that makes Philadelphia great.” Its budget reflects that sentiment – that Philadelphia was on the right track, and the city will be positioned to succeed if we return.

The Floyd protests and the pandemic-induced recession have forced Philadelphia into difficult debates over the role of the police and how to ensure that the city’s tax revenue base can suffer shocks. But the current conversation around the budget makes it look like it could happen in 2019.

There is again debate about a rather marginal tax change. And Kenney again offered to slash or cut budgets for programs closely tied to specific board members – the Helen Gym Eviction Prevention Program, the Maria Quiñones-Sánchez Housing Trust Fund, cleaning the commercial corridor of Cherelle Parker, Curtis Jones’ Citizen Police Oversight Commission, to only cite a few.

Philadelphia does not have a zero-based budget, in which a budget is built from scratch each year. Payroll, pensions and other benefits, as well as contractual services, are stuck in multi-year contracts, leaving the mayor and council with just a few hundred million dollars to allocate from the over $ 5 billion budget. That can create a heightened sense of scarcity, but that shouldn’t have been the case this year.

President Joe Biden’s US bailout has provided Philadelphia with $ 1.4 billion, which the city plans to draw on over the next four years – in addition to direct federal funds for reopening schools and other programs . Additionally, with many services and programs that were not functioning last year due to the pandemic, the city had the opportunity to assess which of these did not need to come back and invest even more. in what works.

This year could have been different – and that’s exactly what makes this year’s budget process so frustrating. Philadelphia had the opportunity to do something bold and make one-time investments that would revolutionize some of the city’s most pressing issues.

READ MORE: City Council Should Fight Kenney’s Budget Cuts to Eviction Prevention Budget | Editorial

Imagine: there are 5,000 homeless people in Philadelphia. The Office of Homeless Services says more than 80% of people who relocate quickly – one year of rent and support services – will not return to the streets. Philadelphia could have quickly rehoused every homeless person with $ 55 million. Instead, the mayor proposed a $ 1 million cut in legal aid for low-income people facing eviction.

In Chicago, a 12- to 18-month program that combines jobs with cognitive behavioral therapy for those most at risk of shooting or being shot has been hugely successful. The cost over this period of the program is $ 23,000. With $ 100 million in the relief manna, Philadelphia could have involved more than 4,000 people in a similar program. Instead, the city pledged to $ 10 million over five years to model.

In all likelihood, aside from a few small tinkering, Council will approve most of the mayor’s foreseeable budget. The end product, like the original proposal, will ignore in-depth discussions about reimagining how the city works.

Bringing Philly back to normal is bringing us back to continued gun violence, high rates of evictions and overdose deaths, and mass homelessness. He continues to see our city making little headway in shaking our unwelcome titles of first in terms of poverty and among the last in terms of job growth. Instead of blazing a new trail, in response to an extraordinary year, the city will adopt an extremely ordinary budget – and that was never enough.


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