Angry or Jealous?

(September 2015)

Years ago, a friend would gently chide me when I complained about the state of things in Philadelphia:  "does that make you angry -- or jealous?"  Did I want to change the way the city worked; or, just make it a little better for me?  Was I angry that the system was so broken or jealous that someone else had benefited in a way that I could not?

I think that angry-or-jealous question is a great one for Philadelphians to consider as we look for a new mayor to set a direction for our city's future.  Philadelphia has been derided as a place with a population of 1.5 million, run by a few hundred, for the benefit of a few dozen.  It is a city where more than one in four residents -- one in three children -- lives in poverty despite pockets of plenty and areas of affluence; a city that too many still look to leave.

A City of Permanent Potential

If Philadelphia is ever to be more than a city of permanent potential it must move from being the city of the little fix to being a city that actually works for all of us.  If Philadelphia is to truly be a preferred place to live, work, and visit, it must become a city where the rules make sense and where one doesn't need to be connected to be served.  While poverty condemns too many to worry when monthly bills are due, some manage to evade city utility bills.  High tax rates encourage many to locate elsewhere, but some avoid the tax bite.  Public education frustrates many families, while some jump the lines and get their children into more desirable public schools.  Construction costs are daunting, but some find ways to build for less.  Parking is at a premium, but some know where parking enforcement is lax or nonexistent.

Philadelphia has long been a city where deal-makers advance while policy-makers shake their heads.  Those who find ways to take care of their friends find themselves in high places, while those who develop systems and policies to improve the public good draft reports that are shelved and ignored.

Philadelphia suffers for it.

Firms want to improve their bottom line.  A city where business is conducted above board with clear rules and easy terms will attract more employers and grow jobs.  Families want to improve their lives.  A city where schools and services work without regard to connections will build strong communities.  Financiers want confidence.  A city where uncertainties are minimized, separating the capricious short-term focus of the political process from the long-term focus of investors, will attract more capital for a bright future.

A City Of Progress

The happy news is that, in recent years, we have made some real strides away from a Philadelphia that is corrupt and contented toward a Philadelphia that is engaged and encouraged.  

Neighbors don't want to have to call in a favor to get pothole filled and now the city's 311 system helps process routine service requests.  Philadelphians don't want similar properties to be taxed differently and now the city's revamped property-assessment system and the accessible and open data available for public review should provide clarity in Real Estate valuation.  Drivers and pedestrians don't want some to break the rules of the road without consequences and now the end of Traffic Court as we knew it should mean than even drivers with friends in high places must stop for a red light.

We must continue this progress.

Do Philadelphians want to live in a modern metropolis or a backwater provincial capital where it remains the prerogative the district council person for a given city neighborhood whether parking regulations are enforced, bike lanes are drawn, or real estate developed?

Do Philadelphians want a system of sound tax policies or a system where economic development remains a game of Let's Make A Deal relying on abatements, giveaways, and public subsidies that benefit relatively few?

Do Philadelphians want a city budget that is open and transparent for public review so we can see exactly where every single penny of our money is spent or a government that prefers to conduct its business behind closed doors?

Philadelphia deserves better -- nothing less than a continuing revolution of raised expectations for the future.

A City That Works

Let's commit to ending the backward tradition that allows council members to dictate what happens in their electoral district so that when it comes to land use, law/regulation enforcement, and service delivery, rules are rules and all applied fairly, clearly, and equally across the city.

Let's decide that it is finally time to fully realize the reform plan of every commission that has examined tax issues in recent decades and move beyond a tax system that relies on tax breaks for some but high burdens for most toward a tax structure that taxes looks more like those in place in most modern, growing cities.

Let's declare that we deserve to see it all and open City Hall's books for good so that we can finally see an accessible accounting of how city money is spent -- I know it's technically possible because I already did it (!

In recent years, we have come so far.  Philadelphia's long-term population and job loss is (hopefully) stabilized and Philadelphia is poised for real growth.  The biggest challenge for the next mayoral administration is to continue this progress and make this a city where even those beyond connected few can make it.  If that happens, everything that makes Philadelphia great -- our people, location, and energy -- is ready for a promising future.

We're moving in the right direction so let's keep moving Philadelphia forward.  Let's not be jealous of other cities that are working and growing.  Let's be angry that we haven't finished doing what we need to do more work to grow.  Then, let's get to work and make it happen.