"If we have more information -- better information -- we can make better choices and build a better Philadelphia."
In the coming months, we -- along with our elected leaders -- will be debating how Philadelphia raises and spends our money. Perhaps more than any year in recent memory, these debates will have a direct impact on how we live and whether we can count on the services we need.
City Council and the Mayor will set a new real estate tax rate to be applied to more accurate and fair values for city properties established by the actual value initiative. The Mayor and Philadelphia's municipal unions will determine new agreements to set the compensation of city workers. The School Reform Commission will decide whether we close schools in communities across the city or keep them open. The services we depend on will be funded or hindered -- from fire stations subject to brownouts to libraries closed or open for reduced hours.
In recent years in Philadelphia, taxes have gone up and the services we pay for have been cut. All the while, jobs for Philadelphians are often scarce, and poverty among Philadelphia families is far too high. Everything we do as a city to address our problems and consider investments to make Philadelphia the city we deserve is ultimately a question of resources. However, while the budget is formally debated and approved by our elected representatives, the details are kept from our view.
The city budget ordinance passed by City Council is a bland document that offers precious little information, except how much money is allocated to each city department and how that money is divided by class -- how much for personnel, how much for contracts, how much for supplies, and so on.
The city produces a budget detail contained in volumes of pages full of numbers that break down spending by sub-category, without showing where the money actually goes.
A Five-Year Financial Plan contains information about departmental accomplishments, but does little to link those accomplishments to the actual spending.
But it's our money and we need to be able to see where every dollar goes if we are to be able to make decisions about Philadelphia's future. Through a series of right-to-know requests, I assembled all of the spending from the city’s General Fund for Fiscal Year 2012 to create the Mandel for Controller Bulldog Budget so -- for the first time ever -- Philadelphia residents, civic leaders, members of the media, union representatives, and our elected officials, can see how our money -- all $3.5 billion of it -- is spent.
With the Mandel for Controller Bulldog Budget one can dig through the budget like a dog digs for a bone. One can click through each agency to each class to each type of expenditure to see a list of the actual payments down to the last cent. Or one can search for any agency, vendor, or type of expenditure.
By using the Mandel for Controller Bulldog Budget, one can find out that:
Put that in some perspective:
In every budget debate I have ever participated in or witnessed, any demand to change how we spend our money is likely to be met by a challenge -- “you show what you would cut or how you would change the budget.” The proper response should have always been something like “how should I know? I can’t see where our money goes.”
Now, for the first time, we can be active and informed participants in our budget process. Now, we can see where every single dollar goes and we can respond by explaining how we would refine our priorities and change how we spend our scarce resources.
I am running for City Controller because Philadelphia deserves a budget bulldog to make city hall work for us -- to stop waste and fraud and focus government on efficiency and effective service delivery so we can expand the services we demand or reduce the high burden of taxes in Philadelphia so we can grow jobs in the city.
If Philadelphia had a city controller who was doing his job, not only could we have this kind of governmental accountability and openness by looking at the budget retrospectively as I have with the Mandel for Controller Bulldog Budget, but we could consider all city spending prospectively and proactively.
As Controller, I will use the pre-audit authority to post all proposed city spending online for public review so we can collectively identify any questionable payments or expenditures that deserve enhanced scrutiny before approval. For example, we can halt expenditures in cases where invoices are being split to avoid competitive bidding and we can halt payment to vendors who are using scams to avoid minority participation requirements.
If Philadelphia's fiscal watchdog were doing his job, perhaps we could have avoided major tax increases in each of the past four years or cuts in the services we depend on. If Philadelphia's fiscal watchdog were doing his job, he could show us where every single dollar of our money goes to help citizens, civic groups, and our elected officials best prioritize how we use our scarce resources.
As a candidate for Controller, I have created such a tool — and made it available for everyone at budget.brettmandel.com. If elected, I will be Philadelphia’s budget bulldog, dedicated to eliminating waste and fraud and abuse and committed to accountability and openness in government to make city hall work for us.