Cloudy Forecast For Budgetary Sunshine

(September 2018)

A pair of Philadelphia favorite sons once crooned,

There's a thunder storm 'a brewin'
And the day is turning gray
There ain't much to say about the weather

Now that we have made it through a hot and humid summer and come to another fall in Philadelphia, we can say a few things about that weather. Mostly, we can say that it changes; much like our city budget.

A few weeks ago it was so hot in Philadelphia we could not keep our public schools open and City Hall politicians raced for the nearest television camera to call for outside money to pay for air conditioning. But, once the weather cooled, the same elected officials decided that the city budget that couldn't be squeezed to cool a school suddenly could afford millions more to pay for the high cost of building "affordable" housing. That's bad news for the library supporters who have been told that the budget has no additional funds to keep city libraries open on weekends -- and to anybody who thought the city budget process had any integrity left in it. 

Of course, when the city budget was being debated last spring, the forecast for additional spending was cloudy, indeed. The mayor put forth his revenue estimate and spending plan. City Council made modest changes to the proposal. Then, it was passed into law. (They did that long after the Charter's legal deadline to do so, but what's a blatant violation of the Charter among friends?) As far as City Hall was concerned, that was all we could afford and we couldn't afford any more.

Until we could.

Budgets are about priorities and assumptions. In Philadelphia's budget, we routinely prioritize more money for mismanaged overtime, wasteful spending like high-priced national searches to ultimately determine we should promote from within, and ever more money to throw at our gaping unfunded pension hole. Money can always be found when City Hall spenders want it -- but is hidden from advocates who suggest various other investments -- because Philadelphia's budgeters routinely assume underestimated revenue totals, assume filled personnel positions that will be left vacant, and assume underspending in certain line items as hidey-holes just in case. With Philadelphia's budget in such a state, weather forecasting might be more accurate.

The public budgeting process should be an articulation of our collective public aspirations to decide what we can afford and how we want to invest our limited public funds. To make it so takes leadership, honesty, and faith among our elected officials. Unfortunately, those elected to enact those budgets and those appointed to hold the public purse strings are much more comfortable keeping our city budgeting cloudy with a chance of waste.

It does not have to be like this. When I ran for public office, I put forth what I called the "Bulldog Budget" -- -- a completely transparent visual and searchable expression of the city budget. With his say so, the mayor could give us the ability to see exactly where every penny of the city budget is being spent in real time. Plenty of citizens of other cities enjoy this level of sunshine. But, here in Philadelphia, clouds that block our view are produced by the officials we elect. This forecast will only change if we change the folks in charge.

Until then, as Hall and Oates declared:

I guess I have to face the fact as real
I think I feel my back up against the wall
I'm gonna spend another Fall In Philadelphia