"If we have more information -- better information -- we can make better choices and build a better Philadelphia."
The Kenney mayoralty is off and running and flexing its administrative muscles to take some fast action. While top officials' gold-seal city business cards may still be drying, the Kenney administration swiftly cleared the cars off City Hall sidewalk, restored Philadelphia's status as a "sanctuary city" for undocumented immigrants, and blocked a pension grab by an outgoing official. Make no mistake, Philadelphia has a "strong-mayor" form of government and when it comes to making many important changes, the Mayor and his administration just have to respond to a single question: Kenney do it? Yes, he can.
As we approach Mayor Kenney's first budget presentation, a lot of questions for the new mayor and his administration will center on finances. To fund some of his ambitious programs, the mayor will need money. To ensure that he engages the public and generates "buy-in," the mayor will need to show us the money. To create a virtuous cycle of continuous investment and improvement, the mayor will need to keep the money flowing.
Go Get Our Money
When the Pope departed from Philadelphia, he left behind more than memories that will last for generations. He also left us with a hefty bill. Philadelphia's costs to host the Pope totaled about $17 million but the city only billed the World Meeting of Families about $8 million. After repeated assurances that the city would not be on the hook for the massive security and logistical expenditures of the visit, it turns out that those assurances were off by about $9 million.
It would seem that this matter was closed by the last mayor and his managing officials when they only billed the World Meeting of Families for about half of the city's total costs. But, those officials now work for someone else and the new mayor has 9 million reasons to take a hard look at the agreements that governed the costs of the papal visit to see if we billed for the correct amount. Kenney do it? Yes, he can.
Show Us The Money
In the coming weeks, when the Mayor presents his plan to raise and spend city money, he can follow the fashion of past mayors and present a budget that shows how money has been spent and would be spent by lump sums. Or, he can take the steps that so many other governments have to truly show us the money by finally giving the public searchable access to the city budget by payee. It's our money and we absolutely deserve to know where it has gone and where the mayor proposes it will go.
In other cities, the public has long had online access to payroll and other expenditure records so seeing where public money is going is only a few mouse clicks away. Philadelphia has resisted such transparency. A few years ago, I showed with my Bulldog Budget (budget.brettmandel.com) that it is technologically possible and oh-so-much-fun to do, but the last mayor and his financial/technological administrators never took the steps make it happen. Those officials now work for someone else and if the mayor wants us to embrace his plans for our money, a little more transparency would go a long way toward getting us on board. Kenney do it? Yes, he can.
Keep The Money Flowing
A few years ago, the city completed a citywide reassessment that reset the values of all properties for real estate taxation purposes. For the first time in decades, the values for more than a half-million properties now have some relationship to reality, which has created a much fairer basis for taxation. But fairness, best practices, and the law demand that real estate assessments take place every year to track the changes in values that occur over time. This has not happened since the Actual Value Initiative set values for the 2014 tax year.
The city should reassess properties each year to ensure that the values for tax purposes are fair, correct, and lawful. But, it is also important to reassess annually to best link the spending of today's tax dollars to the raising of tomorrow's tax dollars. When the city invests to improve communities and commercial districts, property values rise; and when property values rise, the city is able to realize increased tax revenues (without raising tax rates) creating a virtuous cycle of investment and improvement. City property-assessment officials have not completed a citywide annual reassessment in years, but those officials now work for someone else. If the mayor wants to ensure that the investments he makes in neighborhoods and business corridors across the city pay off for taxpayers, getting assessments right is an important way to do it. Kenney do it? Yes, he can.
There are plenty of other initiatives that are too heavy for even the strongest mayor to lift alone. Legislative changes require City Council involvement. So many policy proposals require state cooperation to move forward. But by directing the people who work for him to get our money, show us the money, and keep the money flowing, Mayor Kenney can most effectively use the powers of a strong mayor.
So Kenney do it? Yes he can.