Promises Were Made...

(December 2011)

There is nothing like the promise of a new beginning; the promise of a new day; the promise of a new way. Of course, in a world where "promises are made to be broken” is uttered with the same blithe dismissiveness as "Eagles playoff chances” campaign promises are treated as an oxymoron. But with his first term drawing to a conclusion, it is fitting to judge Mayor Nutter on how well he kept his campaign promises.

So to channel Willy Loman on behalf of the citizens of Philadelphia, "promises were made,” and (at least in the areas of taxation and city finances), here's an accounting of how hizzoner achieved or failed to achieve those promises.

Candidate Nutter declared* he would "reform the process by which the City budget is devised and debated in order to achieve greater levels of public participation and government performance.” In 2009, the Nutter Administration made great strides toward engaging the public in budget deliberations and discussions.  But that effort was abandoned and recent budgets have been crafted behind closed doors with a bunker mentality. Promise unfulfilled.

Candidate Nutter declared he would "revolutionize the budgeting process by putting the focus on outputs not inputs.” You say you want a revolution, well you know, we are still building a budget the old-fashioned way and focusing on inputs. Promise unfulfilled.

Candidate Nutter declared he would "convene the stakeholders in an honest and cooperative effort to redesign the pension and health benefits for City employees in order to make them sustainable for all concerned.” There were some nice things said about addressing the city's growing pension crisis and the health benefits provided for employees, but not much done about it. The city's unionized blue- and white-collar workers have now gone more than three years without a new contract and the pension mess has only gotten messier. Promise unfulfilled.

Candidate Nutter declared he would "sustain the scheduled reductions in the Wage Tax to a rate of 3.25% for both residents and non-residents by 2015” and "establish a certain schedule for the gradual elimination of the Gross Receipts portion of the Business Privilege Tax over a five-to-seven year period and the gradual reduction of the Net Income portion of the BPT to the current rate of the Wage Tax.” After a hopeful start, the global economic turmoil turned Michael Nutter, tax cutter, into Taxmaster Mike and the Mayor has halted those tax reductions we all worked (and marched) for and, instead, raised taxes in each of his years in office. Promise unfulfilled.

Candidate Nutter declared he would "support a fair and accurate reassessment of property in the City to current market value with the provision that safeguards be in place…that ensure no Philadelphian is forced to sell their home because of an increase in property taxes.” While the Mayor has supported the fair and accurate reassessment, it remains undone and assessments are as unfair (and illegal) as ever. Promise unfulfilled (but supported).

Candidate Nutter declared he would "support a revenue-neutral move toward Full Value Assessment by the BRT for the purposes of the Real Property Tax matched by a proportional reduction in the millage rate by City Council.” Here, the Mayor has made one of his most disappointing flip-flops. Despite the campaign promise of revenue neutrality, the Nutter Administration plans to use the effort to accurately value properties in Philadelphia as a way to generate additional revenues for the City and School District. Promise unfulfilled -- broken, and spat upon.

Candidate Nutter declared he would "propose and work with City Council to enact a homestead exemption that will exclude some fraction of assessed value from taxation for all property owners” and "propose and work with City Council to enact a cap and deferral plan for paying property taxes that will protect property owners from unreasonably large and rapid increases in their taxes.” These measures to soften the blow of the citywide reassessment remain -- like the reassessment itself -- said not done. Promise unfulfilled.

Candidate Nutter declared he would "modify the 10-year Tax Abatement to encourage development beyond Center City and help provide relief for the City's critical need for affordable housing.” This policy initiative has not moved forward. Promise unfulfilled.

Candidate Nutter declared he would "present realistic estimates of the costs and funding sources of new proposals” and "base my budgets on a realistic estimate of future revenue.” To their credit, the Nutter number crunchers have been clear-eyed and straightforward with most of their bean counting. Of course, there was the matter of slipping a back-door real estate tax increase into the City's Financial Plan to make the "temporary” Real Estate Tax increases permanent. But that was more a policy failing than a cost-estimating failing. Promise realized. 

Candidate Nutter declared he would "design a policy for issuing new municipal debt and stick to it.” That was his story and he is sticking to it. Promise realized.

Candidate Nutter declared he would "establish a Rainy Day Fund.” It took him until late in the fourth quarter of his term, but with voter approval of a November Charter change, Philadelphia finally joins most other sophisticated state and local governments with a formal place to save for a rainy day. Promise realized.

Candidate Nutter declared he would "direct all agencies of City government to pursue non-local funding opportunities to bring additional resources to City priorities.” Consider them directed. There have been some happy stories to tell of agencies finding new funding opportunities. Promise realized (but we should build and broaden these successes).

Anyone with young children understands the solemnity with which a child treats a promise and with three at home, I am well trained to be careful about what I pledge. Here is one place where I wished our elected officials (and candidates for office) would treat us like children and only promise what they can deliver. 

Based on his own words, Mayor Nutter has some work to do to make good on the promises he made to get elected. Entering his second term, he has four more years to fulfill his (own) promise. 

*All promises are taken from Candidate Nutter's 2007 "Honest Budget Now” and "Better Housing Now” position papers.