We Gotta See It To Believe It

(September 2012)

In the kingdom of the blind, it is said, the one-eyed man is king.  But, when it comes to trying to track our money by looking at the City budget, we Philadelphians are kept in the dark no matter how many eyes we use.  It's our money, but it's often hard to see where it is going because the City's number crunchers do their best to keep the lights out.  Examples from recent weeks show how blind we really are when it comes to trying to see how our money is spent.

When the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) -- Philadelphia's state-appointed financial-oversight board -- balked at approving the City's Five-Year Financial Plan, many hoped the move would force the Mayor's Administration to shed some light on its spending proposals.  The City's Five-Year Plan failed to show how the City would pay for the costs of anticipated contracts with the unionized workforce and a perfunctory list of potential future spending reductions was not enough to convince budget watchers that future budgets would balance.  But, instead of showing us all where money was stashed to pay for those contracts, the City Administration quietly met behind closed doors to assure PICA that the money to balance the budget was tucked away out of sight.  So, instead of seeing how the Mayor plans to spend our money, we are left with the uncomforting reminder that they routinely hide our money from us to keep us in the dark.

When the City turned over one of Philadelphia's iconic outdoor civic spaces -- Eakins Oval and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway -- to be used as a site for the for-profit Made in America concert, it was only natural that we would want to know how much of our money was being invested in the event and how the anticipated benefits would justify those costs.  Unbelievably, City officials not only refused to release any cost/benefit estimates, but declined to make public the contractual agreements between the City and concert promoters that outline how costs and benefits would be shared.  Now, weeks after the concert ended, we are still waiting for word on how the City accounts for the use of our money.  We should have public review of these types of deals before our money and our civic space are utilized in such a manner, and it is preposterous that requests to see where our money is going are denied while, we remain in the dark.  

When we learned that an entourage of City employees would accompany the Mayor to the Democratic National Convention, many were shocked to find out that they would be considered working on City time and traveling and staying in hotels on our dime.  Clearly, when the Mayor travels on official City business it is proper for City employees to accompany him to support his efforts.  But, when the trip is a strictly partisan political one, the Mayor should not be using our money to support his politicking.  Happily, local journalists brought this abuse to our attention, but just as it is always easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission, we learned about the spending after it was too late.  Unless we are able to see where our money is going before it goes out the door, we are stuck in the dark.

We elect our City leaders as stewards of our money, but it is still OUR money and we deserve to see where it goes.  How can we judge their stewardship, how can we evaluate the investments they make, and how can we determine the effectiveness of their spending if we are in the dark?  Other governments are utilizing web-based tools to shed more light into budgeting and budget watchers can check out http://lookatcook.com and http://openspending.org for some examples of how we can see what we're missing.

It is not just bad public-budgeting policy; it is a sin of biblical proportion to put a stumbling block before the blind.  We may not see fire and brimstone as a result, but we should absolutely see more public outcry over the fact that we are not given enough information about how our money is managed.  It's our money and we can only determine if it's being spent well if we have more budgetary transparency and less budgetary shenanigans.