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Philadelphia 2020: Chapter Two

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The following is a fictional account.

 

Chapter Two

Before anyone saw what was happening, they heard it - a violent popping sound that reverberated throughout the gym.  A moment later came the crash.

A large light fixture came tumbling down from the ceiling at Palumbo Recreation Center and landed on 10-year-old DeShawn Richards, just as he was dribbling the ball down court.  The 40-pound fixture landed squarely on the boy's head and probably killed him instantly, the Medical Examiner said later.

But no one knew that then. Screams of shock and fear filled the gym. Half the crowd rushed out of harms way, half rushed to grab their children or help the fallen boy.  In the pandemonium, a half-dozen people flipped open their cells and dialed 911. 

Within moments, the sound of sirens filled the air around the corner of 10th and Fitzwater Streets in South Philadelphia. Within minutes, a police captain was calling City Hall.

"I need to talk to Deputy Mayor Calubra," he said. "Could you try to track him down?"

It wasn't hard.  It was 7:30 p.m. on a Thursday night and Marty Calubra was still in his City Hall office. He picked up the phone, listened and said three words: "Jesus, Mary and Joseph" before hanging up.

 Calubra picked up the phone, dialed the switchboard and said: "This is Calubra. Get me the mayor on the phone."

As the Public Property Commissioner Diane Ketterling noted in a meeting the next day, it was an accident waiting to happen.

"In what way?" Calubra demanded to know.

"Well, the city need to build a new prison due to overcrowding," Ketterling said. "But we had reached our debt limit on floating bonds, so we used the $200 million we could sell to build the prison and we deferred maintenance on most other projects."

"Which projects," Calubra wanted to know.

"Virtually all projects," Ketterling said, "bridges, streets, police stations, and rec centers.  Palumbo was overdue for a new roof."

Jamal Jacobs, the Licenses and Inspections commissioner, coughed.

"I'm afraid that's not all," he said. "We inspected that roof a year ago, noted that there was extensive leakage or water, a lot of which became trapped between the roof and the ceiling.  It sort of rotted away the supports for the lights, weakening them until they couldn't hold the fixture up."

"Was this inspection report put in writing?" Calubra wanted to know.

"Of course, sir," Jacobs said.

"Oh, shit," Calubra said.

Now it was Managing Director Celia Thompson's turn to talk: "Are you telling me that we knew about this condition for a year, did nothing to correct it, and therefore indirectly caused the death of that boy?

The question was met with silence.

Thompson sighed: "I guess that's a rhetorical question."

"It's a good thing the Inquirer isn't around anymore or they would make a meal out of that report," Calubra said. "Still, this is a public relations disaster."

"I consider it more a human tragedy," said Rec Department head Junior Jackson.

 Jackson was a lifer in the Rec Department and had a reputation of being outspoken. "Let's not kid ourselves here, folks," Jackson said. "For the last 20 years we've been taking whacks out of every city department except for Human Services, Police and Fire. I've been closing rec centers left and right, turning playgrounds into parking lots, and deferring maintenance for years. Something like this was bound to happen. Admit it."

An awkward silence descended on the room as people awaited the Calubra outburst they were sure was coming.

"Let me tell you, commissioner," Calubra said. "I don't give a flying f....who struck John first or how we got to where we are.  I've got a mayor who is running for re-election and who ran on the promise of being "The Children's Mayor." Now The Children's Mayor has just killed a 10-year-old boy.  That's the way it is going to be pitched in the media. And that is a public relations disaster."

"You're right, Marty," said Thompson. "What we need to do is manage the reaction.  Have the mayor visit the family to express her personal condolences. Get the Rec Department to begin a program of inspection and repair of its facilities. Hire some additional L&I inspectors to get inspections up to date....

"That's not possible, Celia" said Finance Director Rob Beck, cutting Thompson off.  "We don't have the money for those things.  We are facing a $460 million hole in next year's budget as it is."

That silenced the room again.

"In fact," Beck continued. "All of you should prepare to take another hit in the next budget.  Tax collections are town.  We've got health and pension costs that are going through the ceiling.  And we have a new prison that has to be opened and staffed."

"Rob, you may as well close down the entire Rec Department and be done with it," said an angry Junior Johnson.

"We may have to," Beck replied." And I am not kidding.  I estimate that most departments will have to cut another 10 to 15 percent out of their budgets. I can't see any other way - unless the mayor is willing to go for a big jump in taxes...."

"Which she is not."  It was Calubra. "And on top of that, you can expect some furloughs in your departments as well."

A soft groan went through the room.

Ever since the city won the right to furlough workers for up to 30 days a year in the Nutter administration, it had been routinely using the max allowed under the labor agreements. The result was what Thompson privately called "on again, off again" government.

But, furloughs were the lesser of two evils. The alternative was layoffs.  And no mayor had summoned the will to lay off more than a handful of city workers in the previous 20 years.

But, the strain was beginning to show.  In his second term, Nutter had to change trash collection from weekly to every two weeks.  As Johnson complained, Rec Centers had been "regionalized" - closing two for every one left open.

 L&I's enforcement capacity had been stripped to the bare bone - a fact that delighted many builders and landlords.

In the Revenue Department, customers complained that the phone would ring 30 times before anyone answered. City employees had taken to calling the city-owned fleet of cars "The Antiques Roadshow." In her first term, Mayor Brown turned over operation of a dozen libraries to community groups - in the hope they could staff them with volunteers.  As a result, on any given day, half the libraries were shuttered and dark.

Thompson, a former Indianapolis city manager recruited by Brown to serve as managing director, had privately decided to leave after three years in the job. "It's like a Third World country where the electricity is on every other day," she told a friend.

As she put in a private memo to Brown: "At this stage, city government is an entity that exists primarily to pay for the pension and health and welfare of its employees.  Besides policing, everything else is secondary.  We're starving every other function to death. Basic delivery of services to residents is intermittent at best"

Later, Brown had pulled her aside and told Thompson: "Your memorandum gave me much food for thought."

"And?" Thompson asked.

"Much food for thought," the mayor repeated, smiling.

"I think that should do it," Calubra said, shaking Thompson out of her reverie. Department heads filed out of the room, each with an assignment from the Chief Deputy, but Calubra beckoned Thompson to stay behind.

"What's up, Marty," she asked.

"Celia, we need to clean up this mess now," Calubra said. "I want Palumbo closed immediately, officially for repairs but unofficially forever.  The place is cursed.  I want the staff transferred, preferably to the worst assignment in the department.  And I want Junior Jackson fired.  The gods are angry.  Someone has to be thrown into the volcano and it isn't going to be me and it isn't going to be the mayor."

Thompson gazed serenely at Calubra, deciding privately to move up her departure date.

"Marty," she said. "You've given me much food for thought.
"Huh?" Calubra said. "What the hell does that mean?"

But Thompson had already left the room.

 

 

Chapter Three: No to the power of three.

 

 

 

This short story is fiction, but the facts and figures are real. It is based on the estimation that the tax and spending policies of the city for the last 10 years will continue for the next 10 and it carries them forward to 2020. The crisis in this story is caused by a slight decrease in tax revenue and several extraordinary expenses.   A separate part called "Facts and Figures" will outline current spending trends and projections going forward. This series was written and reported by Senior Editor Tom Ferrick Jr.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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