Philadelphia Metropolis


The Secret Room

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In the building, there is a secret room. Within the secret room are millions of the dollars, piled in neat stacks.  The door to the secret room is locked.  In fact, it doesn't even have a door knob.

To gain entrance, you must knock.  A voice on the other side will ask: Who do you know? If you answer that question correctly, the door will open and you will leave with your pockets stuffed with cash.  If you cannot answer it correctly, you will be greeted with silence. You will leave empty handed.

Sectret Room Use this.jpgIn a nutshell, that's how the Delaware River Port Authority's divvy - excuse me, economic development program -- works.  The money is supposed to go to "small, emerging and new businesses and expansion or relocation projects that will improve the region's economic climate."

It is to laugh.

As Paul Nussbaum reported in today's (Monday, Nov. 15) Inquirer, a big chunk of the money goes not to emerging businesses, but to established non-profit and for-profit groups, some of it for special projects, but a lot of it to cover operating costs.

Included on the list are: The Independence Visitors Center, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. the Variety Club, WHYY, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the National Constitution Center.

The cash - excuse me, the grants -- which total $13 million so far this year were laundered  -- excuse me, funneled - through the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., appearing on the books of the DRPA as a lump sum, but divvied - excuse me, re-allocated - to the favored organizations according to DRPA dictates.. 

The grants were approved, despite a July 2008 pledge by the DRPA to end its spending on such projects. It's like eating peanuts, though. Once you start digging into the bowl, it's hard to stop.

 The money comes from bridge tolls.  So, to all of you who use the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry and Betsy Ross Bridges, we offer you a hardy thanks for financing these worthy causes.

The grant program is purely and simply a "Who You Know" operation. The money was sprinkled on groups with ties to DRPA board members, including Councilman Frank DiCicco, DRPA Chair John Estey and board member Robert Bogle. Excuse me if I also detect the unseen hand of Gov. Rendell pushing a little money here, a little grant there.

To illustrate, allow me to use the example of WHYY (conflict alert: I worked as an editorial consultant for the public broadcasting station in 2008.)

In the budget cycle of 2007-2008, Rendell zeroed out money for public broadcasting stations around the state.  WHYY's share of that state money was close to $2 million. It's share of the DRPA money? About $2 million.

What appears to have happened was that the station's subsidy actually continued but was  shifted from taxpayers to toll payers and done without public notice or a legislative vote.


Let me add that if you look at the list of recipients, many are worthy causes, projects or organizations.  The question before us, though, isn't the worthiness of the recipients, but the means of delivery, the source of the money, and the legitimacy of giving cash to organizations who do not meet the stated criteria of being "small, emerging and new businesses..."

In a "Who You Know" operation, of course, these are secondary issues.  Because what really counts is...well, who you know.

Let me note another disturbing aspect of these grants.  Some are clearly for one-time projects ($250,000 to help redo old Franklin Square is an example), but a lot of this grant money is going to finance the day-to-day operating budgets of these entities.

That's an unstable source of income, especially since the DRPA - stung by criticism of where its toll dollars are going -- decided in August to cease-and-desist further economic development grants.  Normally, I'd say that was a hollow promise, meant to be broken.  But with new Republican governors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it may, indeed, be the end. Operation of the Secret Room will cease and desist.

Who you know won't count as much as what you know - like running your organization in such a way that you have no need for secret handouts.







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