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Election 2011: Seven Trends That Are Changing Philadelphia

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seven-deadly-hed_400.jpgBy Tom Ferrick Jr.

The Michael Nutter who will be re-elected to a second term this week will be a different man than the one who was inaugurated in 2008.

Within months of the new mayor taking up residence in City Hall, the nation headed into a long and deep recession. The decline in our economic fortune defined Nutter's first term, as he had to wrestle with a sharp and sudden drop in revenues.  The man who went into City Hall vowing to reform government and boost the city's economy ending up wrestling with declining tax revenue.  His answer was a mixture of budget cuts and tax increases that has essentially frozen government in place for the last three years.

The number of city employees has declined -- through attrition only, there were no layoffs -- and the size of government has shrunk, when compared to inflation.

Nutter did act on the key elements of his agenda -- to return integrity to City Hall, to lower the crime rate, to improve the public schools -- with mixed results, often defined by the skills of the people he named to perform those tasks.

With Joan Markman, a former federal prosecutor who is the city's chief integrity officer, he found a capable watchdog over city government and its employees, who appears utterly unafraid to take on even the most connected of the connected. An active and aggressive Board of Ethics has helped in the task.

With Commissioner Charles Ramsey, imported from Chicago, the mayor found a veteran police officer popular with his own troops and the public. While the crime numbers have gone down, a fact that should give comfort to the public, Ramsey's confident demeanor has probably done as much to calm the public's fears than anything else.  He remains, far and away, the most popular public figure in the city.

With Arlene Ackerman, named  head to the school district in 2008, Nutter got an educational reformer with three decades of experience in public education. She proved to be a disaster. In August, after the district's budget imploded because of steep declines in state and federal aid, Ackerman was fired; given a $900,000 severance payment to go away.  The district, with a new acting superintendent, seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and Nutter has had to become much more personally involved in (and more visibly responsible for) what goes on at district headquarters. (Officially, it was the School Reform Commission that hired Ackerman, but Nutter had his say and approved.)

Nutter entered office with a mandate to make a new contract with city employees that would face the realities of modern municipal government: the high cost for fringe benefits, especially pension costs that far outstrip the means to meet them. When the recession hit in his first year in office, the mayor had the opportunity to confront the unions with a list of concessions.  He did not. Though the police and fire unions got new contracts through arbitration, the city's blue- and white-collar workers have gone without new contracts for three years, increasing the pressure for wage increases and increased city health payments. Meeting those demands could be the most costly item in the city budget over the next four years -- though no one is sure exactly how costly.

The mayor's people have chosen to spin his inaction on union contracts as a clever game of rope-a-dope that has held the line on employee expenses. To outsiders, though, it looks like a sign of weakness -- an unwillingness of the mayor to confront the defining issue of governments everywhere these days: Mercedes benefit packages in an age of austerity.

Collectively, City Council has seemed to reach the conclusion that Nutter is a weak mayor, who can be denied what he wants with impunity. They have spurned many of his proposals (the sugared-drink tax and trash fees are two recent examples) in favor of pursuing their own agendas, a trend that is likely to intensify in Nutter's second term, as he becomes a lame duck.

If Nutter had a chance to leap to the next level of elected office -- say, as governor or U.S. Senator -- he would still have the potential of clout.  But, the rounds of tax increases he pushed through in his first term, and the rounds he may push through in his second -- have effectively ended his chance for statewide office.  Tax and spend Democrats from big cities usually crash and burn just over the city line.

The makers of the City Charter designed it to tilt power to the mayor. Their goal, to install a strong mayor form of government, is what we have had in Philadelphia, for better or worse, for 60 years.  Now, in Nutter's second term, we may witness the fulfillment of a trend that began in his first: A mayor who reigns while Council rules.

Nutter's second term will be defined, in part, by internals -- the politics and personalities, as they swirl around the mayor's office and City Hall.

But, as in the first term, much of the mayor's time will be spent grappling with the externals -- economic and demographic forces that have the power to reshape the future of the Philadelphia.

The internals get the most ink, but can look trivial compared to the external forces that can touch every citizen in every neighborhood.  A lot that is positive has happened in Philadelphia in the last decade, a trend personified by a revivified and expanding Center City. Center City is the place where the middle class is moving in, not out; where a mini-baby boom has meant a growth in population, not a decline. If Philadelphia is a car, then Center City is its engine, and -- even in recession -- it continues to hum along.

But, Greater Center City -- as defined by river to river, Girard to Tasker -- is home to 180,000 people.  Another 1.3 million Philadelphians live somewhere else.

The trend lines in many of these neighborhoods are not positive. In the years ahead, Philadelphia will have to face what I call the Seven Deadly Trends -- the broad forces that, for better or worse, will determine the city's future.

Here are a series of questions and answers for each trend:

 1. What's the last number you want to see moving in this direction? Answer.

2. If the Eagles were 2-8, the fans would want Andy Reid fired.  What do you think of this 2-8 record?  Details.

3. Complete the following sentence: The public schools are.... Answer.

4. If what goes up must come down, does it follow that what goes down must go up? Answer.

5. How does more and more equal less and less? Answer

6. Who are the people you never want to see leave? Answer.

7. Where are they robbing Peter to pay Paul? Answer. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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