One of the most famous stories of our civilization is that of Joseph. Sold into servitude by his jealous brothers, Joseph eventually rose from jail to become the Chancellor (or Prime Minister) of Ancient Egypt, and ruled wisely. One given example of his sagacity is Joseph’s decision to save grain from Egypt’s years of plenty in silos, in order to feed the people during Egypt’s years of drought. Joseph’s prudence not only helped provide for the people of Egypt during the years of famine, it also enabled Egypt to become a regional superpower, as hungry people from around the world flocked in, desperate to buy food at any price.
This basic principle — to use unexpected bounty wisely, in order to thrive even in difficult times — is a lesson taught to nearly half the children in the world, as it is an important story in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. You would think that during his 17 years of Catholic education, someone might have bothered to tell this story to Jim Kenney.
Since his inauguration as Philadelphia’s Mayor in 2016, Kenney has shown the antithesis of Joseph’s wise and prudent leadership. Unlike his predecessor, Michael Nutter, who took power amid a global economic crash, Kenney governed Philadelphia during its years of plenty. Thanks to the consistent growth in the national economy, Philadelphia was able to collect more and more tax revenue every year. In 2018, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that our city’s surplus was an astounding $789 million. For a city that spent roughly $3.9 billion during Nutter’s last budget, this sum represented a potentially transformative windfall.
How could we spend so much more money on the School District, and still need to close two schools because of hazardous levels of asbestos last fall?
For once in a generation, Philadelphia had choices available. Cutting our uncompetitive wage tax, simplifying our business taxes, getting our sales tax back in line with the rest of the state, and paying down expensive debt held by the city or the School District all were on the table as potential uses for the economic plenty.
Of course, it is fair to say that not everybody in Philadelphia agrees with my fiscal-reformist instincts. Many would argue that this money would be better spent on services for Philadelphia’s people, many of which have been neglected for years. We’re all familiar with need at the Philadelphia School District, our pot-riddled streets, and our just barely treading water public transit system. Given Philadelphia’s election results, I think it is fair to say that more spending on services is likely the majority position in the city. Yet for those who looked to Kenney to be the progressive champion of our working-class neighborhoods, it is fair to ask: has his additional spending achieved those goals either?
How could we spend so much more money on the School District, and still need to close two schools because of hazardous levels of asbestos last fall? In both 2015 and 2019, Jim Kenney ran on reinstituting street cleaning, a service provided by nearly every city and suburb in the entire developed world, but somehow too difficult and expensive for our city. Was $800 million a year really too little money to bring that back? Kenney also promised to cut down on Philadelphia’s high level of pedestrian and traffic deaths, following the outline of “Vision Zero”. Instead, while NYC has seen weeks without a traffic death during Coronavirus, Jim Kenney’s Philadelphia saw three in two days. And that’s just traffic deaths.
So not only has Mayor Kenney squandered years of surpluses, he also has very little to show for it on the other end.
Murder and shootings are also on the rise in Kenney’s Philadelphia, and while police overtime is up, our clearance rate is down. So, grieving families rarely even get the name of a suspect, let alone the closure that comes with a criminal conviction and justice being served.
So where did the money go?
Wages, primarily. Under Mayor Kenney, hiring has increased, the use of overtime has expanded, and nearly all city employees have received raises. Kenney’s defenders paint these moves as necessary steps to combat the “austerity” of the Nutter years, but if this is truly the case, why do relatively simple tasks in urban governance seem so difficult for the Kenney administration to accomplish? If more spending on public sector compensation doesn’t lead to safer streets, a cleaner city, and hazard-free schools, what exactly is the point of doing it?
Typically, profligate leaders do not have to deal with the consequences of their own wastefulness. This duty is usually placed on their successors. In the case of Jim Kenney, coronavirus has changed this equation.
So not only has Mayor Kenney squandered years of surpluses, he also has very little to show for it on the other end. Even for the city employees who have received raises and overtime over Kenney’s tenure, these gains come at the risk of an impending fiscal crunch that threatens to reverse all of them quickly. In the wake of the global pandemic and attending recession, it is likely that layoffs, pension cuts, and wage freezes are all coming soon.
Typically, profligate leaders do not have to deal with the consequences of their own wastefulness. This duty is usually placed on their successors. In the case of Jim Kenney, coronavirus has changed this equation. With the majority of his second term ahead of him, it will fall to Kenney himself to find new ways to squeeze more money out of Philadelphia’s beleaguered tax base and make cuts to city services in order to balance the books.
For Kenney, the next few years will be filled with hard choices and finding the least bad option. After years of doing less with more, he’ll be tasked with the infinitely more difficult task of making do with less. I just hope he finally rises to the challenge.
Dan Pearson is a South Philadelphia based urban policy enthusiast, political activist, and dad. @DanPearson266