by Jay A. McCalla
Back in early 2016, our new Mayor announced that he would pull together $600 million to repair our almost perpetually ignored infrastructure, specifically, libraries, parks and recreation centers. It was an important idea that was intrinsically popular with City Council, residents, media and the building trades.
Since then, the figure for Jim Kenny’s seven-year Rebuilding Community Infrastructure plan has been pared back to a mere half billion dollars but the funding seems to be falling into place. The William Penn Foundation is kicking in $100 million and the city will borrow $300 million. The remaining $100 million is a bit “iffy,” but we can keep our fingers crossed.
If executed as presented, this good and big as life plan would provide a solid basis for future economic growth, improved amenities for our citizens and a considerable amount of political goodwill for Kenney.
But, like crack-addicts who’ve just come into a large inheritance, our politicians are already drooling over the gravy train that’s coming their way.
The easiest, most simple and honest way to contract and spend this colossal sum is through our existing systems. We have a Procurement Department and an Office of Capital Projects that routinely and ably administers expenditures large and small. Each entity has an Assistant City Solicitor to keep everything kosher while inclusion of minorities and women are mandated by a separate agency.
The final assurance of the existing government system is that the City Controller (nominally, independent from the administration) must approve every payment before it is issued. Controls. Checks and balances. Constant and close legal oversight. Transparency and accountability.
It is this very system that safeguards against corruption. No politician or appointee, in my memory, has gone to jail because they rigged or corrupted the issuance of a city contract. These procedures, and our “lowest bidder” requirement, permits us to build stadiums, pave hundreds of miles of street surface, buy police vehicles and more – all without scandal.
The scent of Kenney’s Rebuild bucks, however, makes the palms of politicians perspire and pulses quicken as they connive to torture every conceivable advantage from this mammoth investment.
The almost predictable debasement of Kenney’s Rebuild commenced with his initial and lamentable decision to shun the vast protections provided by government procedures and deposit the tsunami of public cash in the accounts of the Fairmount Park Conservancy and the Free Library Foundation.
Not only are these entities without expertise in large scale infrastructure spending, they will each charge seven-years-worth of administrative fees, thus reducing available funds for actual rebuilding. Kenney defended his decision by saying these groups allow “greater flexibility” in contracting. True enough. They aren’t bound by “lowest bidder” requirements, which means an array of influences and standards can come into play when awarding a contract. They also conspicuously lack the necessary bureaucratic bulwark to be trusted stewards of a half billion dollars of public money.
While Kenney gleefully envisioned seven years of groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings, members of City Council grew jealous. “What’s in it for us” became their plaintive mantra. In politics, good results aren’t enough. There must also be a gain of power or prerogatives for an effort to be truly worthwhile.
Kenney understood he had better answer Council’s question with quickness and sincerity. He was a member of Council when Mayor Street’s $300 million Neighborhood Transformation Initiative was stalled for a year until each member was assured a specific cut of the honey pot. Council always wins.
So, the mayor’s plan has degenerated into a political feast with high-risk execution. Kenney will shun construction experts and department heads and allow district council people to select which facilities receive investment. Neighborhood nonprofit corporations (many of which already lean heavily upon their district councilperson) will be the conduits for this almost unprecedented pot of gold.
The average neighborhood nonprofit, though good and noble, will be severely challenged to simply account for the torrent of cash that will be measured in the tens of millions. Months will be consumed as these lucky nonprofit corporations climb an uncommonly steep learning curve.
The path Kenney negotiated with Council will result in a breathtaking amount of taxpayers’ money being expensively handled and spent by amateurs instead of inside the government, where it would be managed, tracked and transparently spent by experts.
Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.