by Jay A. McCalla

Increasingly, we live in a world of complex, sometimes amusing, ironies. The School “Reform” Commission implements large scale layoffs of teachers. President Obama permits drilling for still more fossil fuels while calling for reduced CO2 emissions. Politicians who happily reside deep in the pockets of their contributors style themselves as public servants.

We are a busy culture with a dash of wisdom and ennui, so we’ve made a bemused sort of peace with the swell of contradictions, oxymorons and ironies that ooze our way and slowly wash over us. We live longer and better with the occasional “eye roll” versus the more exhausting “outrage.” A whispered “there they go again” and soft chuckle gets us through the day.

City Council Bill #150406 threatens to disrupt our treaty with foolishness. It is the thin edge of a wedge which vies for the title “Most Grand of Ironies.” This bill authorizes the city to purchase 7777 (sounds very lucky, doesn’t it?) State Road, which fronts on the Delaware River, at a cost of $7.3 million. Once intended for a residential community to be named Independence Point, Mayor Nutter, with the eager help of 6th District Councilperson Bobby Henon, intends to build a new prison on this 70-acre site.

An immediate, but tangential, question regards whether or not this is the “highest, best use” for riverfront property. A more pressing concern is the estimated cost of the new prison: $500 million. Given inevitable delays, change orders and human error, it’s sensible to expect the final cost to inch well above that already stammer-inducing estimate.

Ultimately, this new prison is intended to replace the ancient House of Correction which was opened in 1874, demolished in 1925 and cleverly reconstructed with the original materials in 1927. With a charming optimism, it was designed to only hold 666 (sounds very unlucky, doesn’t it?) prisoners.

Given its age and undoubted overcrowding, it’s difficult to conclude we don’t need something different. But, that “something different” might be aggressive deployment of alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders, which would surely drive down the prison population. As many of the inmates are constitutionally innocent and merely await trial, much faster adjudication and affordable bail could play an important role, as well. Coughing up $500 million plus interest should not be our first reflex.

I hate to be a nudnik (I happily indulge my fondness for Yiddish) about our spending priorities, but public schools are predicted to go broke in October. There’s an unaddressed request for $129 million – an amount that represents the barest of bare bones budgets – of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which has yet to agree on the allocation of one thin dime for the fiscal year that started July 1.

To be fair (sarcastic, actually) it’s hard to focus on the needs of kids and parents in the midst of a Nutter-led Papal hoopla that imposes multiple fencing, bridge closures and any other infliction that appeals to our civic leaders. Yes, the same city that faces an educational catastrophe of Third World proportions is issuing blank checks for police, sanitation, SEPTA and fire emergency overtime pay and willingly incurring non-transparent cost after non-transparent cost.

Our politicians evidence a sub-zero recognition of our 27 percent poverty rate and that two out of five third graders fail state standards for literacy. Given the cheating scandal, the actual stats are likely even worse.

And so it is that our cozy detente with irony has collided with Nutter’s budgetary burlesque and the Marie Antoinette-like priorities it confirms. Yes, we know the building trade unions love a fat, juicy construction project. Yes, we know Councilperson Henon was the PAC Director for IBEW Local 98, which will enormously benefit from this dubious deal. Yes, we know John Dougherty, uber-powerful business manager of Local 98, contributes to a majority of City Council members, Yes, we know, we know, we know.

Council returns from its annual two-month vacation on Sept. 10 and will likely be childlike with excitement over the visit of Pope Francis two weeks hence. Sometime between their return and Dec. 17 (the last council session of 2015) we may be rationally fearful they will abrogate our “school to prison pipeline” by simply and wholly dropping schools from the equation.

Jay A. McCalla is a former Deputy Managing Director under mayors Rendell and Street. He provides weekly political analysis for WURD 900 AM and blogs for Philly Magazine’s “Citified.” Twice a month, he will share his views on our city’s government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @jayamccalla1.

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