by Jay A. McCalla

Well, the budget process has begun at City Council, and it’s a terrific time to immerse oneself in the operation of our city government and the associated costs. If one spends a week or so at Council, you will hear the Police Commissioner defend his eye popping use of overtime, the Health Commissioner will explain the new opioid epidemic, L&I will tell us how its budget request will enable it to do a terrific job – even if it doesn’t.

Council budget hearings can be a bouillabaisse of needs, politics, retaliation and extortion.

On its face, the process is nothing more complicated than department heads publicly coming before Council to discuss their needs for the new fiscal year and how they will use their budgets. However, if a commissioner has ignored or underserved a particular councilperson during the preceding year, this is when Council members get the opportunity for conspicuous revenge. Be assured the questions will be very detailed and aggressive, and perceived slights will be raised publicly. It’s the perfect moment to extract favorable concessions from that official and send a message to others that you’re not to be trifled with.

The average government manager is a pretty good politician, however, who will touch base with key Council offices to make certain there are no “surprises”.

Another type of testimony comes from officials who are uniformly popular and received with broad, collegial goodwill. Their testimony is brief, unchallenged and generally successful in getting what they want from council.

Good examples would be Ron Donatucci, Register of Wills, and Jewell Williams, Sheriff. The dirty little “non secret” is that both offices are patronage heavens where the politically connected can dump a Democratic committeeperson or underachieving nephew, when necessary. Rest assured, our councilpeople will greet Donatucci and Williams like brothers come home from the war.

Because we are a city of deep poverty, high illiteracy, homelessness and several hundred thousand ex-offenders, budget hearings inevitably offer the heartbreaking tableau of the poor and needy addressing our very well-paid Council, advocating for needs that have already, officially been ignored.

These are the people who can’t afford lobbyists, have been ignored by budgeteers and didn’t rate a meeting with their representative. So, they come to Council at 9:30 in the morning and wait all day for a chance to talk for three minutes to Council people who are checking their smartphones and chatting with staff.

The dog that doesn’t bark during these hearings is City Council itself. An ancient succession of Council presidents has rejected the notion of transparency and accountability by only disclosing broad categories and lump sum totals.

In the early 1980’s, when Joseph E. Coleman became Council president, the budget was roughly $3 million. This year’s request from Darrell Clarke is $17 million. Since Council refuses to submit itself to a public budgeting process, we will never know the degree to which this figure is justified or ridiculously bogus.

We do know Clarke likes to stash cash inside the budget that allows him to pursue his impulses and political imperatives. We saw this when he hired the electorally defeated Wilson Goode Jr. to Council staff, at a salary higher than he enjoyed as a member of Council.

At the height of the rivalry between former Mayor Nutter and Clarke, the Council president hired his own team of lobbyists (no competitive bidding, of course) to represent Council in Harrisburg. Naturally, this duplicated and confused matters in that Nutter – as with every mayor – had his own team of paid lobbyists.

As a nonunion, non-civil-service entity, Council itself is a patronage haven which is wide open to failed candidates, friends of friends and hacks just waiting to collect their pensions. Salaries and titles can be as whimsical as Lewis Carroll.

It would be nice to have a peek at what Council presidents have been hiding from us for generations. We live in hope.

Despite a carefully prepared first draft and detailed tracking of changes made as a result of testimony or lobbying, the budget process – for some reason – is always afflicted with substantial error. When Council returns from its summer vacation, one of the first items of business will be (and, always is) an Omnibus Transfer Ordinance intended to correct mistakes in the budget they adopted only two months before.

At the end of all this, we’ll have a political spending plan for $4.4 billion that will largely have been shaped by our debt and special interests. But, at the margins, some good will be delivered to those who need. The 10 health centers will remain open, and our immense network of street and traffic lights will continue to protect us. Clean water will remain available for every home while waste is regularly carted away. On balance, things could be worse.

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.

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