For Philly, tough choices ahead

Philadelphia skyline

The economy is not improving.

In fact, it appears to be getting a whole lot worse.

In just a single day late last month, a handful of American companies laid off more than 70,000 workers. Housing prices dropped a record 18 percent in November and now stand at levels not seen since 2004. The same banks that the federal government bailed out months ago still aren’t lending much. Consumer confidence has plummeted. The stock market is moribund.

And, as has been seen here in Philadelphia, municipalities across the nation are staring down the brutally difficult task of balancing their budgets at a time when tax revenues are drying up and state and federal aid is being slashed.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s plans to cut the city budget have been met with stiff opposition and even legal challenges in recent months. Some of those plans—most notably his effort to close several city libraries—are now on hold.

But the fact remains that the budget must be balanced, and sacrifices will have to be made.

The question is: Which ones?

That’s the question that Penn hopes to answer with a series of new community forums hosted by the University’s Project for Civic Engagement. “The City Budget: Tight Times, Tough Choices” will gather input from city residents that can then be used by Nutter and other city officials as they prepare Philadelphia’s 2010 budget.

“I would hope that we could inform what the city is doing,” says Harris Sokoloff, faculty director for the Project for Civic Engagement. “We’re doing these forums before any decisions are being made. We’re going to be at the front end of the process, and we’ll be able to get our input in. … To me, this is really about giving residents a voice—a deliberative voice, a public voice, so we can come together and consider all the tradeoffs. This will be residents telling the city, ‘This is what we would do if we were in your shoes.’”

The four forums are set for the following dates. All forums will run from 6-9:30 p.m.:
Thursday, Feb. 12: St. Dominic’s School, 8510 Frankford Ave. (Northeast)
Wednesday, Feb. 18: Mastery Charter School - Pickett Campus, 5700 Wayne Ave. (Germantown)
Thursday, Feb 19: St. Monica’s Catholic School, 16th and Porter streets. (South Philadelphia)
Monday, Feb. 23: Pinn Memorial Baptist Church, 2251 N. 54th St. (West Philadelphia)

Sokoloff says the forums will differ from Nutter’s recent town hall meetings in several ways. While the town hall meetings basically consisted of Nutter offering an opening statement, then listening as citizens offered their thoughts for the remainder of the meeting, the Penn forums will offer much more in-depth debate.

Sokoloff says Penn forum participants will break off into small groups to analyze real city budget information. This will give residents a true picture of just how serious the city’s situation is. Then they’ll be asked to offer their thoughts on which city services and expenditures can be cut, and why.

In essence, the forums will ask citizens to make the same tough choices that Nutter is facing. The information gathered from the forums will be shared with the Nutter administration, and the city has pledged to report back to Penn on how the input was used in the budget process.

“This is going to be citizens working in small groups, making some hard choices and deliberating what [sacrifices] as Philadelphians they are willing or not willing to make,” Sokoloff says.

For more information about the “The City Budget: Tight Times, Tough Choices” forums, visit www.gse.upenn.edu/ppce.

Originally published Feb. 5, 2009

Originally published on February 5, 2009