Faced with the dilemma of a looming $450 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2022, city officials will again look for ways to avoid slashing services and raising taxes on Philadelphians in the midst of a pandemic – at a time when most city residents have more needs than ever before.
But city money managers have said that everything is on the table, including deep, painful cuts to essential services like schools, transit, police and fire departments, homeless outreach and, of course, the arts, which suffered a huge blow last year when Mayor Jim Kenney revealed his revised budget for FY2021. Federal funding, combined with an injection of money from private donors, has helped some in the arts community slowly get back on their feet.
During a recent sit-down with City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, I talked with her about the city budget and alternatives to burdensome tax hikes and department cuts.
Rhynhart said that under Kenney’s mayorship, city spending increased by $1 billion in his first four years. For a sense of scale, the budget was at about $5 billion – pre-COVID.
“That is a lot,” said Rhynhart.
“And at the same time, resident satisfaction – by the mayor’s own resident survey – had not gone up. So, here you are, spending a billion and having people not more satisfied. So, therefore, we should be able to balance it.”
I think the last thing we need to be doing coming out of a pandemic is raising taxes.– Rebecca Rhynhart
A few of her suggestions: Lower overtime for city workers across the city. Right now, according to Rhynhart, the city spends roughly $8,000 per employee on overtime. Several years ago, it was $6,000 (after you’ve adjusted for inflation). That equates to about $40 million a year in savings, she said.
“We came up with a whole list of things and said, ‘We can just manage the city better, mayor.’”
“I think the last thing we need to be doing coming out of a pandemic is raising taxes.”
As Controller, Rhynhart’s job is to conduct audits of every government department and look for areas of waste and mismanagement, essentially serving as the chief accounting officer of the city. When she first took office in 2018, she said in an interview that she wanted to clean up the Philadelphia Parking Authority because it had a reputation for giving away patronage jobs to those who were politically connected – and that many elected officials were hesitant to stand up to the PPA.
After her office audited the PPA’s spending in December, it found an inflated workforce and higher salaries among people in management positions compared to other publicly managed parking agencies across the country. It also found a high percentage of employees connected to politicians – many of whom were ward leaders or committee people.
We found that a little over 22 to 24 percent of the sample that we took, either they were elected officials in the party system or they were living with them.– Rebecca Rhynhart
“We found that a little over 22 to 24 percent of the sample that we took, either they were elected officials in the party system or they were living with them. This doesn’t even account for those that just know someone or are in-laws or are friends, and that’s just not an efficient, effective way to run government,” she said.
But those kinds of problems don’t just lie with the PPA, said Rhynhart. She said her office is “constantly leaning in” with special audits and performance audits to look for areas of cost savings.
“There are so many things that need to be improved upon and I really want to be that voice that is calling things out, taking tough stances and saying, ‘We need better. The people of our city need better, and here is a roadmap to get there.’”
So then I had to put the question to our main money manager: Might she be a better choice for our city than whom we currently have occupying the second floor of City Hall? Kenney’s term expires in two years. Could she be the next Democratic nominee?
Smiling, Rhynhart seemed to sidestep the question.
“I love this city and I think this city deserves a leader that is visionary, that is strong and that really loves this city. At the same time, I’m focused. I’m up for re-election in May. I know no one is thinking about the City Controller re-election but there is a race in May. And I’m just doing my job at this point: Trying to be the best Controller I can be – calling out wrongdoing. Saying: here are areas where we can save money, how do we operate in the best way possible and how do we change things? Because we need government to change here. A lot of people are concerned. They’re concerned about how the city is going to recover; concerned about the homicide rate; concerned about crime and what direction our city is going in.”
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series. Click here to read part one.