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Philly Mayor's Popularity Suffers Amid Budget Crisis

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Philly Mayor's Popularity Suffers Amid Budget Crisis

Economy

Philly Mayor's Popularity Suffers Amid Budget Crisis

Philly Mayor's Popularity Suffers Amid Budget Crisis

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Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter is under fire for making drastic cuts to the city services. The city recently announced the closure of 11 libraries, seven fire houses and 68 swimming pools — all part of efforts to curb Philadephia's budget shortfall. Nutter explains the closures and tells why his plan is best for the city's fiscal crisis.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, two states offer same-sex couples the right to marry, but more than 30 have now banned legal recognition for gay unions altogether. That causes some activists and observers to argue it shows that marriage is not the right fight right now for gay Americans. We're going to hear from our roundtable of prominent voices on the subject in just a few minutes.

But first, cities in crisis. We've been following the effect of the economic downturn on people in places around the country. When Michael Nutter was sworn in as mayor of Philadelphia a year ago today, city residents lined up for hours to shake his hand. What a difference a year makes.

Philadelphia, like most of the country, is suffering greatly from the effects of the recession. And now, a more than $100 million budget shortfall is requiring painful cuts to city services and unhappy choices. Just before the start of the new year, the mayor announced the city would have to close 11 libraries, seven fire houses, and 68 swimming pools.

Mayor Michael Nutter joins me now. Welcome, Mr. Mayor. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mayor MICHAEL NUTTER (Democrat, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania): Hi, Michel, always a pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: So, it's been a year since you were sworn in.

Mayor NUTTER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you feel that congratulations or condolences are more in order?

Mayor NUTTER: (Laughing) Definitely congratulations. I'm so excited about this opportunity to serve Philadelphians. This is such a challenging time, but it's also, of course, an exciting time with the soon-to-be inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

This international economic crisis has certainly hit all of us, but it gives us new opportunities to look at things in a different way, evaluate what we've been doing, how we do it, why we do it. It is a challenge. There's no question about it, but, you know, that's the reason we come into public service in the first place.

MARTIN: Your decision to close 11 libraries, seven fire companies, 68 swimming pools drew headlines across the country. How did you decide that these vital services had to take these cuts?

Mayor NUTTER: Well, as you mentioned in the open, for the current fiscal year, we have at least a $108 million deficit, and we're required by state law to budget for - what we refer to as five-year plans. Every year, the five-year plan has to be balanced. And so, presently facing over a $1 billion deficit for the five years.

So we looked at three fundamental criteria in terms of making our cuts, and every department and agency received some level of cut. But the three that you mentioned certainly received a lot of highlight. But the first was, how do we preserve our core services that city government provides? Second, we must look out for our most vulnerable populations, certainly our children, our seniors, and those who have desperate needs for government services. And the third criteria was that we look at the long-term implications for the choices that we make.

And many of the choices were bad choices all the way across. I mean, in many instances, you're trying to make a choice between a couple bad options with regard to libraries, which now, as a result of some court action, all the libraries are open. They'll have reduced hours, but I wanted to maintain six-day service at all of the libraries across the city, and so we start temporarily closing them, figuring out re-use.

We put forward a knowledge center model, which is a public-private partnership idea to help us save $40 million over that five-year period of time. On swimming pools, we have 70-plus pools per capita more than any major city across the country. 12 will be opened, and we know that many more will be open by next summer. We've got a full fundraising team and a public-private partnership put together that's going to help us in that regard, as well.

On the fire side, none of the fire stations will close. No firefighters were laid off. This was about decommissioning seven pieces of equipment, and we will still meet our national safety standards here in Philadelphia. ..TEXT: MARTIN: Well, I take your point that you - I take your point. I think what I hear you saying is that vital services have not been compromised by these decisions, that these services are...

Mayor NUTTER: No. ..TEXT: MARTIN: Are being made available in other ways.

Mayor NUTTER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And that a judge ruled that you don't solely have the power to close these libraries, that the city council has to participate in that decision. I take it you disagree with that.

Mayor NUTTER: Yeah, well, yeah, I do.

(Laughing) It's a law that's been on the books for 20 years. It was ruled 20 years ago by a judge in Common Pleas Court to be invalid and an encroachment on the power of the executive. It clearly violates our home rule charter, and 20 years later, a different judge made a different decision. You know, that's...

MARTIN: Are you going to fight it?

Mayor NUTTER: That's the court system. Yes, we're already appealing. It has far- reaching implications way beyond just the current library situation. It really is about the power of a strong mayor form of government, which we've had since our 1951 charter was voted by the electorate, and that power cannot be taken away by a judge, so...

MARTIN: I guess where I want to go next is that, obviously, every service has particular advocates.

Mayor NUTTER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But as mayor, you've got to look at the big picture and balance all these competing...

Mayor NUTTER: Every service has an advocate. Everyone wants everything. When you have a $108 million deficit in one fiscal year - the current fiscal we're in - we're only halfway through - You have to make tough choices. So, I had to make it all fit together, live within our means. Unlike the federal government, I can't deficit spend, and we don't print money in the basement.

So, you know, we have some constraints that the feds don't have, and, you know, we do what we do. I felt - we fill potholes. We pick up trash. We put firefighters and police officers out in the street. This is the real deal in local city government, and that's why we, you know, I'm so excited about President-elect Obama coming in, trying to hit the ground running, create three million jobs over the next two years. This country has to get its economy in order.

MARTIN: What can he do? What can the president-elect do and presumably, the Congress working with him do that would most help you right now?

Mayor NUTTER: President-elect Obama, of course, comes in with tremendously high expectations, and you know, every...

MARTIN: As do you.

Mayor NUTTER: Yeah, yeah. Well, I know a little bit about that. So, you know, with that, after you walk on water and kind of get that over with, you get down to the real work. The ideas that he has laid out, and I know he has more plans to be announced.

I've talked about it in a context of housing, infrastructure, revenues, and energy, H-I-R-E, which happens to spell hire. We're talking about the three million jobs in two years. The housing market, of course, has virtually collapsed. The real estate market here in Philadelphia and across the country is in peril. Mortgage foreclosure crisis continues to capture and literally take people's homes away, and so we have to stop that.

All across the country, get banks to the table. The federal government has to say to the banks, look, first of all, we bailed you out. We gave you money, and you're not lending to anyone. Second, don't put people out of their homes. The country is in crisis, and this is not the time literally to throw people out in the street.

Infrastructure - Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston - you name a city, everyone has projects that are shovel-ready, hammer-ready, and money-ready, and the lacking issue there often is money. And so, the federal government can help cities all across America put people to work immediately. This is how we're going to put America back to work.

MARTIN: One area that's been a bright spot over the course of this very difficult year is crime - oddly enough, that the homicide rate has dropped by about 15 percent...

Mayor NUTTER: Yes. ..TEXT: MARTIN: Over the course of the year, and despite the fact that, you know, there are these difficult economic troubles. It's kind of counterintuitive in some way. What do you think is going on here? Why do you think that is?

Mayor NUTTER: We have a great police commissioner, Police Commissioner Ramsey, most recently of Washington, D.C., and before that, of course, he started his career in Chicago, came to Philadelphia, re-energized the department, restructured it, put a team together and a great crime-fighting strategy that focused on many things that I had talked about during the course of the campaign in 2007, which was that we would have targeted enforcement zones.

We'd step up our efforts to get illegal weapons off the street, increased use of the constitutionally-allowed stop, question, and frisk. We went after repeat offenders and put officers where they needed to be and reenergized the public about community policing. We're getting more information from the public to help us solve crimes, but also prevent crimes.

And we're very excited. This is the largest percentage drop in homicides in Philadelphia in a decade, and we're going to continue to be aggressive here in 2009. So, that is clearly one of the big, bright spots here in Philadelphia. We're becoming a safer city. My pledge to the citizens a year ago today was that we would decrease homicides 30 to 50 percent over the course of the next three to five years. We put a pretty big down payment on that with a 15-percent drop in my first year in office.

MARTIN: Finally, I can't let you leave without asking this final question, and this is another bright spot. Your football team, the Philadelphia Eagles...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Made an incredible run...

Mayor Nutter: Yeah.

MARTIN: Despite a lot of grinching along the - over the course of the season...

Mayor NUTTER: Yeah.

MARTIN: To make it to the playoffs.

Mayor NUTTER: Kind of like my campaign in 2007.

MARTIN: Going to take on the defending Super Bowl champs, the New York Giants, this weekend.

Mayor NUTTER: Yeah. ..TEXT: MARTIN: What do you think are the chances?

Mayor NUTTER: Our little city to the north of us.

MARTIN: Yeah, that place. Yeah.

Mayor NUTTER: You know, look, I'm an Eagles fan through and through.

MARTIN: Do you think they're going to bring the championship home?

Mayor NUTTER: And we're doing our best. You know, I try to remind folks that in early September of last year, folks were wondering, maybe the Phillies will make the playoffs. Now, of course, we know how that story played out, and the Phillies brought home the World Series after 28 years, and we're very, very optimistic. ..TEXT: MARTIN: Don't remind me.

Mayor NUTTER: (Laughing) Hey, we love our town. We're very optimistic about the Eagles. They did what they needed to do with Dallas and took care of business last week. So, we're going to go on up to New York and do what we need to do and keep on playing and keep on winning.

MARTIN: Michael Nutter is the mayor of Philadelphia. He was kind enough to join us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Mayor Nutter, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mayor NUTTER: Michel, thank you.

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