In Tough Times, Philadelphia Bucks The Trend Mayor Michael Nutter and the City Council have avoided service cutbacks and big public employee layoffs by raising sales and property taxes three years in a row.
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In Tough Times, Philadelphia Bucks The Trend

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In Tough Times, Philadelphia Bucks The Trend

In Tough Times, Philadelphia Bucks The Trend

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SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. More than two years after the recession officially ended, mayors across the country are still struggling to balance their city budgets. This week, NPR has been taking a close look at several cities. Today, Philadelphia. It avoided many of the big public employee layoffs seen in other cities. NPR's Jeff Brady reports one reason is because Philadelphia bucked the national trend and raised taxes.

JEFF BRADY: Since 2008, Philadelphia has increased taxes on a regular basis. In 2009, the sales tax doubled from one to two percent. The next year, property taxes went up 10 percent. This year, property taxes are going up again, almost four percent. These tax hikes are temporary, but they allow Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter to say this to a crowd at a downtown senior citizens center:

Mayor MICHAEL NUTTER, DEMOCRAT, PHILADELPHIA: Our budget is stable. All 70 of our swimming pools are open. Every rec center is open. Every library is open. Every park is open and all of our services are being provided because we didn't (unintelligible).


BRADY: Raising taxes wasn't Mayor Nutter's first choice. Shortly after taking office in 2008, he started with a plan to make dramatic cuts that included shutting down libraries. But the cuts did not go over well. Political analyst Terry Madonna teaches public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.

TERRY MADONNA: They were roundly opposed by a whole variety of people. And I think that sort of set the stage for about how far city officials could go politically with cutting services.

BRADY: But even in raising taxes, Mayor Nutter has had trouble getting what he wants. The most recent example was a tax on sugary drinks the city council rejected.

In a town where alliances and political machines still matter, Nutter has billed himself as a reformer. Sometimes he's seen as aloof and certainly not gregarious. But lately, the mayor has tried to soften his image. He was seen jumping into a city pool with children at the beginning of summer. And recently he was in poor section of town helping crews pave a narrow street.

PHILADELPHIA: A big big round of applause for the work that they're doing out here.


PHILADELPHIA: Great, great job. Great job, guys.

BRADY: Mayor Nutter likes to be seen as doing things. And he took this photo opportunity to the next level, you might say. He actually climbed up on the paving equipment and rode it down the street - examining the new blacktop along the way.


BRADY: Resident Vanessa McDuffie watched from in front of her house, but the paving job was not what she wanted to talk about.

VANESSA MCDUFFIE: Well, we have a bad case of raccoons around here. They run up and down the street.

BRADY: So what do you want them, the city to do about the raccoons?

MCDUFFIE: Well, we need the city to come out here and clean up the street or clean up the block and clean up these blocks and cut some of these trees down that's growing. Not the trees out here, I'm talking about the weeds that's growing and two trees. We need the city to come out here and take care of that.

BRADY: Remember the mayor himself is driving by paving the road in front of McDuffie's house but she wants to talk about the raccoon problem. That provides a glimpse into the life of a mayor governing a large city with lots of problems. Mayor Nutter is quick to point out, those problems would be worse right now if the city hadn't raised taxes to maintain services.

PHILADELPHIA: And it's because of what we did early on, made the tough choices. Yeah, some people did get upset. I think they, you know, maybe a little bit have kind of gotten over it. Some maybe have, some haven't.

BRADY: Among the dissatisfied, count the city's largest unions. They agreed to no wage increases and other concessions at the start of the recession. But they haven't reached agreement on a new contract with the city.

PETE MATTHEWS: ..TEXT: No. We don't have a good relationship at all right now.

BRADY: Pete Matthews heads the city's main blue-collar union. He says his members are tired of Mayor Nutter expecting them to give up more of their pay and benefits.

MATTHEWS: He wants to be a dictator in everything that he does, He dictates terms. He does not sit down and talk, he dictates terms. I have yet to have a negotiation session with the mayor. The sessions have been with his people.

BRADY: If Mayor Nutter wins reelection in November, as many expect, more difficult financial decisions await him. He estimates the city's pension fund has less than half the money it needs to make future payments. That is a $4 billion shortfall, a number larger than the mayor is proposing for the city's entire budget next year. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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