Philadelphia’s great reckoning

by pkerkstra on June 17, 2012

This column appeared in the Inquirer on June 15, 2012.

Like a boiler with a rust-eaten lining worn eggshell thin, huge sectors of Philadelphia’s infrastructure have been neglected to the point where an explosion now looks inevitable. And a lot of people are about to get badly burned.

I’m not talking about the physical infrastructure, though that’s not faring any better. I’m referring to core civic systems like public education, tax structure, benefits for city workers, even the land itself.

As a city, we’ve known for decades that these municipal building blocks were breaking down. But it was easier and more expedient either to ignore the warning signs or, when that wasn’t possible, to make just enough repairs to get by.

That’s not going to work anymore. Philadelphia’s great reckoning is upon us. Look around.

The Actual Value Initiative is all about making right the wrongs of the past. In this case, the wrongs are property assessments so inaccurate that they appear to be the work of a monkey fishing balls out of a lottery hopper.

Fixing that mess was never expected to be easy, but only recently have we started to see how much chaos AVI will sow. At the tax rates now being discussed in City Hall, there are homeowners in this city that will see their bills increase by 1,000 percent or more in a single year. Bills that double or triple will be commonplace. And much of this insanity will be concentrated in the neighborhoods that have done the most in recent years to attract new residents to the city: Point Breeze and Graduate Hospital, University City, Northern Liberties, Fishtown and Fairmount.

AVI is a cure that will create new diseases in healthy communities: people on the margins will fall into delinquency, the real estate market will slow, and some with the means to move will decide that, if they are paying Lower Merion-size property taxes, they’d be better off in Lower Merion.

Yet, what’s the alternative? Continue with the bad old numbers? Assessments that stiff the poor and the unlucky, that violate both the law and basic standards of fairness and equity?

Delaying a year might help the city find ways to blunt the worst of the impact, but only so much pain can be prevented. And all of it is due to the paralysis of a city government that knew full well about the problem, ignored it for as long as possible, and thus compounded the trauma of the inevitable reckoning.

Everyone has a hand in this fiasco: mayors and city councils, but also the judges and party bosses – hello there, Bob Brady – who picked the well-compensated directors that ran the inept Board of Revision of Taxes.

Meanwhile, over at the school district, the embattled School Reform Commission is attempting to cram several decades’ worth of downsizing into a few frenzied years, with the predictable result of widespread parent and teacher outrage. I question some of their moves, but mostly I pity the members of the SRC. Their job is to do all of the grown-up stuff, immediately, that the district’s past leaders found too distasteful: like closing half-empty schools by the dozen and being remotely realistic about the district’s budget.

Their actions are the educational equivalent of a starvation fast. Think of the pain that could have been avoided with a slow and steady diet – begun many years ago – of school closings by the twos and threes, or even just an earlier recognition of the obvious fact that federal stimulus money wouldn’t be available forever.

But why would we expect the schools to have a better record than the rest of the city? Anywhere you look in Philadelphia, there are egregious examples of deferred municipal maintenance on the systems that are supposed to be the bedrock of civil society.

The pension fund is the granddaddy of the city’s “pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” approach to governance. Mayors and city councils have starved the fund for so long that the out-of-pocket price to keep it up and running is gargantuan: $1.29 billion this year and next, all of it paid out of the city’s operating budget. That’s money that, if the leaders of the past had kept up their end, would be available for public safety, or tax relief, or libraries.

If there is any solace, it lies in the fact that the city is at last grappling with some of these failed systems, though certainly not all of them (see: taxes, delinquent). Once this long reckoning is over, Philadelphia should be on sounder footing. But that won’t make the coming carnage any easier to bear.

Previous post:

Next post: