Philadelphia Public Library Closings Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg

A friend who lives in Philly contacted me in response to my post about the possible public library closings. It seems like my gut was closer to correct on this being an outward sign of political squabbling, in this case between the Democratic governor and the Republican majority legislature. My friend suggested that there is pretty systemic corruption but didn’t offer any specifics. It probably wouldn’t be fair in a quick correspondence to try to itemize a list that steered clear enough of libel to be worth sharing.

The closing of the public library is just the latest outward sign of these troubles. My friend has it on good authority that at least one city official working in a department that receives state funding knew full well this was coming, back in July when the latest round of budget squabbling flared up.

What is probably safe to say is that the governor, Rendell, is desperate to fix some of the budgeting problems as he sees them. Unfortunately, he seems to have a history of inflicting pain on the state and state funded programs as a brute force negotiation tactic.

Last year, when Rendell didn’t get the budget he wanted passed, he furloughed workers. They were out for one day and then got paid. This year – he just plain didn’t pay people that were paid out of the General Fund.

Pressure tends to limit how long such maneuvers can be sustained, though.

They eventually paid a stop gap budget to pay workers, but in the mean time – they aren’t paying bills to state contractors, [they] aren’t allowed to make any purchases, and if something breaks, unless it’s under warranty, [they] can’t fix it. Rendell is out next year, so this is his last chance to pass the budget that he wants […]

It is not surprising that neither side sees a budget that is in anyway compatible with the other’s. The whole thing seems like an exercise in squeezing a water balloon. To pay the deficit and fund critical services, other programs have to suffer or citizens feel the pinch in increased tax rates. Unfortunately, it sounds like programs already are and have been suffering. While corruption is no doubt sapping some of the budget, it is more likely chronic mismanagement is a worse problem. If neither side can come to any sort of agreement on exactly where to squeeze the balloon, then everyone is going to get drenched.

The situation is amplified by how the city of Philadelphia relies partially on state funding.

If Philly doesn’t get the money that they normally do, the Mayor has threatened Armageddon, cutting police and fire, and they are already planning to cut trash and recycling in half.

Part of my interest here, other than my friends who live in a city that is seeing basic services like sanitation diminished and may see other services completely go dark even if only temporarily, is wondering how transparency may have helped this situation. Corruption certainly is threatened by the disinfecting glare of sunlight, as the saying goes. More constructively openness may allow more minds to work the budget problem. It certainly wouldn’t hurt in helping everyone understand that there simply isn’t enough funding to go around. Ignorance only fuels back biting, recriminations, and accusations of favoritism.

My friend bolstered my comments about the temporary nature of the library closings if they do indeed come to pass.

But I have a feeling the moment they know that money is coming in – the libraries will be back open. They are a grassroots favorite, and if Nutter wants to stay popular, he’ll do what he can to open them quickly.

But I think that Cory’s article made it seem like the libraries are going away for good, and that they were disposed of on some crooked polititians whim. It’s not that. It’s just that if there is no money coming in…well the City of Philadelphia doesn’t have good credit. But if they have to pick and choose what they are going to pay for – essential services required for public health and safety need to come first. And it’s so much more complicated than what he reported.

I know I am not getting all of those complications my own self. Hopefully I am able to give a better sense of them. If you, dear reader, follow the local law and budget making where you live, you’ve no doubt seen some of this before, if not quite to this degree. Hopefully you also understand my interest in expanding transparent government beyond the federal government, down into states and municipalities.

It may not directly make these sorts of problems that much easier to solve. It is still a tough economy and that will impact tax revenues and other publicly fund programs even with the best management. It is however always better to argue for and make public decisions based on the best and most complete information available.

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