Taking Care of Business (chapters 9 and 10)

For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.)

Chapter Nine

While McDougal’s representatives began quietly spreading their fabrications and innuendo, Pennsylvania’s governor unveiled his proposed budget for the coming state fiscal year. George Clayton, a moderate Republican who had twice won his office in part based on his strong anti-Philadelphia platform, took great pleasure in annually proposing massive cuts in funding for the state’s largest city. This was Mayor Norbert’s first year in office, however, and therefore his first experience with this annual assault on his city’s financial well-being. Consequently, when his staff presented him a preliminary analysis of the proposed budget and its potential impact on Philadelphia, he immediately called an emergency meeting of his cabinet.

“Thank you all for coming over on such short notice,” Norbert began. His colleagues nodded.

“Todd,” he said, looking to the financial wizard he had brought in from Chicago to serve as his finance director, “why don’t you start us off by laying out the proposed cuts as you understand them.”

“The hits are enormous,” Todd Dixon began. “The biggest are reductions of $400 million from the current year’s state funding for public schools and $189 million in general state revenue-sharing funds for the city. He’s also proposed cutting our health care money by $65 million, our community development funding by $35 million, our recreation money by $10 million, and our miscellaneous infrastructure funding by $15 million. There’s also a $15 million cut for parks and the environment and $15 million for public safety. On top of that, he wants to postpone $35 million in highway construction and repair projects within city limits and reduce the convention center subsidy by $8 million.”

He paused.

“Oh, yes, one more thing. We’ve been getting $25 million a year to support the 400 new police officers we hired under the state’s anti-crime program. That program started three years ago and funding was supposed to continue for five years, at which time local governments were to assume financial responsibility for the new officers. Now, he’s calling for an end to the funding, but apparently, only for Philadelphia. The money would continue for every other jurisdiction in the state. So the total is $812 million: $400 million for the school district and $412 million for the city.”

“It would be catastrophic,” declared Wilma O’Neill, the city’s managing director. Philadelphia’s managing director was the equivalent of a corporation’s chief operating officer, and Norbert had recruited O’Neill from Atlanta to take on what was unanimously regarded as the most difficult job in city government: the person to whom the leaders of most city operations reported and the first person at whom people pointed fingers whenever anything went wrong. “We’d be expected to get by with much, much less, and the only way we’d be able to do that would be through severe cutbacks in city services and significant lay-offs of city employees.”

“Or tax increases,” added Ari Feldstein, the hot-shot budget director imported from the New York City office of Norbert’s company. “Property tax, wage tax, business use tax, it would all be on the table. We’re talking about filling a potential budget hole of more than $800 million.”

Mayor Norbert, a man who made a studied practice of looking calm and collected regardless of the circumstances, looked neither calm nor collected at the moment.

“What can we do?” he asked his team.

“We can sue,” declared Francisco Estevez, the Denver-born city solicitor who had joined the Norbert administration from the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.

“On what grounds?” Norbert asked.

“We don’t need grounds,” Estevez replied. “The idea is to get the money, not to win in court.”

“Jesus,” Norbert said, and then, just in case anyone may have missed his invocation of his lord and savior, he repeated “Jesus Christ.”

As the five colleagues sat silently, staring at one another and contemplating the possibilities, they heard a faint knock on the door and in walked Jon Ravelsky, a partner in one of Philadelphia’s largest law firms and one of Norbert’s oldest friends. Ravelsky and the mayor had been roommates at Yale and it was Ravelsky, a native Philadelphian, who had persuaded his friend to come to Philadelphia after graduation. Now, in addition to being Norbert’s best friend, he also was his most important and influential political advisor.

“Jon, thanks for coming over.”

“Sure,” Ravelsky replied. “What’s up?”

“The governor’s budget, and it’s down, not up,” Norbert replied. “He’s talking about cutting more than $800 million in aid to the city and school district.”

Ravelsky, who had taken a seat and had been leaning far forward as the mayor spoke, now sat back and smiled.

“You think it’s funny?” Norbert asked.

“Actually, I do, yes.”

The mayor just looked at him for a moment before speaking again.

“Would you care to let us in on the joke?” Norbert asked.

“It’s February, Jim, it was just a speech and it’s just a proposal. Clayton does this every February. He sandbags Philadelphia in his first budget and takes shots at the city in his budget address. That’s how he got elected, that’s how he got re-elected, and that’s one of the things he does to help his fellow Republicans get elected and hold onto the state legislature. It’s all political posturing and it’s very effective.

“By the way, where are Ed and Larry?” Ravelsky asked, referring to two of Norbert’s political aides.

“I didn’t think we needed them for a budget meeting,” Norbert replied.

“Well, you need them, because a budget meeting like this is also a political meeting. Four out of the five of you are from out of town and have never been through a budget cycle in Philadelphia, and Jim, you’re not a career politician, so you’ve never noticed things like this. Ed and Larry know this kind of stuff and could’ve told you what this is all about.”

“So are you saying we don’t need to take this seriously?”

“No, not at all, you need to take it very seriously, but you don’t have to worry about it. A lot of legislators would love to stick it to Philadelphia, but it never happens. Michael takes care of it.”

“Michael?”

“Ianucci.”

Ravelsky was talking about Michael Ianucci, Philadelphia’s most powerful elected official serving in the state capital and the dominant voice on the House Appropriations Committee, which ultimately had the biggest role in reviewing, revising, and approving the state budget.

“He just…takes care of it?” Norbert asked.

“Yes. It’s what he does. He takes care of the city’s business in Harrisburg.”

“He’s that powerful?”

“Yeah. As long as he’s in Harrisburg, you don’t have to worry.”

“And his seat is safe?” Norbert asked, knowing that all state representatives were up for re-election later in the year and that the party primaries would be held in only three months.

“As safe as any elected official can possibly be. I don’t think he’s gotten less than eighty percent of the vote in years, and he often runs unopposed in both his primaries and the general election. As far as I know, no one’s planning to run against him this year.”

“So you’re saying we don’t have to worry about this?”

“Not quite. You have to take the threat seriously because if no one intervenes, the budget’ll pass as proposed.

“What you need to do is pay proper tribute to Michael, the delegation, and the legislature. You need to act out in public like you’re very worried and take the threat very seriously. You have to court our delegation and then go with it to the state capital and kiss a lot of asses – especially Michael’s and the Republican leaders. You have to put on a visible and highly public display of how worried you are and how hard you’re working to fight it so that when the smoke clears and you end up getting what you want, the Philadelphia-haters in the legislature can go back to their home districts and tell their constituents that they fought the good fight but were defeated by the evil and powerful Philadelphians.”

“And this is how it works every year, you say?”

“Pretty much.”

“Amazing. Then that’s what we’ll do. Thanks for the insight.”

Chapter Ten

In late February, two weeks after learning that the governor’s proposed budget would not destroy his city, Mayor Norbert proposed his own budget for Philadelphia’s upcoming fiscal year in an address to city council. To the delight and amazement of the public, the business community, and the news media, Norbert’s spending plan called for no new taxes, modest reductions in two business taxes and the city’s onerous wage tax, a few modest new programs and program expansions, and the exact same bottom line of overall expenditures as its predecessor. Even anti-Philadelphia state legislators found disappointingly little in the mayor’s proposal to which they could object, and the traditional cross-state bloviating about profligate neighbors to the southeast was muted and only half-hearted.

 

 

 

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