Taking Care of Business (chapter 46)

(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.) 

As the day drew to a close and he finished a few pieces of work, Mayor Norbert was worried. More than 15,000 city employees were threatening to strike in less than a month if he did not give them large raises in pay; the city budget, which would have to cover those raises no matter what their size, still had not been passed even though the legal deadline for doing so had now come and gone; and the state budget, which called for $812 million in cuts in funding for the city and its school district, was still not the subject of serious talks in Harrisburg because with the deadline for passage of that budget still more than three weeks away, officials there reportedly were at least two weeks away from developing a sense of urgency about addressing the matter.

The entire process made no sense to Norbert. He had built one of the largest and most successful businesses in the country, starting literally with an office in the basement of his parents’ home; employed more than 150,000 workers around the world; participated in IPOs worth tens of billions of dollars; and negotiated numerous complex financial deals, including bonds, loans, and lines of credit that reached into the billions. This experience, he had told himself when he was preparing to run for mayor, should be strong preparation for the job of overseeing a city government that, despite its obvious complexity, was far, far smaller than his business. Compared to managing his business, he thought, managing the city’s finances should be easy.

He had thought wrong.

It made no sense, he realized, to be required by law to propose a budget in February – a budget that had to include personnel costs and that, also by law, had to be passed by May 30 – when contracts with four unions representing more than 20,000 city workers expired at the end of June.

But even worse than that, Norbert told himself, his budget proposal relied heavily on state revenue – but the state budget, also proposed in February but with a deadline for passage of June 30, was never passed before the city’s budget deadline of May 30.

In essence, Norbert concluded, he was expected to propose a budget, and lead council to its passage, without knowing his labor costs, which accounted for roughly seventy percent of his total budget, and without knowing how much money the city would receive from the state.

And amid such thoughts, Norbert sadly concluded that his proposed city budget, carefully crafted by dedicated people working hundreds of hours, was not worth the 600 or so pieces of paper on which it was written.

The question now, though, was where to devote his energies to try to do something about this disaster in the making.

On the labor negotiations?

On the recalcitrant council?

On the state legislature?

He immediately ruled out getting involved in labor talks. Although the unions were threatening to strike, history had shown that their contracts were seldom settled until within twenty-four hours of when they were to expire. Besides, his personal involvement at this stage would probably increase the unions’ public posturing and make the talks even less productive than they already were.

He did not know what to do about council but considered seeking advice from his wife. In the early years of their marriage she had taught kindergarten, and he thought she might be able to shed some light on council’s childish ways.

Finally, there was the legislature. Of the three, he thought this was the most pressing, because of the amount of money at stake: the $812 million that the governor had proposed stripping from the state’s financial support for Philadelphia. Without that money, his budget would collapse – and without Michael Ianucci, who was now clearly out of the picture, Norbert was also without the long-time solution to this very problem.

But how best to overcome these obstacles? That was the challenge Norbert now faced. Whether it was the unions, the legislature, or council, the problem, as the mayor saw it, was that no one was taking seriously these threats to the city’s financial health. Most of the ways he might go about trying to rally public interest in these problems, he decided, would be taken personally by the people he needed to engage to get what he desired. What he needed, Norbert concluded, was a way to do that, to get his point across clearly, publicly, and visibly but without further antagonizing the people whom his message was really intended to challenge and to get the public and the media behind him. Right now, though, he had no idea how to go about doing that.

It was nearly six o’clock and he was still in his office, so he turned on the television to see the local news.

And then he knew.

(more next Sunday)

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