Taking Care of Business (chapter 47)

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.) 

“Good morning, and welcome to a very special edition of Sunday Morning Philadelphia. I’m Ken Emery. We’ve given our regular panelists the day off today so we can spend the entire half hour with Philadelphia Mayor James Norbert. Good morning, Mr. Mayor.”

“Good morning, Ken.”

For the next few minutes the television anchorman made small talk with the mayor – about his transition from running a business to running a government, about the changes in the mayor’s life, about his basketball team’s recently completed season. Eventually the discussion turned to the reason Norbert had offered to come on the program: the city budget.

“Mr. Mayor, you seem to be facing an unusual and imposing series of budget challenges this year: difficult labor negotiations, an uncooperative city council, and an apparently mean-spirited attempt by Harrisburg to strip Philadelphia of a significant portion of its normal state funding. Is this a matter of bad timing, bad management, or just bad luck?”

“I think it’s a combination of all three, Ken,” Norbert replied. “There are things I could’ve done better, but there do seem to be some people pushing pretty hard against us this year.”

“Who and why?”

Norbert knew he had to be careful here. His advisors warned him not to cite the demands of political leaders for the firing of Shaniqua Watson as the reason for this resistance. Doing so, they feared, would be taken as a direct attempt to embarrass them that would only cause them to dig in their heels even harder.

“Well, you know the story, Ken. City employees want more money, which is entirely within their rights, and we think we’ve made them a very attractive offer. In the end, I’m confident we’ll come to an agreement with them.”

“But last week, blue-collar workers’ union president Fred Gilliam said that his union had already begun strike preparations and was ready to close down the city if they have to.”

“What else do you expect a union leader to say in the heat of contract negotiations?” Norbert replied.

The anchorman never even considered pursuing a more complete answer.

“And what about city council?” Emery asked. “Why the delay in passing a budget? Historically, city budgets are passed by the end of April, a good month ahead of the legal deadline, and now it’s early June, past the deadline for the first time that anyone can remember, and there’s still no apparent movement. What’s the hold-up?”

“Just a lot of details, most of which have already been worked out. We’re almost there.”

Ever uninquisitive, the anchorman dismissed the possibility that his viewers might be interested in learning about some of those details, again accepting the mayor’s response at face value and moving on.

“And the state budget? They’re threatening to cut Philadelphia’s funding by more than $812 million.”

“The usual Philadelphia-bashing, I think, Ken, plus testing the new guy – me.”

“Can you get it done in Harrisburg without state representative Michael Ianucci?” Emery asked.

“Michael’s still on the public payroll, Ken, and there are thirty-four other very capable members of the Philadelphia delegation in the state capital, too. We’ll get it done.”

It never occurred to the anchorman to ask how. He had something far more interesting to ask.

“Is there any truth to the rumor that the major point of contention in all of this is streets commissioner Shaniqua Watson?”

“I don’t think so. At first, I think a lot of people who are involved in constituent service were concerned that her innovative programs were taking away their usual work, but I think people have come around to the idea that Commissioner Watson’s programs represent a huge step forward for Philadelphia’s government and should be applauded and supported.”

“And if it doesn’t all work out the way you think it will?”

Norbert was relieved. This question – and the answer he was about to give – was the entire point of his appearing on the program. His next words, he knew, would be headlines in tomorrow’s newspapers, the lead story on all of the local television news programs, and one of the primary subjects on local talk radio for the next few days.

“We’ve made a careful and intentional point of avoiding any talk about specific cuts in jobs and programs, Ken, because I hate the idea of crying wolf or trying to scare people, but now, I think, the time has come to lay it on the line so Philadelphians will understand where we stand and what’s at stake.

“Let’s start with the school district. They’re in the process of doing budget contingency planning right now, and here’s what they’ve come up with.

“If the state cuts our school funding by $400 million, as currently proposed, the school district would lay off a little more than 2000 teachers and 700 non-teaching personnel. That would increase class size from the current maximum of thirty-two to around forty, which would put Philadelphia back to where it was around 1965 and wipe out nearly forty-five years of progress.

“But there’s more. If they cut us by $400 million, there’ll be no summer school this year, which means that every student who would have attended summer school – currently projected to be around 29,500 children – would be held back a year.

“We would eliminate all extra-curricular activities. There’s no possible justification for ordering dessert when you can’t afford dinner. Among those programs cut would be football. Unfortunately, a number of our football stadiums are used by city Catholic high schools, but we would stop anything more than bare-bones maintenance of those facilities, so they’d have to find other places to play unless they’re prepared to pay for one hundred percent of the stadium maintenance.

“We would end all-day kindergarten and close two-thirds of our school libraries. Schools would be partnered up so that one library would serve three schools.

“There’ll be more, but they’re still ironing out the details.”

“That sounds like a huge step backwards for a school district that seldom takes any meaningful steps forward, Mr. Mayor.”

“That’s about the size of it, Ken.

“Now let’s turn to the city,” Norbert said.

“The state legislature is considering cutting our health care funding by $65 million. If that happens, we’d close four of our twelve district health centers. Approximately 75,000 uninsured Philadelphians would lose their access to care. That, in turn, will send a lot of people running to hospital emergency rooms – so many, in fact, that we think this onslaught of uninsured patients could threaten the solvency of two Philadelphia hospitals.”

“Which ones?”

“I’d rather not say. We don’t want to scare their bondholders or destroy their ability to borrow money.

“The governor is talking about cutting our recreation funding by $10 million. If that happens, we won’t open any of our city pools this summer and our playgrounds won’t offer any recreation programs. We’ll also have to lay off our entire staff of summer recreation leaders and cancel our summer jobs program for inner-city youths.

“They’re talking about cutting our community development funding by $35 million, our infrastructure funding by $15 million, our highway repair funding by $35 million, and our convention center subsidy by $8 million. To compensate for these losses, we’d be forced to lay off 1500 city employees, close five fire stations, and close half of our public libraries. Trash would be collected every other week instead of every week so we could lay off 600 of our 1200 trash collectors.

“We’d also lay off 400 police officers. They’re also proposing to eliminate the $25 million in annual funding that we were promised for two more years so we could hire an additional 400 officers, so without that money, we would lay off the 400 officers hired under that state program as well. We have 100 new recruits scheduled to start training at the police academy in July, but we’ve already notified them that we’ll probably have to cancel that class.

“The final piece involves our labor negotiations. Our offer of two percent a year for three years is our best and final offer; that’s all we have to spend. Just so people understand, for every quarter percent extra we have to spend to buy labor peace, we’d have to lay off an additional 225 city workers. If we want to make up the difference without layoffs, then for every quarter percent extra we’d pay city workers, we would need to raise the city wage tax one tenth of one percent.

“There’s more, Ken, but I think you get the idea.”

The veteran anchorman, normally poised and calm, was momentarily speechless. The program’s director, standing behind the camera, frantically waved his arms, urging his anchorman to speak. Finally, he did.

“What you’ve described would be devastating, Mr. Mayor – truly devastating. Virtually every Philadelphian would be affected.”

“I think that’s a fair assessment,” Norbert replied. “But we’re hoping it doesn’t come to that. We expect the unions to be reasonable, for council to pass a budget, and for our Harrisburg delegation to persuade their legislative colleagues to restore Philadelphia’s usual funding. It’s important to keep in mind that we’re not asking for even a dime more than we got last year from Harrisburg. All we want is what we got last year, which is less than what everyone else around the state is getting.

“We have a terrific group of legislators representing Philadelphia in Harrisburg. Working as a team, they’ve gotten the job done for Philadelphia time and time again in the past, and I have every confidence that they’ll do so again this year as well.”

A few minutes later the program ended and the mayor immediately left the studio to spend the rest of the day with his family. As he departed, he felt he had accomplished everything he had set out to do on the broadcast. Now, though, he and his staff needed to plot their next step – and whatever it was, he knew it had better be a good one.

(more next Sunday)

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