Taking Care of Business (chapter 48)


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.) 

Despite the drama of Norbert’s Sunday television appearance, Philadelphia’s reaction to council’s failure to adopt a budget by the legal deadline was underwhelming – and, from Norbert’s perspective, disappointing. The public felt no immediate impact on their lives – trash was still collected, schools remained open, the buses continued to run, and operators continued to answer the phones at city hall. The mayor’s warnings, as serious as they were, lacked the immediacy necessary to compel people to sit up and pay attention, let alone express outrage, leaving the public nearly as indifferent as its elected representatives who were causing the problem. The newspapers and news broadcasts devoted considerable attention to the issue, but when the newspaper editorial boards were silent the day after, it appeared that what the mayor had hoped would be a wake-up call for the entire city had led the newspapers to stir but then hit the snooze button.

But on Tuesday morning, two days after his Sunday morning television appearance, Norbert was sitting with his wife at their kitchen table, reading the Gazette as they ate breakfast, when he opened to the editorial page and his eyes brightened. It seemed that someone cared about the budget situation after all.

Local Legislators Fail in Two Cities

In cities 100 miles apart, legislators elected by Philadelphians to represent them are failing miserably in their duties.

Here in Philadelphia, council has proven astonishingly irresponsible in its failure to pass a budget by the legal deadline of May 30 – the first time in at least two generations that it has failed to do so. Worse, council’s leadership and members have not publicly articulated even a single reason for their failure. They have cited no differences with the Norbert administration over programs, no differences over spending, no differences over taxation, no differences over the direction of city government in general.

In stark contrast to council, Mayor Norbert has been unusually diligent in preparing his budget. For the first time that anyone can recall, he proposed a budget that would spend no more than its predecessor – and he proposed doing that with no cuts in city services. Every time council has presented him with a list of budget-related grievances, Norbert has addressed those grievances promptly and completely. Today, though, council has no list of grievances – yet it still shows no signs of acting on the budget.

 Meanwhile, 100 miles away in Harrisburg, Philadelphia’s 35-member legislative delegation is also coming up short in the performance department. As is the custom of Republican governors in Pennsylvania, Governor Clayton has proposed massive reductions in state funding for Philadelphia – more than $800 million in all. He proposed these cuts back in February, but usually by the end of May – well before budget deliberations become serious in the state capital, where the culture seems to demand that nothing get done until the last minute – the Philadelphia-haters have worn out their lungs screaming about their neighbors to the southeast, sanity has been restored, and a more reasonable state spending plan begins to take shape.

This year, though, Philadelphia’s legislative delegation has been a model of inaction. According to veteran observers of Harrisburg politics, delegation members have not lifted a finger to address this budget challenge. Mayor Norbert has been a regular visitor to the state capital, trying to rally Philadelphia’s elected representatives to act, but so far, they have not responded to his pleas. Instead, they have deferred to disgraced and now vanquished state representative Michael Ianucci. Even with Ianucci’s political demise three weeks ago, they continue to avoid acting on the budget problem.

 The only question that seems to remain about this group is whether its members are incompetent, indifferent, or impotent. Is the problem that they don’t understand the problem or that they don’t care about solving it? Or is the problem that Michael Ianucci’s long-time mastery of the Harrisburg budget process masked the shortcomings of a deeply flawed and incapable delegation?

That’s thirty-five members of the Harrisburg delegation and seventeen members of council – fifty-two officials elected to serve Philadelphia by voters in their own communities. Today, it appears that all of them are failing at their jobs. This is a problem that cannot be rectified today, and it may result in chaos in the city’s government tomorrow and in the coming weeks and months. When these officials stand for re-election – as thirty-five of them will this November – Philadelphians should remember that these people whom they elected to serve them well are not serving them at all.

Norbert chuckled as he put down the paper.

“What?” his wife asked.

Norbert handed the newspaper to her. While she read, he poured himself another cup of coffee. Finally, she looked up.

“Well, they certainly like you, that’s for sure. Pretty strong for the Gazette, don’t you think?”

“That’s true,” he replied. “They usually manage to sound like they’re coming down on both sides of an issue even when they’re taking a position, but for once they’re pretty emphatic.”

“But you don’t look particularly pleased.”

“Oh, it’s not that I’m displeased, because I’m not,” Norbert said. “It’s just that I’m astonished that the people who write editorials in what claims to be the city’s newspaper of record can be so utterly clueless about what’s going on all around them. They understand the implications but have no idea whatsoever what this is all about. It’s pretty amazing, actually.”

(more next Sunday)


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