Big turnout at city budget workshop, 3 more on tap. See “message to mayor” videos.

Breaking news report from Chris Satullo, WHYY News Director

See 50 citizens give their message to mayor Nutter on video

More than 400 Philadelphians, filling every available seat and standing two deep along the walls, took part in the first Tight Times, Tough Choices workshop Thursday night at St. Dominic’s School in Frankford.

The heart of the evening was a workshop where citizens, working in breakouts groups of 25 or so, grappled with a list of potential service cuts and tax increases being considered by the Nutter Administration to close what city officials said was a $174 million budget gap for next fiscal year.

Each possible action, ranging from draconian cuts in the police department to a modest increase in the parking tax, was assigned a point value based on how much it would do to close the budget gap.

Each group was challenged to agree upon enough actions to total 100 points, which equalled closing the budget shortfall completely.

Some citizens dove enthusiasatically into the challenge; others groused that the exercise was a set-up job by the city.

By the end, some groups fought, shouted, laughed and deliberated their way to hefty point totals; others didn’t even come close to 100.

As they worked, groups were asked to put actions into four “buckets”: Low-Hanging Fruit; No Way, No How; Shared Pain, and Gut-wrenchers.

With one tiny exception, every group deemed the cuts proposed in police and fire services as No Way, No How. One group suggested the police could stand a 5 percent budget cut.

The cost-cutting items most likely to be deemed Low-Hanging Fruit – in other words, steps that produced quick consensus – were cutting administrative staffing (with the mayor’s office a particular target of wrath), the vehicle fleet and the DROP early retirement program.

Many groups were beguiled by the idea of whacking away at the courts’ (First Judicial District) funding, as a way of forcing the state to the table to discuss why it still won’t comply with a court order to pay counties for the cost of running Common Pleas Courts.

The single most popular quick hit with the citizens was forcing the Philadelphia Eagles to pay tardy rent on the old Veterans Stadium.

Some groups were in a very taxing mood, willing to sign off quickly on increases in amusement and parking taxes. Nearly half the groups deliberated their way into signing off on increases in more controversial taxes: sales, property and wage.

The groups showed next to no appetite for cuts in the Free Library, Fairmount Park and recreation department.

The idea of whether prison costs could be cut substantially by letting more non-violent criminals serve alternatives to incarceration seemed to spur lively debate in several groups.

Forced to talk through an exercise that made the painful tradeoffs and countervailing arguments of budget balancing quite vivid, most of the groups had a hard time approving any major service cuts. Most didn’t get with shouting distance of 100 points.

Here were the totals:

Group 1 – 42 points
Group 2 – 34 points
Group 3 – 58 points
Group 4 – 60 points
Group 5 – 49 points
Group 6 – 71 points
Group 7 – 26 points
Group 8 – 99 points
Group 9 – No report
Group 10 – 57 points
Group 11 – 2 points (The Eagles, natch.)
Group 12 (Main Room) – 60 points

Mayor Nutter did not attend, by specific request of the workshop organizers, the Penn Center for Civic Engagement, because his presence would distract citizens from the work they were being asked to do.

Numerous members of Nutter’s Cabinet attended (including Managing Director Camille Barnette, chief of staff Clay Armbrister, Finance Director Rob Dubow, Budget director Steve Agostini, Deputy Mayor for Public Health Don Schwarz and Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Andy Altman). Also attending were Councilmen Frank Rizzo and Bill Green.

Barnett told the crowd that budget decisions were nowhere near being made, and that the city was eagerly awaiting citizen input and would let people know how their views were factored into the budget Nutter will present to Council on March 19.

Some citizens were openly skeptical that the exercise would be really meaningful.. Others praised it as a useful and even inspiring attempt at citizen input.

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