For brevity’s sake, NinetyNine did not include everything that Mayor Michael Nutter said during Monday’s interview for our ongoing “Been There, Do This” series of conversation with former (and almost former) Philadelphia mayors.
But, we know some of you like to take a deeper dive into context and nuance. So with you fine readers in mind, what follows is a raw transcription of an hour-long interview that took place in Nutter’s office Monday afternoon.
Fair warning: He’s a talker.
NinetyNine: How did your time before, and on, Council prepare you for the rigors of this job?
Michael Nutter: I’d been paying attention to mayors and leaders in the city for a long, long period of time. Way before I ever thought about even running for office, it’s just something that I’ve done. I like to consider myself a student of history, American history.
As far back as high school, I’d paid attention to Presidential politics and elections. The Watergate break-in and subsequent hearings all took place when I was in my latter years of high school. I watched the hearings on television, was very focused on what that was about.
I also remember the day that Martin Luther King was shot. I remember when Robert F. Kennedy was killed. I was in first grade when President Kennedy was killed. So, the 60s into the 70s were a growing-up period of time for me. I remember the president talking about putting a man on the moon and bringing him back safely. I remember watching that incredible event on television in the late sixties. But, also cities in flames in the [race] riots.
The 1970s, I’m at that point turning into a teenager, literally in 1970, about to graduate from grade school, Transfiguration in West Philadelphia, then going to St. Joe’s Prep in North Philadelphia, at a time of great day-to-day danger in the city from gang warfare.
I’d say [there were] some challenging issues at the time with police and community relations. Frank Rizzo had been police commissioner and subsequently mayor, and it was a very, very serious time for a young African American boy in West Philadelphia, and trying to get to school in North Philadelphia, a neighborhood I knew nothing about at the time.
The street I lived on, Larchwood Avenue, at the time they were called the “park guards,” and officers shot and killed in Cobbs Creek Park and the EMS and police vehicles literally coming up my street because the took the officer, or other people, to Misericordia Hospital, the hospital I was born in, which was a couple blocks away.
You know, we paid attention. Politics, government was not the family business. No one in my family was involved, but I paid attention. I got registered to vote as soon as I turned 18. By that time, I was about to go to the University of Pennsylvania.
I paid a lot of attention just to government, and to mayors, and the things that were going on. From Frank Rizzo. Then, to Mayor Green. To Mayor Goode. To Mayor Rendell. To Mayor Street. I ran for city council in 1987. Lost. Ed Rendell, I had worked on his governor’s race in ’86. He lost. Everybody ran again in ’91 and we all came in together.
I paid a lot of attention to the things that Ed Rendell would do in his administration. We had an economic crisis at that time. Not the national/international crisis, it was just Philadelphia-based crisis. The creation of PICA, and what was that all about.
So, I paid a lot of attention to Mayors Goode, Rendell and Street during their tenures. I was a staff person during Mayor Goode’s tenure briefly. … As politics became clearly my future, even though I was on the legislative side all of that time, it’s important to pay attention to the chief executive officer on a regular basis. So, there was an economic crisis and, at the latter part of his second term, you started to see economic recovery, the start of wage-tax reductions, a focus arts and culture with the Avenue of the Arts, and building hotel rooms, culminating in the RNC being here in 2000.
99: Was it then that you started to envision yourself in the job of mayor?
MN: My focus was on trying to be a good councilperson. Understanding the inter-relationship, if you will — as we all learn in third, fourth, fifth grade — of the three branches of government, I wanted to better understand how all of that worked. I’ve always had a bit of a strategy interest. I like to understand how things work. What is this all about? You learn in school about the judiciary, the legislative and the executive branch, but what is it really all about? How do you run a government which, in essence, is a big business.
I also paid attention because, in many instances, the things that they did affected what I could do as a legislator. If you don’t have any money as a city government, it’s hard to implement some of the things that you want to do.
At the same time, maybe there’s something I want to do that the mayor is in support of. Let me try to gain support. On the other hand, maybe there’s something that I want to do that the mayor is in complete opposition to. That’s important to know that so I can figure out what’s my strategy. I’ve been on both sides of that.
99: When was it that you started to envision yourself sitting in this chair?
MN: I’d say in a more serious way, just thinking about it not necessarily doing anything about it, in the early 2000s. I think the most concrete time [came] in 2003 with the, I can only call it, explosive event of “The Bug” incident in the mayor’s office.
99: Where was it? (motions to the ceiling)
MN: I don’t know. They haven’t told me.
That was, in my view, in recent times, probably one of the most singularly embarrassing moments for our city government, for our public employees and for our citizens.
The news reports on this, they weren’t particularly detailed because nobody could figure out what it was all about. [The questions ranged] from “how did they even do that” to “why did they do that?,” “what is this all about?” to, literally, “what’s going on”?
We’re within a month of the election, and the stories of the spin that this was a massive plot by [President] George Bush, Dick Cheney and [then Attorney General] John Ashcroft concocted in the White House to try to take out a Democratic mayor and get ready for the Presidential election in 2004. None of which was true at all.
So, that was huge embarrassment first and foremost.
The next thing was the indictments. The first ones came in, I believe, June of 2004 of treasurer Corey Kemp and Ron White.
I’ve read virtually every indictment that came out of that whole sordid incident. It read like a novel. Like it could be a movie. This is insane and we have to fix this. This is Philadelphia. This is the birthplace of freedom, liberty and democracy. We’re a serious, big city and it was just so offensive in nature. And look, the mayor was never charged with anything and all that — and that’s just a fact — but when you look at all the things that came out of that, the systems that had been compromised, the people who were involved, the swirling around [those] who were connected to the mayor or connected to other parts of the government. So, all of that was just such a big mess that I then did much more seriously start thinking about it.
At that point, I had to start thinking about, I was in my fourth term in City Council. I was nowhere near thinking of leaving. I still had things I wanted to do.
Then, I took on some of the great challenges in regard to ethics reform, the board of ethics, campaign-finance limits which my subsequent work was built on the first effort of Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. who passed a contributions limit bill in Dec. of 2003.
99: Is it fair to say that the bug incident got you thinking that “something has to change and I’m the one to do it”?
MN: I probably wouldn’t characterize it that way. If you’re in politics, any number of people think about — whether you’re a little kid, or 20 years old, 30 years old or something — could I be mayor one day? Could I be a senator? Could I be president? It’s one of those things that you think about when you’re doing what you’re doing.
Other than the Presidential race, the mayor’s race is often the most important race that people pay attention to.
It’s not like it was imminent. So, 2000, 2001, I’m starting to look down the road. I’m going to run for re-election in 2003. Then, the incumbent mayor is going to be in his last term. So, what do you want to do? It’s more of a thought.
I think the bug incident and the subsequent indictments, arrests, the people going to jail and the like crystallized more for me that you need to start thinking about this much more seriously and you need to start thinking about your own future.
So one of the things I did, because I believe in research (motions to papers on desk) as Malcolm X points out, who all has become mayor and how old were they when they came in to office. Lo and behold, I found out, on average it was about 50.2 years old. In 2006, 2007, I’d be 49 turning 50, and that I’d have 14, 14.5 years in office.
The question for me was was there that much more for me to do in that position and could I serve the city potentially better in a different position because there are differences between being a legislator and an executive.
If I didn’t run in 2007, the facts are every mayor who has run for re-election has been re-elected so it’s really kind of an eight-year term. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be 49, 50; if I am really interested in running for mayor and don’t do it now, it’ll be eight years later and I’ll be 58, 59, whatever the case may be.’ And that’s not old. Sixty, I heard, is the new 40, but it’s 58, 59, and this is a younger person’s kind of job.
Also, the prospect of sitting on the council floor for another eight years, potentially complaining, moaning or groaning about whatever the next new mayor is doing or not doing, just didn’t seem like a whole lot of fun for me, and wasn’t where I saw my life direction. So I said there’s only one of two things are going to happen here: I’m either going to win or I’m going to lose and you’ll figure out a different path.
At that stage in my life, I felt as if I’d accomplished a fair number of things or was on the path to accomplishing a fair number of things that I was really focused on and I wanted to give a different level of service.
Campaign-contribution limits, passed.
Professional services contracting and contracting overall for the city, passed.
Board of Ethics, passed.
All of that worked.
The one other big issue I’d been working on for six years, the smoking ban, and that passed literally on the last day of Council in June of 2006.
I said, well, I have now pretty much done all the things legislatively that I wanted to do. By that point, I was already committed in my mind to running for mayor. And I said, the reality, though, is that you’re not that well known. It’ll take a lot of time and effort to raise the money and get a message out. That’s why I resigned so early, but I needed a lot more runway for my candidacy. That was really the path.
The issue of integrity in government, and the credibility of government and transparency and citizens having confidence that the people who work here, who they entrust with their hard-earned taxdollars, are doing things in a way that is appropriate, that is not embarrassing, that is respectful to them as citizens of this city.
99: How you characterized Rendell’s term was fitting: Economic challenges up front, emerging at the end better off. But while watching him, you couldn’t have see what was coming your way in 2008, 2009. Looking back, what did you see that you could parlay into action?
MN: Mayor Rendell, David L. Cohen and a ton of folks and, certainly at the time, Council President John Street, we worked — as the city administration and city council — on trying to resolve and fix many of the early 90s financial challenges that the city faced.
There were a lot of lessons learned from that time that we did subs end up using during the larger international crisis.
We announced, I think it was in 2009, that we were suspending all payments to our vendors to conserve cash. Clearly that was an idea from the 90s and the Rendell administration, and any number of other things, or variations on other ideas.
So, Mayor Rendell started the wage-tax reductions; unfortunately, I had to suspend them. But, I was quite well aware of this tax-reduction strategy that’s in place, and that does cost us money, and we were just in a position where we said — look, I was one of the greatest champions of tax reductions in City Council during my time — but when you don’t have any money, you don’t have the luxury of just doing the things that you want to do. So, not only did we suspend the tax-reduction plan, we also raised peoples’ taxes a couple times. For the cities. For the schools. Just to keep the place running.
The one thing I was particularly focused on was, I mean, you still have to run the place. We still have to provide services. So, if you look at things that happened in other cities across the country, and this isn’t a knock on any of those cities either because everybody is different, but I was particularly focused on [the fact that] we have to maintain a level of service to our citizens and the fundamental, essential components of the government in a way that, whenever the recession is over — and while we didn’t know when it was going to be over, I had to believe that it would be over at some point in time — that we didn’t damage the infrastructure of the government by having massive layoffs and then an inability to respond when things got better.
So, we didn’t layoff one police officer, not one firefighter, not one sanitation worker, not a health worker, not a social worker. Not one.
99: From where did you draw this approach?
MN: It’s from my heart and my soul.
When people get laid off from government, it’s a little different than from the private sector. More often times than not, they don’t come back. They don’t get hired back. So, here’s a public employee, working hard every day, doing their job etc. etc. All of a sudden, there’s an international crisis, the housing component falls apart, Wall Street collapses, Lehman Brothers gone, banks failing, all this stuff’s going on. And you’re sitting in your office trying to do your job, and the next thing you know, somebody says — you know, we have seniority rights — so I send one person a layoff notice and they say well my seniority’s greater than the next person, and the next person, and somebody way down at the end of the hallway all of a sudden finds themselves laid off.
Well, that person has a mortgage, or they have rent, or a car, they have kids in school. They need groceries, insurance, whatever the case may be. It takes, if you’re lucky, three weeks or so, for unemployment insurance to kick in. You get, I think, 60 percent of your pay and there’s an expiration date to it. You never get back to where you were. It is devastating in many instances to a person who’s been laid off. To the extent that we can avoid layoffs, that’s what we’re going to.
We went to the citizens and said this is a shared sacrifice. Everybody’s got to give up something. We raised people’s taxes, we cut some services, I cut my pay, furlough days for all top-level employees, everything we could to save money, generate any kind of revenues for those savings. Everyone put something on the table for the collective good of maintaining the operations here.
We had nine million meetings — a slight exaggeration — we had a lot of meetings: What’s the strategy here? The strategy was that the city has to be safe, we have to keep educating our kids, we have to provide services, we have to look out for the vulnerable — that’s children, and seniors, and other vulnerable populations — and we cannot destroy the fundamental infrastructure.
Those were the principles, and every decision had to go through a screening test of those four or five essential elements.
99: How did you get people to buy in, or didn’t you?
MN: Well (laughs) it wasn’t easy. I think pretty much everyone was upset, and had reason to be. If you tell residents “I’m going to cut back on some services, and I’m going to raise your taxes,” I mean, that’s a double hit. That’s the worst combination that you can put forward.
I think people in the quiet of their conversations, or at the kitchen table, they gradually, obviously realized that this wasn’t just a Philadelphia issue. This was a national and worldwide issue. People forget that. We’re in office. There’s a presidential race in 2008. Then, [U.S.] Sens. McCain and Obama are in the general election and had to rush back to D.C. to vote for the TARP program — which was really Pres. Bush’s program, not Pres. Obama’s program. Subsequently, [the] auto [industry] is about to fail, banks are failing, a bunch of things are going on.
So, folks knew that it wasn’t us but everything is local. Taxes are going up. Services are going down. All sorts of things are going down. Public employees didn’t have contracts for a long period of time. All of that is added on top of it. That’s what leadership is about. We had a plan. We had a vision. We had a focus. And, what I tell new mayors all the time is: Make a plan. Work the plan. Stick to the plan. Constant communication.
You know, generally, people don’t like paying taxes anyway. And they want good services. Of course, those two are in conflict to some extent. Our approach was to constantly tell people “this is why we’re doing this. This is what this is about.” And where progress is being made, let people know that.
What we really saw happen, the city started to come out of this around the time the schools were starting to go into it. Schools around the country received a lot of economic-recovery dollars which then, subsequently, declined. Double hit with the cuts from the state exasperated it.
You know, it was not easy. This was like Great Depression times, and you know, in a very, very different world. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t have to deal with a 24/7 cable-news cycle. Didn’t have to deal with Twitter. Facebook. Cell phones. People have a lot of different ways to get information and communicating. A lot has changed in the 80-some years since the Great Depression.
You look at what other cities are doing. Learn from other mayors. And where there are opportunities to invest or reinvest, we did that as well.
I announced that we had a $1 billion deficit two days after the general election in ’08. Two days later is when I announced we had a $1 billion deficit in the five-year plan. I mean, you talk about a ‘Debbie Downer’ moment, having to take the life out of a party.
From that moment until the fall into winter of 2010-11, we spent about two years cutting, shaving, saving, raising taxes and doing a variety of things just to stabilize the government. Just to get to a level which we basically started referring to as the New Normal. I mean, we’re not going back to 2007 pre-recession levels any time soon. So what I said the managers, I said, you have what you have. Make the best of it. You have some resources. We may never have all that you want, but we have some things and we have to give the citizens the best we can for the dollars we have.
Part of leadership is also about keeping the team energized and focused. You’re going to community meetings and people are hollering and screaming. We did some in 2008 and in ’09. Folks were furious about what was going on.
This is an international economic meltdown; the mayor can’t really do anything about that, but you’re the mayor, so that’s the way it goes. Folks walk up to me all the time: My social security check didn’t come. Ok, I can connect you to your congressman, but I have nothing to do with that, but our job is service.
Let me just lay this out: What we’re really doing here, if you look at all funds, all employees, this is a $7.3 billion organization, 27K employees, we’d be the 362nd largest corporation in the United States of America based on revenues. We’re a large service organization. That’s the business that we’re in.
We have a variety of product lines. We have a public safety line, a public-health line, a recreation line, a literacy line, an economic-development line, all of those areas of government, those are the services we provide. People call us, they look for service. Our current customer base is just over 1.5 million.
If we provide high quality service at the lowest possible price, we will increase our customer base which is why you see our population going up for the first time in 60 years. If we don’t, they’ll find someone else from whom to get those products and services.
99: This is always how you’ve thought about government?
MN: It’s been my thought and theory about government.
At the end of the day, it’s a large business. While we don’t necessarily create jobs, we create opportunity. We create an environment by having low taxes, by providing good services, by being customer friendly, by being open, by being welcoming, by lifting up our reputation, doing things that at the end of the day make us truly look like a positive and open place.
That’s what we’re doing here, and that’s why it takes the leadership from the CEO. Drive a mission. Drive a message. Constant communication. And showing people what can be. When you come into office, you have probably 200 or 300 significant positions that have to be filled. You have to recruit talent because many people from the previous administration will leave or you may not necessarily want them to stay. So you have to do a lot of that, almost a rebuilding. …
The mayor, CEO of this large business, has to have a vision and a philosophy of government and governing and what are your fundamental principles.
What I laid out is what I thought are important, were important and will continue to be important going forward are pretty much the same four issues: You have to be safe. Kids need a great education. You have to create an environment that allows for job creation and sustainability.
You have to run a government with ethics, transparency and openness, and create an environment that has a quality of life and a certain dynamism to it that makes it a place where people want to live, work and raise their families.
So, the national and international promotional opportunities for the city, the aggressive posture that we’ve taken attracting big events, the Forbes 30 Under 30, the fact that we’ve had the largest percentage increase of millennial population of major cities in the United States of America, the fact that our population has finally started to grow after 60 years of decline, that there are cranes in the sky all over the place, almost all private investment because people know they can come in, show their proposal, talk to different parts of the government without any fear or worry that there’s going to be any sort of integrity issue, or “who do you know” or “who did you talk to” or “who did you contribute to or anything of that nature?”
Working with City Council, we’ve revised our zoning code for the first time in 50 years, the 2035 full citywide plan or the waterfront development plan, all of those kinds of things.
People have asked me from time to time “what did you not do” because of the recession. The answer is “we pretty much did all the things we wanted to.” What the recession did was slow down how quickly we could do them.
At the first inauguration, I said we needed a 30 to 50 percent reduction in homicides in 3 to 5 years and I was going to hire 400 more police officers. As a result of the recession, we had classes scheduled that were subsequently delayed to save money.
In that first year, we had a 15 percent reduction in homicides. In the second year, we had an 8 percent reduction in homicides. And, right now, homicides are down 37 percent as compared to the year before I came into office and 50 percent down from the high in 1990 of 500.
99: As a resident-to-be, what are you looking for in your next mayor?
They should have their own vision for the future of the city.
Hire really great people and lay out what that vision is. Charge them with the duties and responsibilities of their respective positions and then let them do their jobs.
Every mayor has to put his or her imprint on the city government. There are some things we’ve done that I think make some sense. They’re not Mayor Nutter’s thing; they really are city things. Thursday, I gave a speech at Temple University about youth violence prevention. Well that’s not my thing. That should be a city thing. Because whoever’s next should want to make sure that young people are safe and that citizens are safe all across Philadelphia.
The next mayor really has to have a focus on education and education funding not only here in the city, but in partnership with the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Gov. [Tom] Wolf, the general assembly.
The next mayor will have to have good relations in Washington D.C. The reason we have a new front yard on City Hall, the reason we have bridges and roads getting fixed, the reason SEPTA has many of the things they have is because we have great relationships in Washington.
I spend a lot of time in Harrisburg and a pretty decent amount of time in Washington D.C. and we have many of those folks come here as well. We’ve had virtually every cabinet secretary in Pres. Obama’s administration in Philadelphia multiple times during the last seven years. I’m in Harrisburg 15, 20, 25 times from Jan to June/July time period and that will be the case this year.
99: And these are relationships that you’re saying can’t slip away?
MN: They can not slip away. They are critically valuable and important. The relationships with our surrounding counties — Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, through the Lehigh Valley; Democrats, Republicans, house and senate. I go to Chamber of Commerce luncheons and dinners in all of those places. I worked to create the metropolitan caucus which works to keep Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery County commissioners and council members at a table every other month talking about issues that are of regional importance.
Many of the things we’ve gotten done in Harrisburg came as a result of legislators in the surrounding counties, all in the same media market, they see the things we’re trying to do and, regardless of party, have been very supportive of a variety of initiatives that we have.
Let me talk about this job. This is a huge job in a variety of ways. Philadelphia, fifth largest city in the United States of America. The first capital. Declaration of Independence. Constitution. Early on, huge port city, industrial city, Workshop of the World, built everything, made everything here in Philadelphia.
Like many other big northeast cities over time, manufacturing goes to the south, goes overseas. Flight of residents, white flight to the suburbs. At times, an increasingly poor population. Immigrant populations in great urban centers. In the 50s and 60s, the federal highway system is built and people can move around.
What do we see today? Cities coming back. Philadelphia. Boston. NY. Chicago. Atlanta. Baltimore. San Francisco. You name them. Even Detroit, which was literally left on the side of the road for dead, Detroit is coming back as well.
There are a bunch of new mayors all across the country. Hundreds of new mayors. I became very active in the U.S. Conference of Mayors shortly after I came into office. With a lot of help, I had a pretty meteoric rise through the organization. It takes five years to become president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. I became president in my 5th year in office. I had the opportunity to serve from June of ’12 to June of ’13, right in the middle of all that was the Presidential election year.
I got to know a lot of mayors from across the country, got to work with a lot of them. Presently, I’m the longest-serving mayor of the top 10 cities. Our team has probably been together longer than any other big-city team as well.
Philly is the biggest city in America with an African-American mayor.
There are a lot of expectations for this city.
We’re perfectly situated between New York City and Washington D.C. We’re the biggest city closest to Washington D.C. which is one of many reasons you have so many cabinet secretaries and President and Vice President and First Lady come to Philadelphia to make huge announcements.
In this job, you will find yourself greeting the President at the airport when Air Force One comes to the city.
You’ll meet ambassadors, consul generals, presidents of countries, depending on their travel or your travel.
You’ll be at the White House.
You’ll be in meetings with the President or cabinet secretaries.
So, one of the things I say to folks is think about many of the things that have happened in our city. Good and unfortunately bad. Positive or not so positive. You have to think about, as you think about the next mayor, if you have someone that you are favoring at this time, you have to think about them in the context of doing this job.
Unfortunately, some citizen will get shot or killed.
A police officer may get shot or killed.
A firefighter may die in a fire.
A young gentleman over in fleet management fell off a ladder, hit his head and died.
A young gentleman at PGW killed in a gas explosion.
Car wrecks. Trucks overturned. Water mains break. All sorts of things happen. Buildings fall down. Fires. And so, the mayor directly and indirectly sometimes is involved and very much aware of all those issues.
You make big announcements, whether it’s our international bike race, Mummers parade, Fourth of July, World Meeting of Families, Made in America, all kind of things. And you also go out that door (points at his office door) and make some very somber announcements as well.
The next mayor will find him or herself in the Roosevelt Room, which is the room directly across from the Oval Office in the White House with 13, 14 other mayors from across the country, more than likely seated directly across from the President of the United States of America and you’ll be informed that the President is going to ask a question, the third question is coming to you about whatever it is.
Then, you’ll leave there and go to the stake out area, right outside the White House there, a little driveway, and there will be 10 national-news cameras and 15 microphones. And you’ll get asked a question. So, you want to think about whoever it is you’re thinking about as the next mayor, think about them in that context.
That’s the job.
Think about them for all the decisions that have to get made that you will never read about in a newspaper or see on TV or hear about on the radio.
What kind of people are around that mayor to help them make those decisions, to help the mayor — from time to time — change his or her mind when maybe they want to do something or don’t want to do something. Because I actually don’t get to do all the things I want to do and, many days, I do things that I don’t want to do but that my team thinks are important for the city moving forward.
99: That’s very big picture. Let’s bring it back locally: What would you advise the next mayor to do to handle the schools situation?
MN: On my first day, I said two things about education. I said that we needed to cut the high-school dropout rate in half. We subsequently changed our language. The flipside of the dropout rate is the graduation rate. I wanted to talk about it in a more positive way. So, we wanted to get to 80 percent by 2015 and get our college-degree attainment rate to 35 or 36 percent by 2017.
Now, the mayor is not directly in charge of local education K-12 but through this slightly convoluted system, has two appointees to a five-member entity.
I took the position that these are my children and I have an obligation to them, and to this city, if we are not focused on educating children and young adults, we cannot be the great city that we want to be and clearly the mayor is not in charge of secondary education in any way, shape or form. But, I convened the presidents of our Philadelphia and Philadelphia regional colleges and universities twice a year to talk about how we can improve educational outcomes for young people in our region.
From my perspective, the next mayor has to ratchet up even higher on the priority list the issue of talking about education on a regular basis. Regular, as in every day. Spending time in Harrisburg with legislators and the governor because I think 2015 must be the year that we actually develop and properly fund a student-weighted funding formula. Then, you inspire young people and parents and teachers and principals and other partners in this work to maintain a focus on kids and their education.
If we educate young people at the earliest possible age, with violence prevention components, you’ll actually drive down the crime rate. You’ll increase your economic base because more companies will want to be here.
The questions that I get now, as compared to six, seven years ago when it was a tremendous focus on crime — and it’s not like people don’t care about violence anymore; we’ve made some gains, but we still have some work to do — but the No. 1 question I get from CEOs, and chairs of companies today that are thinking about expanding or coming into Philadelphia is not about taxes; they usually let the public finance people, their finance folks, deal with that.
The number one question is “What kind of progress are we going to make on educating kids?”
That really is the issue and that has to be the focus. The next mayor has to be ready to dedicate a lot of his or her time to the issue of education.
It’s not only funding. It’s accountability. It’s about providing support. Again, the mayor may not be directly in charge of schools but certainly has the responsibility to support kids and the superintendent and the folks at the School Reform Commission for the many tough decisions that they have to make as well.
99: You said “2015 must be the year that we actually develop and properly fund a student-weighted funding formula.” Am I correct in assuming that the recession pushed that back off of 2008 through 2014?
MN: The recession exacerbated an already bad situation. With the school district — although in 2008 they were in fairly decent shape — the recession just revealed a much greater structural problem that they’ve had for a long, long period of time. And, notwithstanding the economic recovery dollars and we know, ultimately, what happened with that in terms of Harrisburg, but the lack of a student-weighted funding formula and stable and secure funding has all been laid bare as to why it’s so critically important.
Our administration and City Council have to be recognized for the response to this great economic crisis; $362 million of new money annually, recurring, on the table now, as a result of the city council and our administration’s actions in that four year period of time. That is the largest infusion of new money in the school system in over 30 years.
Unfortunately, as important as that is, the school district still has an $80 million deficit that will continue to grow without additional support from local and state funding sources.
So, we have a letter from the superintendent now that says they are asking for $103 million in the upcoming fiscal year. We have to figure out how we do that, when we do that, and that’s a topic of conversation right now as we move into the budget process.
99: I know you have to get to an event, so I’ll wrap up the questions. Beyond the libraries, the closing of the libraries, the discussion thereof …
MN: Which didn’t happen.
99: … which didn’t happen, what — if any — regrets do you have; something you weren’t able to accomplish or how you handled something?
MN: I think the rollout and proposal surrounding libraries in 2009 was, without question, the absolute worst decision that I made. I’ve been pained by that all the years since.
What I can tell you though is, they talk about necessity being the mother of invention, when you look at what’s happened over the past few years as a result of the economic crisis, you see that Siobhan Reardon [President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia] and the folks over at the Free Library of Philadelphia have done a spectacular job in increasing techonology usage, computer usage and making materials available to people who want to use the service.
We will have completed a level of investment that, by the end of this month, will have full six-day service in all of the libraries, which is one of the things that was impacted by the decision back in 2009.
The average number of hours for access at the libraries will actually be greater at the end of this month than before the recession hit. So, Siobhan and her team have done a fantastic job with the resources that they had, and the investments that we’ve made in concert with City Council.
We did say besides the libraries …
We’ve had a significant reduction in homicides. I want it lower.
And, I think at this point, the number one issue that still troubles me during my time — even though, as I’ve laid out, we’ve had some success in the area of putting additional funding into educating our children — is getting all of us to the point where we would have a student-weighted funding formula.
That remains to be seen in terms of what actually happens in the course of this year.
My focus has primarily been around safety and education. There’ve been so many great, great successes but I think those two things are inextricably tied to each other and if we’re about to have success on the one — which is education — we’ll almost automatically have success on the other, which is the violence.
We still have a lot of work to do, and that’s how I’m going to spend my time.
99: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today.