On Monday, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter will be sworn in for a second term at the Academy of Music, outlining his hopes for his final four years in office.
In a recent interview at his office, Nutter reflected on an eventful first term, and said he’s determined to improve schools and make streets safer during his second.
Asked to name a low moment from his first term, Nutter didn’t hesitate, citing the economic tsunami that began in 2008 and engulfed anyone running a local government.
“You know, for at least two to two and a half years, all we saw was dropping revenues, declining tax receipts in virtually every category,” Nutter said. “But beyond that, I think that it’s the impact that it’s had on people. People have lost their jobs, lost their homes, health care, pensions.”
Nutter acknowledged there were missteps in his response, such as his initial and widely denounced proposal to close 11 libraries.
He said that episode taught him a lesson about approaching important decisions.
“Have we explored every way to accomplish whatever that next thing is?” he said. “Have we, have I, asked every question?”
Nutter recovered from that controversy and managed to stabilize the city’s finances with measured service cuts and increases in property and sales taxes. Gone are the annual cuts in business and wage taxes that had become standard, but Nutter says they’ll return in a few years.
On to the second term
What are Nutter’s priorities for his second term?
He was most enthusiastic talking about education.
“This is my city. These are my children,” Nutter said. “And if the schools don’t function well, then the city won’t function well, ultimately.”
“Our fate and fortune, I believe, are inextricably tied to and intertwined with the performance of schools in this city,” he said. “I think it drives everything else that happens.”
Nutter said he thinks the five-member board now running the public schools is the best in the 10 years since the state and city began joint operation of the district. He called Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ron Tomalis “a stand-up guy.”
Reminded that the state has cut school funding, and that the district laid off employees just last week, Nutter acknowledged more money would help, but said it isn’t the solution to every problem.
“You don’t need any more money to try to fix the fact that 15,000 kids a day don’t come to school. That doesn’t have anything to do with money. That has to do with kids not showing up,” Nutter said. “That has to do with truancy. That has to do with parents not paying attention to their kids. It also has something to do with safety, to and from school and in the school building.”
Nutter said he hopes to engage other stakeholders to get more involved in improving public schools and make the best use of the resources available.
Curbing gun violence
Nutter’s top aides have also been working on a plan to curb gun violence in city neighborhoods, another key goal. The mayor said he wants to get state and federal authorities working more closely with Philadelphia police to fight gun trafficking, and he hopes to beef up the Philly police force a bit.
To fund his agenda, Nutter tried twice in his first term to get City Council to impose a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
Nutter wouldn’t say whether he’ll ask the council for the tax again, but it was clear he still likes the idea.
“Here in the city of Philadelphia, nearly two-thirds of children, adults in Philly are overweight or obese.” Nutter said. “Sugar-sweetened beverages are certainly a contributor. It’s basically a product with no known nutritional value. So we’ll see what the future brings.”
What the future brings on that and other matters will depend heavily on how Nutter gets along with City Council, which will have a new president.
Darrell Clarke won the post over Marian Tasco, a rival Nutter supported. For years, Clarke was a top aide to former mayor John Street, Nutter’s longtime nemesis.
Cooperation with council president
Nutter said he’s spoken to Clarke, and they both understand they have a duty to work together and get results.
“The everyday citizen ultimately could really care less how we feel about each other, or do we go out for ballgames or drinks or whatever, they don’t care,” Nutter said. “What they want to know is that this will be a safer city, a smarter city, a more sustainable city, whether we’re going to run the government with integrity and run the government like we have some sense down here.”
One thing Nutter will have to handle mostly on his own is negotiating labor agreements with the city’s two civilian unions, which have gone two and a half years without a new contract.
Nutter wants major savings on pension costs, an increasingly heavy burden on the city budget. Union leaders want the benefits they have now, period.
That conflict may lead to a labor confrontation that could define Nutter’s legacy as much as anything he achieves or doesn’t on the city’s schools.