In preparing to write this article, I made the mistake of imagining I might gain an overview of the work done in Philadelphia by the Mayor and his administration over the last 4 years. But in the 5th largest city in the US, so much is done all the time — and in particular during this administration — that it would have required several whole days of interviews and a book length article to cover it in any real depth. So, instead of depth, I settled for breadth – too much to penetrate deeply in just 60 minutes. But although there are many items presented here without fleshing out their details and nuances, there are links through the article which will provide greater information on the initiatives and approaches the Mayor shared with me. Hopefully they will satisfy curious readers or students of local government with added substance.
The Mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, had his hands full when he first took office in 2008. Along with the recession and its corresponding high unemployment, Philadelphia hadn’t grown in population in over 50 years, adding to the $2.4 billion budget gap the Mayor had to confront. But unlike many in public office, Mayor Nutter came from a particularly good background to attack the challenges he faced. Having graduated from Wharton, one of the top business schools in the world, his understanding of finance and management was significant; and his years spent on the City Council made him an expert on Philly’s own way of doing things.
I suspect most people, like me, will first want to know the answer to the most obvious question: What happened with the budget gap? The answer is that the $2.4 billion gap was closed, and it was done through a spirit of “shared sacrifice”, based on a 50/50 ratio of cuts to revenue increase. Nothing was off the table, but some things were further outside of consideration than others. The choices of the actual specifics would emerge inside the very heart of the shared-sacrifice-model. Instead of firing employees on a last in first out basis, or according to some other tried formulae, 1400 employees were eliminated, but largely through attrition.
Between 2009 and 2010, the prison population was reduced 10%, and violent crime decreased and has continued to drop each year. Reducing the prison population was a great money-saver, but required a constellation of programs and funding to succeed. Undertaking this reduction began with a careful analysis of who, exactly, was in prison. It turns out that a large number of prisoners were non-violent, and therefore, not a likely risk to public safety. So wherever the penal law permitted, non-violent prisoners were released into alternative programs such as transitional housing and jobs programs. Furthermore, businesses were incentivized with a $10,000 tax credit for hiring ex-offenders – something that was a substantial sweetener in a stagnant economy with too little hiring.
In order to ensure that those who were released, either early or on time, remained out of prison, the City secured over $550,000 in outside grants aimed at reducing recidivism. These efforts were compounded by strong anti-crime initiatives on the street and by an aggressive crack-down on illegal weapons in cooperation with State and Federal agencies. The result of these efforts includes a 21.7% decrease in homicides and a 12.7% reduction in violent crime in the City since 2007.
Prompting hiring by businesses during the country’s worst recession in decades required creativity. This is a challenge being felt globally, and while Philadelphia hasn’t solved the problem, it has made inroads beyond what was predictable. From an economic development perspective the results are impressive and include both expansions within and relocations of major corporations to Philadelphia, bringing jobs with them. Some of the relocations are within the city itself, including 2 major companies going into The Navy Yards, and preserving over 1500 jobs that could potentially have been lost to the city. Some of this has been aided by the Mayor’s attention to new economy business. Focusing on sustainability, green and high tech jobs as well as on education and the medical industries has assisted in creating the conditions for new jobs in growing fields. The intent has been both to create a need for new human resources within businesses who could hire, and sufficient population of the right kind of talent to fill open positions. New economy businesses often include those focused on sustainability and energy efficiency. While encouraging green business has a positive impact on economic development, it also produces its intended environmental impact.
In this double-pronged effort of greening and growing, Philadelphia has encouraged business and developers to embrace green technology and construction retrofits.. For example, a $40m fund has been established to provide bridge funding to businesses that choose to retrofit for greater energy efficiency. Along with incentive programs for business, Philadelphia has modeled “greenifying” in municipal functions and operations wherever possible. On-street recycling is available city-wide, and trash is picked using solar-power. Each green initiative that takes a bit of carbon emission out of the environment also stokes the economy and job growth through start-ups, new projects, construction, and expansion.
One noteworthy sustainability project under Mayor Nutter’s leadership has been a groundbreaking undertaking by local company NovoThermal Energy to create the US’s first commercial geothermal system, using wastewater to heat the building. “The … .. NovaThermal unit is located in the building’s basement from which it directly accesses the adjacent sewage channel.” The idea behind this pilot program is to demonstrate the possibility of reducing the cost of heating buildings by up to 50%, creating a swell of sustainable development, retrofitting, investment and corresponding money-saving and reduction in carbon footprint.
Along with cultivating new economy business growth, Philadelphia has also been attentive to encouraging new business growth, including start-up incubation, technology skills-building and an emphasis on entrepreneurialism. To assist these new industries in their inception, relocation or growth, the City’s Commerce department has been transformed into a concierge style department, with a comprehensive business portal right on the city’s website. Some of the specific projects and initiatives that fulfill those roles include Philly Tech-Week, Philly Start-Up Leaders, and many business incubators. Philly Tech Week, having recently completed its second year, is 9 days long and includes over 80 events. Its founder, Christopher Wink is committed to expanding its opportunities, and increasing the public’s participation in it.
During this year’s Tech-Week, the Mayor announced his Executive Order opening the City’s data to the public (wherever consistent with privacy and security concerns ). While it is too early to tell if it is true in Philadelphia, one of the impacts of open government data policies in other major US cities has been to prompt the creation of applications and initiatives that utilize the city’s data as their fodder. Those applications can provide myriad services to end-users and the City itself, whether culling and analyzing information about parking availability, increasing efficiency in public records searches or providing automated job-hunting for local veterans. In the short term, however, it largely eases the paperwork associated with accessing information under Freedom of Information laws, making the business of the City’s business more open to all.
In April of this year the Environmental Protection Agency launched a new program in support of the City of Philadelphia. Green Cities, Clean Waters is a partnership between the City and the EPA, that aims to better manage the City’s storm water using green technologies and infrastructure. “[The project] is pioneering a broad multi-decade investment in green storm water management practices that reduces sewer over flows to the City’s waterways and enhances communities and the overall environment. “ Green storm water management attempts to capture water where it falls, and immediately integrate it into natural activities like plant growth, landscape irrigation and eventual evaporation so that it doesn’t become a burden on sewers, and empty into rivers and streams, polluting them with the urban effluvia accumulated on the way. The EPA/City project sets up a long-term plan for both entities to bring to Philadelphia, and eventually the country at-large, examples of new and innovative ways of managing storm water in an ecologically responsible way.
There are a large number of unique initiatives under the collaboration, many of which will begin in the first five years as various infrastructure projects are in an implementation phase. The plan is spearheaded by the Philadelphia Water Department, and will be executed over twenty five years. For more information on Philly’s transformation to a greener city, read this current article in Living Green Magazine.
One of the Mayor’s areas of interest has been in increasing the business excellence of the City’s operations, creating demonstrable efficiencies that can be measured. Examples of the results include an increase in productivity in the Office of Business Services. The time it takes to turn around a case has dropped from 23 to just seven days. Business cases are also getting handled more quickly. Most are resolved in fewer than five business days and many as fast as the same day.
Finally, in order to address public health concerns and create a healthier environment, there have been a variety of inroads. Among the new initiatives is $15 million which is going toward efforts to make healthy foods more easily accessible in the City by adding to the availability of farmers’ markets in neighborhoods where it is often difficult to find fresh foods — or where shops do not stock it — and by making that farm-fresh food more affordable. “ In 2010, the City created PhillyFoodBucks which are given to SNAP [food stamps] recipients who purchase fruits and vegetables at Farmers’ Markets—for every $10 purchased, the shopper receives $5 in PhillyFoodBucks, which can be used to reduce the cost of future purchases.”
Now it isn’t even close to the end of Mayor Nutter’s reign in Philly, but I still wanted to know what he might offer in the way of guidance to other city leaders who are out to produce great results. His advice was eloquent, but at its heart, rather simple. “Know your budget and your core principles, and be honest with the public.” And once again, showing his business background, he explained that in truth, he was the CEO of a $4b operation, with 22,000 employees, and Board of Directors in the City Council and 1.5m shareholders – to all of whom he must answer. But his management and finance acumen never overshadow his commitment to public service and to distinguishing government from business.
As I said at the onset, this is more of a wide-angle view than an in-depth expose. As is probably obvious, there are simply too many projects to try to be comprehensive in a single article. Perhaps Mayor Nutter will write a memoir of his administration eventually, and elucidate many more of his efforts, successes and perhaps, failures too. But it bears saying that as the incoming President of the US Conference of Mayors, Philadelphia’s Mayor is a great example to others throughout the country and the world. Perhaps the most telling statistic is the advent of the first population increase in Philadelphia in over 50 years, as revealed in the 2010 census. In some ways, that says it all – people are coming to Philly!
For Mayor Nutter, his closing admonition to Mayors and city leaders – and probably to all who want to better the place where they live, work and play, is:
“Love your city. Love your people. Love your work. Never stop trying to do better today than you did yesterday.”
For more information on any of the projects or departments mentioned here, use the links provided, or visit the City of Philadelphia’s web portal, where there are copious quantities of information, links, documents, videos and much more. It can be found at www.Phila.gov .