The Little Things Add Up

GEORGE F. WILL

March 09, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

PHILADELPHIA. — Philadelphia -- As if things weren't bad enough in the nation's fifth-largest city, now spring is coming.

Spring brings baseball back to this city whose major league teams (there used to be two) hold the records for finishing last. Since 1900, the city's teams have lost 1,575 more games than they have won. The Phillies would have to go undefeated between now and August 2001, just to get the city to .500. It is a relief to talk about the city's budget rather than its baseball.

The projected five-year budget deficit is $1.2 billion. Because so many gimmicks have been used for so long to paper over financial chasms, the city's bonds have junk-bond rating. But the burly new mayor, Edward Rendell, has the insouciance of someone who knows that if you've got no choice, you've got no problem. Elected last November, he faces this fact: His city, so associated with independence -- as in Declaration of -- has, for a while, forfeited independence.

Its master is a state agency that will borrow for the city if the city satisfies it, and through it the credit markets, that it has a plan for restoring fiscal health. The choice is implosion or efficiency.

Implosion -- further flight of business and the middle class -- will result if taxes are raised or essential services are cut. The city already has lost $1 billion of its tax base to the suburbs in 15 years.

Mayor Rendell's strategy is to make services cheaper. The mere threat of privatization of garbage collection -- private contractors could save $35 million a year -- made city sanitation employees receptive to efficiencies that have substantially narrowed the difference between city and private collection costs.

Mr. Rendell, who won a 67 percent landslide, is the first Democrat to win without the endorsement of the public-employees unions. The unions are running television ads opposing privatization of municipal services. They have filed a suicidal suit against his five-year plan. If they win, they lose: Thousands will be laid off.

Talking to Mr. Rendell, during the background noise of presidential campaigning, underscores how the practical importance of politicians is inversely related to the distance of their offices from local realities. A mayor -- short distance, large importance -- is apt to be more interesting than a presidential candidate. While presidential candidates natter on about this or that fiddle for the tax code, Mayor Rendell is thinking about the school down the block.

In a city in which 51 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, 69 percent of public-school pupils come from poverty. So many come to school hungry, sick or abused that teachers often spend half their time doing social work. The day Philadelphia children take the 2 1/2 -hour state examination, many teachers buy them breakfast out of their own pockets. (Most urban teachers buy some school supplies for their pupils. In some Chicago schools, teachers ask children to bring toilet tissue from home.)

Mr. Rendell knows the month -- February 1986 -- that crack cocaine came to Philadelphia in a big way. The lines on crime graphs lurched upward. In 1985 there were 227 homicides; in 1990, 535. Because of jail and court congestion, non-violent property crime such as burglary has been semi-legalized: Almost no one goes to jail for it.

Mayor Rendell says cities are pinched in part because of Reagan-era cuts in federal aid. But recently when the National Conference of Mayors voted to ask for a five-year renewal of revenue sharing, he abstained. He says renewal would aggravate the bad habits associated with spending money other people have raised, and when the renewal lapsed the cities' structural deficits would remain.

While presidential candidates carom around the country explaining the wonders of targeted capital-gains tax cuts, Mayor Rendell is after significant savings from freezing the wages of 24,500 city employees through 1996 (labor costs are 58 percent of Philadelphia's budget), cutting starting salaries of police and firefighters and cutting paid holidays from 14 -- yes, 14 -- to nine.

He wants to save $3 million by cutting from three to two the crews on sanitation trucks, save $500,000 by reducing the number of intersections with traffic signals, save $1 million by ending public lighting of private alleys.

It is nicely emblematic of politics in our time that Mayor Rendell's prize exhibit of his philosophy of governance is the city zoo. There a new manager phased out city financing and instituted profit sharing. The place sparkles, the staff smiles.

Today the zoo, tomorrow the world, or at least Philadelphia, city of brotherly love and improvable baseball. Lots of little savings can produce solvency, just as in baseball lots of little things (bunting, hitting cut-off men) can mean winning. Phillies, take note.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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