Finding answers to big city problems

October 26, 1999|By David Boldt

To inform the debate over privatizing some city services -- a key issue in Philadelphia's mayoral race -- columnist David Boldt visited two cities, Milwaukee and Indianapolis, where privatization and other measures have helped cut city government costs. Baltimore, which faces a projected $157 million deficit over the next five years, may have something to learn from what Mr. Boldt found.

AS I WALK through the Indianapolis airport, I see nothing that looks all that different. Hard to tell it is managed by a private, British-based company picked in a competitive bidding process. The firm promised to save the city at least $32 million a year and to hire all current airport personnel at comparable wages and benefits.

Philadelphia's Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz has been pointing to Indianapolis and Milwaukee as examples of cities that have proven it is possible to reduce the cost of government, maintain services and still cut taxes. Most of his presentation, however, has concerned the management processes involved.

There has been surprisingly little discussion of what Milwaukee mayor John Norquist and Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith actually did -- such as the airport management change -- and whether the same kinds of things can be done in other cities.

I have visited both cities, talked to community leaders, interviewed the mayors and read their books. Unquestionably, the kinds of spending reductions they achieved are possible in Philadelphia. Indeed, some very similar things were done just as successfully during Mayor Ed Rendell's first term.

But while those two cities kept increases in city spending below inflation over the past eight years, even while increasing expenditures for police, Philadelphia has not. And that may not have much to do with differences in mayoral capability.

A can-do spirit

One returns from those cities feeling that they are imbued with a can-do spirit that contrasts sharply with the fear of change that too often characterizes Philadelphia. After learning how strong opposition was to even the simplest changes in those cities, it's hard to shake the suspicion that comparable moves could face insurmountable hostility here.

For example, when Mr. Norquist took office in Milwaukee, he found that the streets department replaced sidewalk slabs if they were a quarter-inch out of line, while most other cities used a half-inch standard. The change saved money with no increase in injury claims, but Mr. Norquist acknowledges that "some of our engineers needed therapy when we made the switch."

Another change in Milwaukee was to get the health department out of the business of giving measles shots to kids from low-income families, and have the shots included in the services provided by private doctors under Medicaid.

The change saved money and increased the vaccination rate from 23 percent to 80 percent. Yet, initially, it was fought tooth and nail by the city's principal anti-poverty agency. Such misconceived opposition is the rule rather than the exception.

When Indianapolis began using private companies to provide van service to take low-income city residents to jobs in the suburbs, there was fierce opposition from environmental groups -- which believed (incorrectly) the move would damage mass transit -- and from the transit workers union.

At one point, Mr. Goldsmith reports sardonically, the Rev. Al Sharpton flew in from New York to lead a rally aimed at halting "a nationwide epidemic of improved bus service."

Mr. Goldsmith reports that he even ran into trouble with his own Republican Party in his first major effort to have city workers compete against private firms. The streets department workers who filled potholes responded that it was unfair to ask them to compete because their department had too many managers.

Sure enough, Mr. Goldsmith found that "for a mere 94 workers in the street-repair division, there were 32 politically appointed supervisors."

Culling the ranks

Mr. Goldsmith significantly reduced the number of managers, and the story had a happy ending. Once in charge of their own destiny, city workers won the contract by cutting the pothole repair crew from eight to five, and by usine one truck, not two, per crew, reducing costs by 25 percent. Productivity improved sharply.

One hopes the same outcome could occur in Philadelphia, but it will take more than just a new mayor.

David Boldt is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist.

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