If there's been one thing even less fun this week than listening to New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine's brutal state budget address on Tuesday, it's been watching Philadelphia's ongoing money struggle. For those of us who don't live in the city but count it as a vital resource for work, play and the all-important "culture," Philadelphia's fortunes lie close to our hearts.
Over here, there's ominous talk of a two-day furlough for state workers, but most people can more easily run down a list of the deep cuts and higher taxes Mayor Nutter has threatened — first the libraries, then the city pools, then a possible trash fee. (That last idea, potentially workable but clearly not thought out, went in the Dumpster on Monday.) It's all over local media — Philly, after all, is the area's dominant economic and cultural engine.
Looking at the issue from across the bridge, it's hard to make judgments about what taxes the city should raise or which services it should cut. Many choices — pools or parks, libraries or homeless shelters, trash removal or a successful tourism campaign — will hurt city residents, especially the most vulnerable ones, most acutely.
But they have secondary effects for those of us who love the city but don't live within its borders. Closing a library may not hurt us, but an increased commuter tax would. Closing a city pool in July isn't going to keep me out of Philly, but dirty streets will. It's taken the city years to shake that "Filthydelphia" image; cutting back on sanitation is a surefire way to keep suburbanites, and our money, away. The increased fees for parking meters in Center City, at $2 per hour and set to increase to $3 in July, are already rapidly eroding my Smart Card, and this on top of the $4 Delaware River Port Authority cover charge just to cross the bridge.
Of course, at this point you're thinking, "OK, then stay in the suburbs," which sounds about right until you actually think about what would happen if all my brethren from the 'burbs suddenly kept all of our parking, eating, drinking and museum-going dollars in New Jersey. Yes, it would be easier to find a parking spot on First Friday in Old City, and there would likely be fewer drunks peeing in alleys off Main Street in Manayunk. But beyond that, a vital stream of revenue for the city would dry up.
There are certain cuts that would undoubtedly keep suburbanites away. Losing more than 500 family shelter beds in the city isn't going to affect my home in the suburbs, but the homeless are everyone's problem. Proposed cuts to the city's prisons would require reducing the inmate population by 300, combined with possible Police Department cutbacks it means fewer officers and more criminals on the street. A 1 percent increase in the city's amusement tax would hit everyone who travels into the city for concerts, movies, plays and sporting events. Next time you're sitting in traffic trying to get out of the sports complex after a game, take a minute to count all the New Jersey plates and think about what happens if everyone in South Jersey decides it's cheaper to stay home and watch on TV.
Potential cuts to the Fairmount Park's budget are a special area of concern. Last week's City Paper included dire scenarios for what could happen if the Fairmount Park Commission is forced to cut as much as 30 percent from its budget. Reductions of just 10 percent would mean fewer public restroom hours, 20 percent cuts could see 13 of the city's tourist-magnet fountains dry up, and at 30 percent, all the city's historic mansions and JFK Plaza would close and more than 100 parks employees would lose their jobs.
Again, the city's ultimately got to do what it's got to do, but cutting back on things that draw people like me across the bridge doesn't seem logical. What might make more sense is to begin charging a fee of some kind for use of the city's parks, for example the jogging and running trails along Wissahickon Creek. Uh-oh, I can hear my relatives in Roxborough screeching in protest already.
Actually this is an area where Philly could learn something from its neighbor across the river. Here in New Jersey, we're already used to so-called "user fees," the most common being the infamous beach tag. Tourists and residents alike love to squawk about having to pay for even a reasonably priced beach badge, even though many towns use the proceeds to pay for lifeguards and maintenance crews. But for as much as people complain, given the choice between clean beaches and free beaches, most people are willing to pay. When it comes to keeping Fairmount Park clean, beautiful and accessible, the same principle might apply.
Amy Z. Quinn blogs at citizenmom.net.