Evan M. Lopez
[ the goatee of power ]
Two years ago, Michael Nutter celebrated his election as mayor by getting up on stage, grabbing a mic and — after weathering three screwups on the turntables — delivering a flawless "Rapper's Delight" to a screaming audience.
I've only seen that Nutter on YouTube. The Nutter I've met in person is Mayor Nutter: Mayor Nutter the Earnest; Mayor Nutter the Stern; and, now more than ever, perhaps, Mayor Nutter the Besieged.
Over the last year, Nutter's critics have turned up the heat. His enemies smell blood. On top of that, Nutter plugged a gaping hole in the budget last year only to find it reopened this year, and he'll almost certainly have to raise taxes or cut services, neither of which the increasingly assertive City Council will let him do without a fight.
So far, Nutter has met these challenges to his authority with his own subtle weapon: The Face of Stone. Nutter is remarkably good at hiding what's really on his mind behind a wall of polite formality. Ask him a question he doesn't like, and he cocks his head, knits his brow, and stares with polite confusion, as if to say, "I'm sorry, I must have misheard you. You couldn't have asked me something that stupid."
On Dec. 22, City Paper sat down with the mayor for a brief Q&A. Nutter was polite, of course, but inscrutable as ever. His answers were frequently vague. He can seem myopic, bogged down in such unglamorous civic projects as funding the police or campaigning against litter. He doesn't take the same pleasure as, say, Gov. Ed Rendell, in making wild promises. At only one moment in the 25-minute interview did Nutter seem to break his inscrutable composure — and just for one brief, inscrutable moment.City Paper: I'll start with as soft a softball as I can possibly throw. You got dealt a pretty tough hand coming in. What's that been like?
Michael Nutter: Well, as I've come to say, it's just very inconvenient not to have enough money. On the other hand, it's a challenge, and I like a challenge. This city has demonstrated its resilience time and time again. I can't afford to spend a lot of time Monday-morning quarterbacking, or kind of fantasizing about woulda coulda shoulda. It is what it is.
CP: Looking back at 2009, could you name one accomplishment and one mistake?
MN: On the accomplishment side I'd say, without question, the significant drop in crime, specifically homicide — about a 24 to 25 percent [drop] since I've been in office as compared to 2007. [Editor's note: In 2006, the year before Nutter's election, Philadelphia saw 405 homicides; as of this conversation, there were 296 in 2009.]
On the mistake side, that would be last year's decision [to close Philadelphia Free Library branches]. ... Clearly we could have and should have done it better, or differently, at least. We did need to save the money. I love libraries, and I did not want to harm the system. We actually proposed what we did in an effort to stabilize the system, but we learned a big lesson out of that. [The lesson is] to constantly push and figure out a better way to do things, so that you have the savings that you need, which is the goal, with the least amount of negative impact on service. We've used that experience to make sure we don't make some other mistakes in other tough decision-making situations.
CP: You didn't close the branches, but you also didn't restore the 10 percent of funding you cut from the system. Will you restore funding, or close some branches to better fund the rest?MN: At the moment, I have no plans to close any [branches]. We're going to make sure the library can function within the resources it has. But you know, look, libraries, parks, recreation, so many departments and agencies, I would like to make more investments. ... So many of our departments are in need of greater financial resources. Through no fault of our own, we have $1.7 billion less than we really should have in the course of our five-year plan, and we've not been able to make so many investments I've wanted to make.
CP: Will you raise taxes in 2010?
MN: It's not been a topic of conversation. We have to learn to live within the resources we have. We just this year got a temporary raise in our sales tax, so the issue of raising taxes is not a topic of conversation at the moment.
CP: But you did propose a property tax hike last year, and you opposed raising taxes on businesses — for example, the gross receipts tax, which taxes businesses for sales in Philadelphia.
MN: I think it's kind of crazy to have a tax for businesses possibly making no money. You talk to the economic experts and I think they generally agree, our gross receipts tax makes us an uncompetitive city. It's harmful to businesses that have high volume and low margins, and we get significant number of complaints from small business people in many instances about the gross receipts tax. I want a lower tax environment across the board. ... I didn't want to raise the property tax, either. But the property tax in Philadelphia is relatively low. The challenge, of course, is our assessment system is broken. [Raising] both sales and property [taxes] seemed to be fair. [Editor's note: City Council rejected Nutter's proposed property tax hike, opting instead to raise the sales tax by 1 percent for five years.]
CP: If you're not talking about raising taxes, what are you talking about?
MN: Well, first and foremost, we have to figure out how big the [budget deficit] is. And we don't know that at the moment. We just received the police [union arbitration] award last week, we still have three other unions to [finish] negotiating with. And we're still waiting to see what happens with the economy.
CP: Let's talk about your vision for the next 12 months. What do you hope to accomplish?
MN: Part of this is maintaining focus on the things that really matter to people on the ground each and every day. We're going to continue to support our Police Department and drive down crime in the city. We're going to stay focused on children. It really is, though, ultimately about jobs, and creating an economic environment where people can get work or get training. Whether that's the green economy or sustainability, or the waterfront. We've made waterfront development a major effort here. ... What you're going to see with Greenworks this year is the Philadelphia Recycling Awards program, which will help us boost our recycling rates, which will save us money. And it's good for the city, good for the planet. We'll continue to reduce our energy costs. We're in the process of revamping the zoning codes, we're going to have more BigBellies [BigBelly solar powered trash compators] on the streets. A big campaign for cleaning up, a big city anti-litter campaign.
CP: Where do jobs come in?
MN: First of all, when we boost our recycling rates, and we've been working with RecycleBank Philadelphia, a Philly-based firm. They have grown here and will continue to grow. As you saw in the announcement that [Gov. Ed Rendell] made about HelioSphere, [a solar panel factory] down at the Navy Yard, hundreds of jobs as a result of that. There are people getting trained with [stimulus] funds for green-economy jobs. We've got the [$20 million, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-funded] Neighborhood [Stimulus] Program funding, which is helping to rehabilitate homes and put them back on the market; we've got solar-panel-installation training. All of this activity creates jobs.
CP: Do you have any specific goals for job creation for this year?
MN: Obviously it depends on the funding we get. We want to get Philadelphia back to work as soon as possible.
CP: Let's talk about casinos. You didn't ask for the casinos, you didn't pass the law establishing casinos. But as mayor, you have the power to lobby — [At this point Nutter — suddenly and loudly — crushes his plastic water bottle between his hands, slowly twisting the plastic and mashing it between his palms into a ball which, finally, he tosses on the table. Nutter does all of this without blinking.] — uh, you have the power to lobby to influence these laws. For example, the current table game bill lets casinos extend credit to slots players. Why not lobby against that?
MN: I have a fairly regular amount of contact with our Philadelphia leaders. I've expressed my concerns about the credit issue. ... Most people who gamble end up losing, and you don't want to destroy people financially, if not their families, as a result of overextending themselves.
CP: Are you asking city lobbyists to try to remove this provision?
MN: I've expressed my concern, and whether they remove it or modify it or whatever, I've expressed my concern. The other issue is the local share [of casino revenues], and I've made it clear that it should come straight to Philadelphia. [Editor's note: The current state Senate proposal would route the money through a state agency.]
CP: What do you plan to accomplish within the next year?
MN: I want to continue to lower the crime rate in Philadelphia. I laid out on Inauguration Day that I wanted to cut the homicide rate by 30 percent in three to five years. We're coming up on year three. I want to continue to stay focused on education and cut out the dropout rate. I said I wanted to cut it in half in five to seven years. We're at a 40 percent dropout rate, and working with [School District of Philadelphia] Superintendent [Arlene] Ackerman, we'll develop for 2009-2010 more specific goals around that number. [Editor's note: In the 2005-2006 school year, Philadelphia had a graduation rate of 57.4 percent, according to the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.]
CP: Any other specific goals for the next 12 months?
MN: Just to be the best mayor that I can be.