The Mayor's Trippin' -- Philadelphia Needs More Financial Oversight

(June 2010)

Philadelphia's budget is so precariously balanced that the Nutter Administration is considering a series of dramatic cuts to city services, but that doesn’t mean that the Mayor is pinching our pennies.  As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mayor Nutter traveled to the Gulf Coast as part of a trip put together by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.  The piece concludes with a curious note:  "The City of Philadelphia paid for his trip, but the mayor said he was not sure how much it cost." 

I'm not sure at all why we had to foot the bill for the cost of the Mayor’s trip (including the cost of travel and lodging for whatever entourage and security he travels with), but I am absolutely positive that the Mayor should know how much of our money he is spending -- and it is clear that we need much more transparency in spending so we can see how every single dollar of city money is spent.

At some point, the Mayor decided that the trip was something the taxpayers should pay for.  Perhaps the Mayor thought the benefits of the trip outweighed the cost.  If so, then it would be helpful to understand the benefits (I suppose Nutter's clout with the Conference of Mayors has a value to the city), but it would be essential to understand the costs.  That did not seem to occur to the Mayor or if he was curious about the cost, he must have forgotten the numbers during his oil-slicked visit.

If there was little or no consideration for the cost of the trip, should we assume that this is the only time the Mayor has been all too willing to spend our money with little thought?  If someone from the Inquirer didn't think to ask about the cost, would we have ever even known about the fact that our "generosity" paid for the Mayor’s visit? 

I recall some criticism of the Mayor was reported when he used taxpayer money to fly staffers to the Democratic National Convention in 2008, but the fourth estate in Philadelphia is ill-equipped to uncover every instance of wasteful spending.  We need to know more.  Does our Mayor and his staff travel first class or coach?  Are they getting the best airfare?  Do they stay in single rooms or bunk up?  Are we on the hook for their meals?  Do we have to pay if they use the spa or watch an in-room movie?

The City Controller's Office just released an agency audit that covered spending that occurred as long ago as five years ago.  With that kind of delay, even if the city's elected auditor uncovers waste, fraud, or abuse, the problems are clearly water under the bridge.

We need to have real-time transparency when it comes to city spending.  We need to know what the city is spending when the city is spending the money so we can understand where our tax dollars are being spent -- and we can voice our concerns or disapproval while it still matters.  An online poll clearly demonstrates that the public is very much opposed to the Mayor's using city funds to pay for his Gulf Coast trip (nine to one against). 

With a little more public scrutiny over city spending, and that kind of feedback, our elected officials will think twice before sticking us with an outrageous bill. 

How can I be so sure?  After just a tiny bit of scrutiny, the Inquirer reports that Mayor reconsidered and decided that the taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for the trip after all.  Perhaps if we knew about every single spending decision, we could shame our leaders into slashing more wasteful spending and eliminate the need for three tax increases in three years.