PHILADELPHIA taxpayers who want some idea of where their money goes can practically get a front-row seat when City Council holds hearings on departmental budgets, now underway until May. Any city department with a budget over $5 million must appear before Council to testify on its spending plans and answer questions from Council members on how taxpayer dollars are being spent.
But there is a glaring exception to the rule of who must answer for their spending: City Council itself has an operating budget of more than $17 million - and that doesn't include the cost of benefits - but the details on that spending are in a black box.
We know, for example how many employees departments like Parks and Recreation have, and we know the racial and gender breakdown of those employees. We know what the average salaries are, and how much is spent on outside contracts. We know each department's general plans for what it wants to accomplish in the coming year.
All we know about City Council is how much it spends on salaries, services, supplies and equipment. That's all.
That's not enough.
Why isn't the body who holds other departments accountable for fiscal decisions not answerable to anyone else? We have asked this question many times in the last few years. Chris Brennan of the Inquirer asked it this week. We asked in 2013, when Council's budget was $13.4 million. We ask it now when the budget is $17.1 million. We also would like to know what drove additional spending of $3.6 million over those five years.
Other questions we've asked, and still would like to know: What are the largest contracts Council has with outside providers and how many of those have gone to disadvantaged businesses? What investments are Council making in technology, and when might it see savings from new efficiencies? What performance measures does Council employ for itself?
Thanks to a Pew Philadelphia Research Initiative report issued in 2011, we do know that Council holds the record for longest-tenured members of 14 cities examined, and its average salaries are the third highest among those cities.
Council has dismissed requests for more transparency, claiming that it can't figure out how this would work: Would they question themselves? No single body has authority over Council - and offices that could logically ask, like the Controller's Office, aren't the answer, since controller's budget is approved by Council. The Mayor's Office doesn't have power to impact Council's budget, either.
But they're missing the point by getting caught up in procedural conundrums. Publishing a detailed spending breakdown would be a good start.
New York has a Citizens budget commission, a privately funded nonpartisan watchdog that has been in operation for over 80 years. While they have no official authority, they play an important role by asking objective and critical questions about budget trends. And by the way, New York's City council budget is $64 million, while the city's operating budget is $90 billion.
Philadelphia City Council's budget is $17 million, a much higher percentage of the city's overall budget of $4.5 billion. Why?
There may be a very good reason. The point is, we think we all deserve to hear it.