Zack Stalberg, the head of the Committee of Seventy, is a Chicken Little like Mayor Michael Nutter.
But unlike Nutter, Stalberg and his Committee want to use bankruptcy protection to dishonor city workers’ contracts, stop benefits to pensioners, and greatly reduce city services. Businesses would reap tax benefits, while city residents would bear a higher proportion of the tax burden and receive fewer city services.
Stalberg and the Committee use language calculated to scare people into thinking that bankruptcy is necessary.
On May 5, the Committee issued what it called the “creative” suggestion that the city “consider bankruptcy.” The suggestion was ignored, so Stalberg penned a letter in Monday’s Inquirer further demonstrating his creativity.
Superficially, Stalberg’s letter suggests a plan for the city. Not content to “muddle through,” he wouldn’t “pass on reform,” but would apply “imagination and courage” to the task of “redesigning government” and enacting “serious structural reforms.” “Tough choices” are needed to“yield the change the city needs.”
However, his letter doesn’t identify the “tough choices” needed. He mentions a few small city agencies that he considers duplicative, complains (validly) about Mayor Nutter’s plans to add city jobs, and rightly admonishes the city for inadequately funding city pensions.
But merely changing these things wouldn’t balance the budget.
What, then, would Stalberg have the city do? His letter contains only hints.
Having ruled out higher taxes, Stalberg calls the city government “unsustainable.” After describing Los Angeles as likely to go bankrupt soon and making “the same mistakes” as Philadelphia, he claims that “the same forces driving Los Angeles to the edge are at work in Philadelphia.”
Rather than beat around the bush, Stalberg could have written: “Government should serve business, not people. People should pay for city services, but get few of them. The way to balance Philadelphia’s budget is to stop city money from flowing toward neighborhoods, hoard it all downtown where business is, and use bankruptcy to cut services and stiff city workers and retirees who were promised a pension.”
Stalberg and the Committee don’t think that their bankruptcy plan would gain support if it sounded like that. So instead of explaining their plan, they make dire claims that bankruptcy is the only option.
By telling Philadelphians that the sky is falling, Stalberg hopes to get them to run under the cover of service-, job-, and pension-slashing bankruptcy protection. That’s just where he wants them.