BY DAVE ALLEN Like time, news waits for no man. Keeping up with the funny papers has always been an all-day job, even in the pre-Internets era. These days, however, it’s a two-man job. That’s right, these days you need someone to do your reading for you, or risk falling hopelessly behind and, as a result, increasing your chances of dying lonely and somewhat bitter. That’s why every week PAPERBOY does your alt-weekly reading for you. We pore over those time-consuming cover stories and give you the takeaway, suss out the cover art, warn you off the ink-wasters and steer you towards the gooey center. Why? Because we love you!
ON THE COVER
CP: “Money talks, and bullshit walks.” “But how can bullshit walk?” This exchange between Danny Devito and pre-governorship Arnold Schwarzenegger seems especially appropriate this week as both papers delve into the city’s money troubles. To start, CP’s take on a questionable but widespread practice in the city’s pension accounts hooks you from the beginning, instantly giving the impression that this is NOT right.
On Jan. 14, 2012, City Council President Anna Verna is scheduled to retire from office and collect a going-away present from the city – a lump-sum cash bonus of $584,777. But she doesn’t have to stay retired for long. If Verna runs for office again in 2011 and wins, she can retire for one day, make a deposit at the bank, and then go back to work the next day, Jan. 15, 2012, and resume collecting her salary of $148,090. Or Verna, who will be 80 years old, could stay retired and collect her annual pension of $133,701. Either way, Verna will be a lot richer. And all she had to do to earn that big cash bonus was sign a city contract scheduling a future retirement date she’s perfectly free to ignore.
Under the city’s convoluted pension system, this payout is entirely legal. While Verna’s bonus will be the largest award ever under the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), it’s just another withdrawal in a billion-dollar run on the city’s already-depleted pension fund.
DROP is the 11-year-old city program that allows municipal employees to double-dip on retirement benefits during their last four years on the job. Employees who sign up for DROP collect their full salaries for a maximum of 48 months, plus a maximum of 48 months of pension benefits paid in the form of a lump-sum cash bonus the day they walk out the door. They also get a minimum of five years of health insurance, plus their regular pensions. And the city has allowed a select few, like Verna, to return to work – at full salary – the day after they retire. Who would turn down a deal like that?
The outrage follows much as you would expect – talk of bankruptcy and state takeovers crops up – but don’t let that overshadow the thorough, comprehensive reporting that Ralph Cipriano (new guy, eh? I like the cut of his jib) has done. It comes to light that the Mercer Inc., the firm that helped set up DROP, has faced legal action in other cities. How to reform the situation is unclear – it might take a “throw the bums out” approach that many have suggested for the city’s BRT – but just to have this information out in the open is both a relief and a revelation.
PW: In a separate vein, PW addresses the city’s federally-provided recovery funds, but takes a semi-alarmist approach. So it’s taking a while for the city’s stimulus funds to come through? It’s not like we’re talking “use it or lose it” here, and I’m not sure that dispersal of these funds have taken what could be considered an unreasonably long time.
Officials say it took some time to get the money out there for a couple reasons. Since the program was new—not part of existing CDBG grants—guidelines had to be set up and a slew of requirements met. Stimulus-program guidelines and federal regulations had to be followed, as well as stipulations on CDGB money. A Request for Proposals (RFP), asking local groups for projects to use the money on, was issued in November, with 63 applicants. Then, the winners had to be put under contract with the city. “Frankly, the money has a lot of strings attached,” says Gary Steuer, chief cultural officer to the mayor.
The Transit-Oriented and Livable Communities Commercial Development Fund, another section of the CDBG, got $4,396,629 to help local businesses expand or stabilize, with an eye toward sustainability (that’s the transit and living idea). The money will be dispersed in loans for “projects that are in jeopardy with the collapse of financial markets,” says Brian Flanagan, of the deputy mayor’s office of planning and economic development. The projects must create or retain jobs and have some environmental or transit-related focus.
An RFP was issued in February, a date that was pushed back because they “didn’t think a public solicitation around the holidays would get the best response,” says Flanagan. None of the money has been dispersed yet, but one possibility is a $1 million loan to E.G. Emil’s, a deli-meat maker in Kensington. The money would cover rehabbing a contaminated vacant lot and expanding their production facility, creating 10 jobs. The city expects the loans to start going out in the next month.
So city officials urge patience, and that’s just what we’ll need, it seems. Bureaucracy and government inefficiency aren’t exactly news, though I do like the light that’s shed on a number of new grant opportunities. Also worth digging into: the $216 million that went to SEPTA, PennDOT and the School District. I feel like those are areas where we’d see immediate results — if the funds are being put to use, that is.
INSIDE THE BOOK
CP: Can’t link to anything due to problems with the CP website… but the feature on Dem gov candidate Dan Onorato is worth your attention, as are A Million Stories (a delightful read, week in and week out) and A.D. Amorosi’s feature on avant-jazz group Puzzlebox. Let’s see if we can’t get the site up and running soon, huh, folks?
WINNER: CP’s cover story stands out as a notable and necessary bit of public interest reporting, so I’ll give them the nod this week. There’s journalistic gold in them thar findings.