Wednesday, December 03, 2008


On Thursday of last week, Mayor Bloomberg of New York released a detailed survery of citizen views of New York City services. It is on the New York city government website.One of his questions dealt with the public's experience with New York's highly promoted 311 system.Only 41% of New Yorkers recalled using the 311 system--open 24 hours a day--in the last year. Of these, only 48%--or 20% of the total New Yorkers polled--had their problem solved.The 311 system is not the panacea some see it as. And the Pennsylvnia Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, in a July, 2008 report, sees the 311 system--whose costs could prove to be open-ended--as one of the nine major threats to fiscal solvency in Philadelphia.It seems better to me to fund successful old programs like branch libraries than risky new programs like the 311 system. The 311 system is due to start at the about the same the branch libraries are due to be shut down.The first year costs for the 311 system, not counting $4.2 million already spent on calling center renovation, and assuming Philadelphia will be the first city to successfully run a 311 program without custom software, which likely will cost Philadelphia $4 million to $8 million, will about the same as the costs of running the shut down libraries were.I believe we know an awful lot right now on how to improve city services. I would hope that the Mayor and City Council could get input from community groups and others, and take dramatic steps to make a difference.

December 8, 2008


I have noted elsewhere that a conservative estimate of what it costs to run the 311 system is $4.5 million, and that is about the cost (which may be as low as $3.5 million) of running the 11 affected branch libraries.Former PA House Speaker Bob O'Donnell gave a speech to the Pennsylvania Press Club recently on November 24, 2008 in which he blasted the 311 system as a waste of money.And the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, in a report issued in July of 2008, said that the 311 system was one nine major financial risks the city was facing over the next five years.Just two days ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, a pioneer in using a 311 system, issued a report which said that just 41% of the residents of New York City recalled using the 311 system with the past year, and, of these, just 48%--or 20% of New Yorkers--had their complaints or inquiries resolved to their satisfaction

December 5, 2008


The 311 System is supposed to be run by CURRENT CITY EMPLOYEES. They are bureaucrats. They are people who have been answering phones in other city agencies. I seriously doubt that there will be some magical improvement in results because they are using expensive software costing minimally $160,000 per year, and in all likelihood ultimately customized for the city of Philadelphia at a cost of $4 million to $8 million. I believe the customized software is necessary for the system to function properly; New Orleans is a conspicuous example of a city that tried to go without customized software and then faced massive public complaints about the 311 system. I have called city bureaucrats directly, and encouraged my staff, City Council staff, and constituents to also call them directly. I am aware of the problems with service delivery. I am highly skeptical, however, that these problems will be solved more easily if city bureaucrats get five or six times the number of complaints under the 311 system than they get now. The implicit cumulative demand of all the demands for better city services will be to raise taxes to pay for the better city services. That was the implicit cumulative demand of all the Sunset Review Audits conducted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and that helped end the Sunset Review Audits and the Sunset Review process in 1990.Program evaluation is not some brand new idea. The city archives are full of program evaluations, and so are scholarly journals, lists of master's and doctoral dissertations, foundation commissioned studies, non-profits like the National Civic League, newspapers, and the publicly available files of federal agencies dealing with the government. The idea that program evaluation began with 311 software, or that 311 software is necessary for program evaluation, is simply false.December 3, 2008

*The issue with 311 is that it costs big bucks at a time in which library services, recreation services, and fire services are being cut. It would be fine with me to have 311 if we had the money to pay for it. When we are essentially paying for 311 services by cutting library services, then I have a real problem with that because I believe the value of library services is real, tangible, and long lasting, while the value of 311 services is essentially based on the misguided and inaccurate beliefs that there is no way to directly communicate with city officials today, and that there is no evaluation of city services today. I would suggest that the believers in evaluation here visit the city archives and look up the thousands of evaluations of city services that have been done in past administrations, and the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of audits of city spending by Philadelphia's many city controllers over the years. Furthermore, there are countless doctoral dissertations and master's dissertations that have also focused on the delivery of city services, as well as scholarly articles in various journals and articles in newspapers and magazines. The National Municipal League was formed around the turn of the 20th Century with program evaluation as a key goal, and the organization still exists today under the name of the National Civic League. A look at their program evaluations in different cities in different decades would be very interesting to at some of the posters and readers here. The concept of evaluation of city services did not begin with the developers of 311 software; it has been going on throughout our lifetimes with increasing detail as computers developed.December 1, 2008

*The 311 System is a "choice," the managing director told me earlier today in a telephone conversation. It is starting at precisely the same time that the library closings are occurring, a situation, along with high likely total costs, that make clear that we can have libraries instead of the 311 system. Similarly we can have both libraries and the 311 system if we either cut somewhere else, get more federal or state aid, raise taxes, or if the economy improves and generates more revenue with the same tax dollars. The declining price of gas and Obama's stimulus plans makes the latter a real possibility. It is the arbitrary deadline for library cuts, variously reported as December 31 or January 16, that forces us to make a decision NOW. It is an arbitrary deadline that was announced after the legislature had for all practical purposes adjourned for the year (the House was in wrap-up session but the Senate was not), and that had the effect of completely shutting the legislature out of the process because the library shutdown was scheduled to occur before the legislature returned to session. I think the 311 system is a risky choice because its price tag is based on the faulty assumptions that (1) no customized software is needed; (2) that utilization of the highly publicized system will be LOWER than the current number of people who call the City Hall switchboard at the current time, and that the PR campaigns on its behalf by the city and software vendors will have no effect in generating business; (3) that the experience of other cities that 311 services usually do not reduce 911 calls and that 311 services are utilized by three to six or more times the total population of the city are irrelevant; and (4) that the city will not yield to the de facto demands for more expenditures of money by the complainants. I predict that the City will inevitably spend $4 million to $8 million on customized software, and that software will have to be updated and service from time to time a high further cost; that the utilization of 911 services will remain the same; that the total annual number of calls will be far closer to 9 million--six times the city population than the projected 1.5 million, about the number of people living in the city; that vacancies left by the departures of the callers into the 311 system will often be filled by new hires, and that the 311 system will be a generator of service demands and tax increases. I believe the maintenance of the branch libraries is both far more useful to getting people jobs and quality educations that is the 311 system, and that we already know many places where we usefully can spend more money at a cost of higher taxes if that is our true desire. There already is plenty of data available about how programs city work or fail to work that goes unread and unused because we are told that the public really values minute annual tax cuts more than services. The 311 system strikes me as being similar to Pennsylvania's old Sunset Review process, where we spent hundreds of thousands per agency to get reports back that we needed to spend a lot more money to improve them. Eventually, in 1990, the legislature decided that it could increase program spending without the Sunset Review process if that was our desire, and it was better to spend money on services rather than studies which produced results that were usually unsurprising.December 1, 2008

There has been no decrease in 911 calls in New York City. The 27 million calls per year to the 311 system are in addition to the 12 million calls per year to the 911 system.The vasts majority of people know the difference between an emergency and a non-emergency. What we are talking about is a significant new city function which will add significant costs to the City Treasury at a time of financial difficulty.We can be sure that people will not be calling demanding cuts in city services. People will be demanding more city services than now exist, and listening to any significant number of these demands will further raise the costs of the 311 system at a time in which the demands for maintenance of library, recreation, and fire services are not being heeded.December 1, 2008


New York gets about three calls per city resident, and San Francisco gets about eight calls per city resident. If Philadelphia only equals New York in calls per city resident (and we should surpass New York because our Pennsylvania suburbs that identify with the city and use some of our services are a much higher percentage of the metropolitan area than the New York State suburbs are compared to New York City), then we are easily looking at $6 million per year without the $4 million to $8 million customized software.$4 to $8 million in customized software would raise the start up costs from the $4.2 million for renovation plus the nearly $500,000 for consulting plus the $160 for software plus unspecified administrative costs--easily totaling $4.8 million--to between $8.8 million and $12.8 million.The 311 system certainly is not cheap or beyond public scrutiny. And nowhere does the article say that the City Hall switchboard is going to be shut down, or that agencies will not answer phone calls themselves. Nor does it say that vacancies in agencies caused by transfers to the 311 system will all not be filled.

December 1, 2008


There's ancient story about the old Congressman who advised a young Congressman."Vote for all appropriations, " the old Congressman said. "People love new programs. A program that does not exist can be said to do just about anything. Never vote against a new program."Vote against any tax increase," the old Congressman said. "People hate tax increases. Never vote for one."The U.S. Congress has cumulatively been following this kind of advice for a long time now, giving us a budget deficit that will soon hit 11 TRILLION dollars.The City of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania, though, have to pass balanced budgets with only a tiny bit of wiggle room. We have to look carefully at what new programs cost, especially when we are cutting popular existing programs like libraries, swimming pools, and fire engines.The 311 program is being sold as a great aid to improved service efficiency, but little is being said about its costs. The New York 311 system, for instance, started out employing 375 people, had start-up costs of $21 million, and operating costs of $27 million for its first year in 2003-2004. It generated many millions of phone calls, but the number of emergency calls to the 911 system stayed the same.Despite whatever efficiencies the 311 system may have generated, New York City now has a budget DEFICITof $4 billion, about the size of Philadelphia's TOTAL budget.In Minneapolis, the start-up costs were $6.2 Million, and the annual budget costs are $2.6 million.In April, 2004, Philadelphia Weekly reported that the city was spending $1.4 million to set up a 311 system, which should pay for itself by 2007, but that money apparently was inadequate to get the system off the ground, as nothing appears to have happened. Mark McDonald of the Daily News reported in December, 2006 that the Street Administration had decided to shelve the project.We need some real answers as to what Philadelphia's current 311 system costs, and how the money is going to be generated to pay for it. We need specific examples of demonstrated cost savings in other cities that developed 311 systems, and information as to how these cities now fare in budgeting compared to Philadelphia. For a very mixed review by average New Yorkers about the success and failures of the New York 311 system, see the ask-about-311 entry at for September 8, 2008. My efforts to produce a working link to that were unsuccessful.Average Philadelphians, looking at the 311 system prospectively, seem to be as divided about its merits as average New Yorkers. Heard in the Hall on on November 24, 2008 had a short item noting the opposition of former House Speaker Bob O'Donnell to the 311 system, and the opinions pro and con prospectively were strongly expressed in reader online responses. Again, I was unable to produce a working link.We are not Congress, and our Councilmen cannot endlessly run up debt to pay for current programs.

December 1, 2008

311 is costly wherever it is implemented.In Minneapolis, much smaller than Philadelphia, the start-up costs were $6.2 million and the annual costs are $2.6 million. In Chicago, which merged a lot of existing call centers into a single call center, the start-up costs were $5 million.In New Orleans, a scaled down 311 service has annual costs of $2 million a year to cover just one-third of the city departments. New Orleans claims only $313,000 in start-up costs.In Baltimore, starting costs for technology alone were $3 million, and at the start of the decade the annual costs were $4 million.One problem with comparing these numbers is that there is no central accounting system using uniform methods and providing uniform time periods of comparison. But it is clear that no matter what costs are counted and what costs are generally absorbed in other budget line items, the money spent is significant and it is money that can be used for other programs.

December 1, 2008

Given the financial crisis the city has, the 311 system is probably a luxury we cannot afford.I would much rather have the libraries open, the swimming pools open, and the fire stations open than have a better set of statistics about the city's problems. If we cannot do something meaningful about the crisis we know about, how can we have any belief that we will be able to do something about problems yet to be discovered? More often than not, the problems are about a lack of money, and the Administration has made it clear that solutions to these are off the table. So the 311 system is about spending money to find areas where we need to spend more money that we don't have. This is a waste.If I am wrong and the 311 system is really valuable, perhaps the city could get the private sector to pay for it. My constituents would certainly be glad to have a bake sale for the 311 system if the city would pay for the libraries it is threatening to shut down.

November 30, 2008

Friday, November 07, 2008


Just as battle lines are hardening comes the news that could end the battle: city wage tax revenues were up so much in November that city wage tax collections are now $24,404,000 AHEAD of where they were projected to be at the time the city passed the budget.If the $4,881,000 a month figure that the city is ahead of revenue projections were to hold, the city would gain an additional $34,167,000 AHEAD of wage tax revenue projections for the remaining seven months of the fiscal year, giving the city an additional $58,571,000 in wage tax revenue collections than was projected.As good as that news is for the city's fiscal health, it's not the most optimistic way to look at the numbers. In the first five months of the year, the city has collected $625,757,000 in wage tax revenues, an average of $125,141, 400 a month. If that trend were to continue for the rest of the fiscal year, the city would collect $1,501,567,000 in wage tax revenues this year, or $345,001,001 above the $1,156,566 projected in wage for this year.State revenues from income tax collections also grew in November, prompting me to request this update from the city.My theory is this: economic anxiety is causing many people to accept all overtime offered and to accept job offers they might have otherwise rejected.Wage tax revenues are not the whole story of course: the city property tax revenues and business privilege tax revenues have not yet been tabulated. And declines in real estate transfer tax revenues and sales tax revenues are eating up most of the wage tax surplus. But still, the three taxes combined are producing a net surplus above projections for the first five months of $4,209,000, a far cry from the desperate financial crisis we have been warned about. That comes out to $851,800 a month, or a net surplus above projections for these three taxes of $10,221,600.

December 17, 2008


The people whose services are being cut receive little if any benefit from the city tax cuts in the wage tax and the business privilege tax.It is absolutely wrong to cut services to low and moderate income people to pay for tax cuts for the more affluent.As an intellectual exercise, people should talk about eliminating library services in the areas of the city that have the greatest access to the internet, university libraries, bookstores, professional libraries, kindle, etc. Had Mayor Nutter proposed cutting library services to these areas, the outcry would have been so huge that the fiscal problem would have been solved already.

November 7, 2008

Friday, September 05, 2008


I would urge caution on structural changes in the City Council. I tend to believe in the old adage that where there is no clear reason to change, there is reason not to change.Getting rid of two city council seats saves the city little if any money, as the "saved" money could well be used for substitute services.The Republican Party with its two at large seats and one district seat and heavy representation in the business community has been an active partner in city government for the past 56 years of Democratic administrations. While there are undoubtedly decisions that they have influenced that I and my late father Councilman David Cohen have disagreed with, I believe that inclusiveness is a positive value.Further, Republicans have power at a state level that they do not have at a city level. Consolidating Democratic power in the City Council might well lead to more Republican efforts to take power away from city government, as happened with the schools takeover after the charter was changed giving effective control of the school district to the Mayor of Philadelphia.Three seats our of 17 gives the Republicans 17.6% of the City Council with about 14% of the registered voters. This is closer to the registration than giving them 1 of 15 seats, or 6.7% of the City Council seats.I would be surprised if the 10th District does not soon vote Democratic for City Council, which would reduce the Republican percentage to 12.2%, putting the Republican percentage of seats below the current percentage of Republicans without eliminating the at-large seats. If the Republicans lose both the 10th District seat and the two at large seats, they will join the Republicans in Harrisburg, Erie, Scranton, and Reading in being totally without City Council representation.The lower the Republican percentage falls, the greater the possibility that an independent slate could beat one or two of the Republicans for the at large seats in a general election.All Philadelphia political groups are composed of Philadelphia citizens. Respecting these citizens, rather than trying to push them out of the way or marginalize them through structural change, seems to be the best way for Philadelphia to proceed. If the voters feel strongly enough about removing Republicans from Philadelphia government, they can do so under the current rules.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


The bill that Babette Josephs derailed takes power away from the Supreme Court--elected directly by the voters--and turns that power over the Legislative Reference Bureau, whose chief is elected by the legislature and whose staff is in direct touch with individual legislators on a day to day basis.The bill further takes the public hearing process away from the power-holder. Right now, the Supreme Court appointee to the Legislative Reference Bureau listens to the public testimony both before and after a plan is produced, but, under the proposed bill, hearings are held by a temporary commission on redistricting, which is only an advisory and public relations arm of the legislative reference bureau.I could see why, if the status quo was the Legislative Reference Bureau had power to propose redistricting plans, people might want to argue for a body not associated with the legislature, such as the Supreme Court, having a role in proposing redistricting plans.It is hard for me to see why people feel a body--the Legislative Reference Bureau-- dependent on the legislature for its daily working conditions, hiring, job retention, promotion, sick leave, personal leave, office space, vacation time, etc. is a more independent voice than a body--the Supreme Court-- that has its own terms of office, its own budget, its own administrators, and its own public support system.

May 29, 2008


Taking out the Supreme Court--which bans judges from any political participation except in their election years--and replacing the Supreme Court with the Governor of Pennsylvania, an intensely political person, makes very little sense.The purpose of getting the Supreme Court involved in the first place was to have expertise on the legal questions that mandated decennial redistricting according to presecribed criteria. The Secretary of the Commonwealth's office, the Chief Election Officer in House Bill 2420's terminology, has little legal expertise.Nor does the Legislative Reference Bureau, an agency that drafts bills, publishes regulations, and writes legislative citations, have any experience in statistical analysis, map drawing, or litigation on constitutional issues--areas of expertise that are vital in the redistricting process.Further, the Legislative Reference Bureau has not asked for authority in redistricting, and has not endorsed or embraced House Bill 2420 either. The Legislative Reference Bureau has warm relationships with many members of the General Assembly, especially knowing the more senior and higher ranking members quite well. It is unrealistic to expect that these relationships will be completely ignored when it gets feedback from legislators on the redistricting proposals.House Bill 2420 also slows down the redistricting process, making it necessary to postpone the primary elections to the Summer or the Fall of 2012. This decision of the bills drafters--moving the filing deadline for districting plans to Feburary 15, and the Court hearing date to March 15, with a decision likely sometime in April or May--has yet to be publicly explained.

May 12, 2008


This bill is simultaneously overly detailed about insignificant things and not focused enough on important things.For instance, there are nine terms with definitions, but no definition of, or prohibition of, gerrymandering.There is a ban on districts being drawn "for the purpose of favoring a political party, incumbent legislator, or member of Congress of other person or group," but there is no ban on drawing districts to HARM the interests of any person or group, and no ban on favoring (no definition of that) "a political party, incumbent legislator or member of Congress or any other person or group" as long as the district is not drawn "for the purpose of" doing so.What this proposed constitutional amendment does is effectively ban honest discussion about how proposed changes affect individual members and force coded discussions about abstractions. The effect of this will be to make public input much harder to achieve.People concerned about redistricting should contact their legislators and say what kind of districts they want. There is accountability between legislators and their constituents. There is no accountability between the voters and the Legislative Reference Bureau or betwen the voters and the editorial page editors.

May 12, 2008


To get redistricting plans that will be found to be constitutional by both the state courts and the federal courts, it is urgent that the Supreme Court be allowed to appoint a legal expert--a law school dean, a Bar Association leader, or an experienced appellate judge--to act as the mediator/tie breaker between legislative caucuses and to hear and evaluate public concerns with proposed plans.Redistricting is, above all, about a long series of legal issues. No matter what process is developed for plan drafting, the state and federal courts will ultimately have a final say. Getting a lawyer with a high enough reputation in the field of constitutional law to have the confidence of the Supreme Court in a key decision-making position makes a lot more sense than having lawyers who are experts in bill drafting do preliminary work and a politically appointed "chief election officer" act in a decision-making capacity.

May 12, 2008

Thursday, October 25, 2007


When something non-controversial happens, usually it isn't news. But, in my view, a resolution passed by the Democratic State Committee of Pennsylvania at its September 8, 2007 meeting was significant precisely because it was non-controversial.
That resolution said that it supported passage of a Pennsylvania bill banning discrimination in employment against gays. That bill is similar to bills that have passed in about twenty other states, the counties of Erie and Philadelphia, and various Pennsylvania municipalities.
Twenty-five years ago, the Philadelphia City Council became the first legislative body in Pennsylvania, and one of the first in the nation, to ban employment discrimination against gays. I helped my father, City Councilman David Cohen, work on that effort.

September 10, 2007

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Term limits are a bad idea for anyone, whether FBI supervisors, or career military, or judges required to retire at age 70, or elected officials.It is absurd to say that the importance of the positions requires rotation. The importance of any position is based on the competence of those who hold the position, and rotation for the sake of rotation drastically reduces competence and makes the position far less important.One of Arlen Specter's contributions to Philadelphia was in starting as District Attorney to recruit prosecutors based, in part, on their interest in pursuing a prosecutorial career. In doing so, he started a trend still in effect to this day which has enormously increased the competence of the District Attorney's office over time.

October 21, 2007

Monday, August 20, 2007


Like the U.S. and not very many other countries, Israel is both a country with its own pragmatic interests and an ideal that stands beyond pragmatic interests. There is obviously a tension between these roles for the U.S., Israel, and other countries that face the same paradox.I would strongly hope that Israel will find a way to provide meaningful help to refugees from Darfur. The fact is that Jewish communities in the U.S. have been in the forefront of efforts to mobilize American sentiments to help the people of Darfur, and it ought to be possible for Israel to do likewise in the world community.When Hitler started killing many Jews, and threatened to kill many more Jews (as he ultimately did), the effect of that was to marginalize Jews in the minds of the world. President Roosevelt asked his neighbors in upstate New York whether they would accept Jewish refugees, and got a generally negative reception. A suggestion by the Ernest Greuning, then Governor of Alaska and of Jewish descent, that the U.S. send refugees from Nazi Germany to help settle Alaska, was also dismissed after some consideration. If the Jews were any good, the rationale went, why didn't Hitler want them?The Jews from Nazi Germany included some of the most brilliant and hardest working people in the world. Those who escaped the death camps made major contributions to the economic, scientific and military progress of the countries where they settled, as did their children and grandchildren.We should learn the lesson that the value of refugees is not determined by those who persecute them. The U.S., Israel, and other responsible countries and private sector organizations should do much more than has been done so far to secure the lives and the futures of the refugees.

August 19, 2007