The Controller Race: What You Need to Know
For many Philadelphians, the Office of the Philadelphia Controller seems obscure. The Controller is an elected position, but its elections are held in off-off-years; most of the other elected Philadelphia officials sit in City Hall, while the Controller sits two thirds of the way up the Municipal Services Building. Even inside the city government, the Controller’s office is isolated, mandated by auditing standards to be independent, and working across and with other departments typically only happens during audits. The job of the Controller is mostly out of sight as well; financial and contract oversight are complex topics that deal in process and detail and simply are not as visible as other municipal services.
However, behind the curtain of political, locational, institutional and technical obscurity, sits a powerful elected official in control of a powerful city office. The Office of the Controller is directly involved in the financial processes of the City, approving and auditing both the financial payments and the effectiveness of the payments. Every payment the City makes and every contract the City signs is approved by the Controller’s Office. It conducts audits of every City department as well as validating the City and School District’s Certified Annual Fiscal Report. Any private development project costing more than $50 million and using 10% City funds, requires the Controller to write a fiscal impact statement, and the same is true with the City Budget and the Five Year Plan - in both instances, the Controller must offer an opinion before they are submitted to PICA, the state authority that has final say on the documents. The Controller has an assigned seat on the City Pension Board as well as the PGW Pension Board, and must sign off on every bond the City wants to sell.
Despite that power and its position of oversight, the Office of the City Controller is limited in its ability to directly impact the day-to-day of city policy. The Controller truly needs to remain independent so it can effectively and fairly audit other City departments; there are strict neutrality requirements in place that prevent the Controller from participating in important City debates so that audits are not perceived as biased in any way. This foundational part of the Office, purposely established in the City Charter, creates the hindsight approach and removed attitude that creates the autonomy necessary for the Controller to fulfill the duties of the Office in the best way possible. Recommendations must be based on observable data that has been compared to best practices, and legal requirements.
To summarize, the Office of the City Controller makes sure the City tax dollars are used efficiently. Governments at all levels and sizes supply services to their constituents; in a city like Philadelphia, where one in four residents live in poverty, the demand for services is higher than most, while opportunities to raise the required revenues to pay for those services are limited. Thus each dollar spent must reach as far as possible to ensure the maximum amount of support for the most people.
The Controller’s job is to make sure that the process which drives the function of government follows best practices, federal regulations and timelines that minimize the opportunities for misallocation of resources.The next City Budget, beginning July 1st, 2017, will raise over $4.3 billion in taxes and other revenue and spend a little bit more than that on personnel, supplies, equipment and other services. Three-quarters of the City’s revenues come directly from taxes on its residents and nonresidents who work in Philadelphia. The more inefficiency, waste and fraud that exist in government, the more services suffer and/or taxes rise.
In an age of innovation, municipal reform and urban growth, Philadelphia’s ability to measure itself against the top cities in the world requires effective government. As Philadelphia evolves both as a City and a government, The Office of the City Controller will need to analyze the assumptions that underlie efficient service delivery, technological adoption and policy change, then audit its performance. The impact of this work could save the City and School District valuable and precious resources and ultimately, impact the future sustainability and success of our city.
Those resources have a direct impact on how we live and work in the city day-today. So how can you get involved and make your voice heard? Check out our spotlight series on Twitter to learn more about the Controller candidates. Don't forget to head to the polls on May 16 to vote. Find your polling place.
Lief Erickson, a PSG supporter and volunteer, is passionate about local politics and civic engagement in Philadelphia. From 2013 - 2017, he worked in the Office of the City Controller as a Policy Analyst in the Budget & Financial Policy Unit. He moved to Philadelphia in 2012 from Kansas City, MO where he studied Economics in graduate school. Originally from Eugene, Oregon, Lief received his B.S. from Portland State University, and currently lives in Old City with his wife Eliza and dog Brew. You can follow him on Twitter or Linkedin.