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Monday, November 24, 2008

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Finance director Dubow takes crisis in stride
When Philadelphia teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1990s, so the City Hall story goes, the finance director requested a bodyguard.

During the current crisis, with the city proposing draconian budget cuts to bridge a $1 billion abyss, Rob Dubow swears he does not fear for his safety.

"Clearly, people aren't happy," he says, "but I'm hopeful they'll understand these are choices we had to make given the economic climate. This is way beyond what we can control."

Still, as workers are laid off, libraries closed, and streets left unplowed, the city's chief numbers cruncher won't collect many Facebook friends.

"He's seen as the Grim Reaper," says City Solicitor Shelley Smith. "I can't imagine how he gets a sound night's sleep."

Actually, Dubow says he sleeps just fine. A low-key (some might say no-key) bureaucrat with a dry (some might say arid) wit, he does not rattle. It's part of the job requirement.

"You can't absorb stress," says Mike Masch, budget director for Ed Rendell as mayor (1992-96) and governor (2003-08) and now chief business officer for the Philadelphia School District.

"Even in the best of times, the decisions are excruciating. This is pretty grueling stuff that affects people's lives. Most people can't wrap their brains around that much detail."

Numbers wonks are not like most people, of course. To Dubow, the city's 800-page budget is like the Talmud - deeply revered, yet endlessly scrutinized and debated.

In mid-August, when the direness of the situation became apparent, Dubow went directly to Mayor Nutter. "You never want to bring that news to someone," Dubow, 49, says, "but with him, it was fairly easy."

Easy? "He listened. He understood. Then he immediately wanted to know how to fix it."

Over the next two months, Dubow and his 500-person staff dissected the numbers, line by line. The boss worked 13- to 14-hour days, including weekends, on what he labels "an intense, painful process."

On Nov. 6, a somber Nutter announced drastic reductions in city services and payroll. Dubow, like all mayoral senior aides, took a 5 percent cut in his $174,000 salary as well as an unpaid five-day furlough this year and next.

The public backlash began almost immediately, with firefighters protesting the shutdown of five engine and two ladder companies. Parents were enraged over the planned closure of 11 of the city's 54 libraries.

It wasn't until Monday's City Council meeting that the administration revealed that the cutbacks were recommended by the municipal departments themselves.

Each was asked to present a plan for a 20 percent budget hit, Dubow explains. The Free Library of Philadelphia, for example, proposed having fewer branches in order to maintain current hours.

"Part of the pushback we've been getting is that people didn't understand enough of why we did what we did," he says. "We need to make a compelling case to them."

On a scale of one to 10, Dubow rates the severity of the budget mess close to nine. What's preventing a total meltdown, he says, is that there's more than $350 million in the city coffers.

"From a cash perspective, we're actually still OK. Every day, we're going over bills and deciding which ones we can pay. . . . If it got to $100 million, I'd really be worried. . . . The world market is in such bad shape, you never know when the next crisis will hit."

Though Dubow insists no one has made him the bad guy in the piece, others say his job title doesn't win him much good will from cash-strapped Philadelphians.
write By
Gail Shister
Inquirer Staff Writer

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