Hundreds protest gas industry conference, proposed regulations
Opponents of a natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing — or more familiarly as “fracking” — have promised to “shut down” an October meeting of the Delaware River Basin Commission.
“You will not frack the Delaware River,” thundered Josh Fox, director of the documentary “Gasland,” which chronicled the environmental damage of fracking, as a crowd of hundreds outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Wednesday roared their agreement by chanting “shut them down.”
Opponents contend that fracking has polluted the air and groundwater and posed an environmental and health threat.
Hundreds of protestors threatened civil disobedience.
“If they’re going to start drilling, we’re going to shut them down,” Fox said, adding they planned a large scale protest modeled on civil rights protests.
The commission is expected to adopt natural gas drilling regulations at a specially scheduled meeting October 21 at its West Trenton, N.J., headquarters. The rules will regulate fracking at an estimated 22,000 gas wells in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware on land that drains into the Delaware River, which provides water to 15 million people in those four states — including 1.5 million in Philadelphia.
“The October 21 meeting will not include a public hearing,” stated a notice of the special meeting on its website.
The public — including two members of Philadelphia City Council and the president of Pittsburgh’s City Council — had plenty to say about it this week.
“If they tell you they are going to allow fracking in your watershed then it’s time to say, ‘You know what, we are taking a stand now,’” Fox shouted. “If they permit it anyway and we show up at the well sites and blockade the well sites, that’s the way we are going to win. That’s the way every single one of these struggles has been won from the suffragettes to the civil rights movement to labor unions. Every single advancement that was won in our civilization was won by one tool — civil disobedience.”
As Fox thundered and the crowd cheered, members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition gathered inside the convention center.
As industry officials slipped into the new main entrance on North Broad Street, protestors were corralled along both sides of Arch Street, nearly a block east at 13th Street. Approximately 1,600 industry officials were expected at the two day conference, which included appearances by Gov. Tom Corbett and former governors Tom Ridge, now a paid industry spokesman, and Ed Rendell.
One energy company official accused protestors of “fear mongering.”
“Was anybody hurt? Was there any permanent or even temporary environmental damage? No. No. And, no,” said Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy Corp.
Outside they disagreed.
Craig Sautner of Dimock in Susquehanna County warned of the possibility of a large scale natural disaster. He spoke from personal experience. Three years ago his well was poisoned by fracking and he now has to get his drinking water and water for showering and cleaning shipped in by the natural gas company.
“Here’s what my water looks like,” said Sautner, holding up a glass that looked more like it was filled with cloudy beer. “They were doing vertical drilling and something collapsed and all the gas migrated. Now, the gas company said that they did not cause the problem. Enough already. We’ve got to do something about this.”
Many Philadelphians view the issue as an upstate one, but stories like Sautner’s have galvanized City Council, which, earlier this year supported a moratorium on drilling.
“Anything that happens in Allegheny County or Centre County, anything happens in Bradford County, it also affects what happens in Philadelphia County,” said Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who called the issue a public health issue. “We get it.”
She promised her support and urged others to join the chorus against drilling.
“It takes collective voices to move the needle,” Brown said. “We can’t do it alone. It takes all of us to send a message.”
Philadelphia is on track to set a murder record this year — 75 percent of them with handguns — and city officials are trying to find new ways to stem the flow of blood.
Already the city has the highest murder rate of the nation’s 10 largest cities, a distinction it’s held since 2006.
And, the guns keep popping — with 208 murders this year, “Killadelphia” is earning its notoriety.
“Gun violence is the biggest problem we have,” said City Councilman Bill Greenlee. “The gun violence in this city is completely ridiculous, and we have to be open to everything and everybody to try and solve it.”
Greenlee was one of a handful of council members who attended a roundtable discussion with a group called GunCrisis.org on Tuesday at City Hall. The event, hosted by Majority Leader Curtis Jones, was intended to spark a discussion on how the city can deal with the murder epidemic.
GunCrisis.org was started by former Daily News photographer Jim McMillan, who launched it in March.
McMillan said he grew tired of documenting the city’s crime epidemic, and decided to do what he could to help end it. While he admitted that a number of factors go into creating the problem, he said that too much time was lost in discussing them and not enough on just trying to get people to lay down their guns.
“We have to avoid getting paralyzed by the myriad of social problems and causes, and just say, ‘what if we stop shooting?’” he said.
The toll in lives is particularly heavy in the Black community. Statistically, urban Black men are 200 times more likely to be murdered then their white counterparts. According to the Philadelphia Police Department, from January 2007 until June, 645 Black males between the ages of 7 and 25 were murdered in Philadelphia.
But, it has an enormous cost for the entire city.
“This is a pressing issue for all of us — no matter what part of the city you live in,” said Jones.
According to figures unveiled Tuesday, the total cost of the city’s violent crime to each resident is about $2,400. A 10 percent reduction in crime would save the city $17 million a year, or $240 per resident. A 25 percent reduction would save approximately $44 million annually.
McMillan said he endorsed a concept that has worked in Chicago, where violent crime is treated like a public health epidemic — using the same three steps that health officials used when faced with a health crisis: isolation, interruption and behavior modification.
Council members said they were open to any possible solution.
“We’ve tried lots of things, unfortunately, nothing has worked yet,” Greenlee said. “I listen to the news every night and think ‘My God, there is another person in the city getting killed.’”
Finding a way to end the violence is vital.
“In order for us to for us to move forward as a city, we have to have a safe city,” said Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. “I’m here to make sure that as we move forward, we have a progressive and an aggressive agenda focusing on the issue of gun violence.”
Members of Philadelphia Muslim leadership are angry and disturbed by a spike of recent bank robberies and other crimes in which the suspects had the temerity to dress as Muslim women, fostering what they say is discrimination and disrespect.
On Tuesday April 24 a group of local Imams were joined by Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., and District Attorney Seth Williams in the City Council Caucus room at City Hall to announce a $20,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of anyone who commits a crime dressed as a Muslim woman.
“The Muslim leadership of Philadelphia, represented by the Majlis Ash’Shura, unequivocally condemns the men who committed these crimes while disguised as Muslim women,” said Imam Isa Abdul-Mateen, Secretary for Majlis Ash’Shura of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. “The Majlis Ash’Shura is announcing a $20,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of these men. Robbery and murder are abhorrent to the Muslim way of life. When criminals commit these acts disguised as our women they place them in danger of being stereotyped, victimized and ostracized by society. We regard this as discriminatory, and this is a hate crime against Muslims. Such cowardly, repugnant criminals are nothing but a plague in our community. We will work with all law enforcement agencies and citizens to remove this cancer from our streets.”
The announcement followed several recent crimes in which the suspects dressed in Muslim women’s attire; a deadly shooting inside an Upper Darby barbershop, and several bank robberies.
“This is a growing concern in our neighborhoods,” said City Councilman Curtis Jones. “In many ways I’m reminded of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, stereotyped because of a garment called a hoodie. The hoodie has become a symbol of fear for many Americans, and in Trayvon’s case, that fear was acted upon in a negative way. This concerns me because there is a lot of misunderstanding regarding Islam and the attire they wear. For cowards to dress as [Muslim] women and perpetrate a crime is absolutely wrong. The district attorney is very concerned about this; the Muslim community is deeply concerned. This places young women in a stereotype and puts them in danger when people view their attire — not for what it is, but as a tool to perpetrate a crime. We cannot stand for this.”
On March 20 just before 12:30 p.m., two suspects entered a Sovereign Bank branch office at 8310 Stenton Avenue dressed in female Muslim clothing. After presenting a threatening demand note, they fled the bank with an undisclosed amount of cash. The same suspects are believed to have hit a Wells Fargo Bank located at 700 Adams Avenue on April 4. In another unrelated incident on February 18, Sharif Wynn, 27, allegedly shot and killed 35-year-old Michael Turner inside his Upper Darby barbershop on Copley Road. Police say that on the day in question, Wynn allegedly dressed in female Muslim garb, went into the Modern Hair Designs barber shop at 8 Copley Road and demanded money. But once Turner handed over his money, Wynn allegedly opened fire and killed him. Investigators said the motive was a love triangle.
“We’re seeing all too often, cowards who dress in the traditional garb of Muslim women robbing banks and shooting people,” said District Attorney R. Seth Williams. “One of the defendants who participated in the robbery in which Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski was shot to death was wearing Muslim women’s clothing. We have to make sure that women aren’t degraded by this. Give us information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the cowards that dress as women in a way that helps them commit their evil crimes.”
Abdul Mateen said these recent criminal acts place a black mark on the Muslim community - a community that has already seen discrimination and fearful reprisals against Muslims, especially following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Ibrahim Hooper, National Communications Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said he’s also been following the reports of criminals wearing female Muslim attire and thinks the local leadership is handling the situation well. He said he is also concerned that these recent incidents only serve to enflame hatred against Muslims.
“Islamophobes love to see this sort of thing, because it gives them fuel to express their hatred,” Hooper said. “Now they can say, ‘See, this is why Muslim women shouldn’t dress the way they do.’ I think this offer of a reward is the right one in that it increases the likelihood that the criminals will get caught. Yes, this does serve to nurture discrimination — we’ve had reports of several situations where Muslim women were denied service because of the manner in which they dress. I think this is a commendable action, and I hope these men are quickly caught.”
On March 3, 2008 three men, two of them dressed as Muslim women robbed a bank in the city’s Port Richmond section. While trying to make their escape, Howard Cain, Eric DeShann Floyd and Levon Warner were intercepted by Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski, who was consequently killed, allegedly by Cain, who was also killed in an exchange of gunfire with police.
“I stand with the leaders of the Majlish Ash Shura in condemning such gutless actions by these individuals,” Jones said. “These crimes are in direct opposition to the Islamic way of life, and I hope these criminals are brought to justice as soon as possible.”
Queen Mother Falaka Fattah marked her 80th birthday with a special celebration.
Politicians, community and business leaders, and clergy turned out on Wednesday evening to celebrate the occasion at the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall.
Fattah and her husband David Fattah are known for founding the House of Umoja, a safe haven for gang members. Umoja was established in 1968, at a time when gang violence was claiming the lives of young Philadelphians.
During her birthday celebration, Fattah was lauded for impacting the lives of more than 3,000 young men who, at various points, lived at the house, located in the 1400 block of Frazier Street.
“She took it upon herself to take gang members off the street, invite them into her home and change their lives,” said Manwell Glenn, who served as the event’s master of ceremonies.
“People in life cause ripples. Everyone’s life causes a ripple. Queen Mother Falaka Fattah — your life has created tidal waves and tsunamis.”
Celebration host Councilman Curtis Jones said if it hadn’t been for Fattah, he would not have become a politician. Jones was one of the young men whose lives were touched by Fattah back during the early ’70s. He gave an overview of Fattah’s tactics in bringing peace between the city’s warring gangs.
“Today it is my job to acknowledge a living legend — a living legend who made a difference in the history of the city of Philadelphia,” said Jones.
Jones noted that in 1973, two-thirds of the homicides that occurred in Philadelphia were attributed to gang violence.
Flanked by his children, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah gave a tribute to his mother.
“We are here to thank this woman for what she’s done while she can smell the roses — while she can hear and see the appreciation of a grateful community,” said Fattah.
“We’re here to say happy birthday. It’s not so much about her birth, but more about her life,” said Fattah.
“We all are born, and we are all going to expire. It’s what is done with that dash in between that date of birth and the date of expiration. For these 80 years, this is a woman who did so much that we all have to just pause and say thank you.”
Mayor Michael Nutter was also on hand to acknowledge Fattah. He recalled the difficulties of navigating the streets of Philadelphia during the ’60s due to gang violence.
“It took a strong woman to have to stand in the middle of the street to tell these growing — getting stronger, getting bigger — young men to stop doing what they were doing, to calm things down. She was a stand up person then who saved lives — and she’s been a stand up person ever since,” said Nutter.
After thanking various individuals for assisting her over the years, Fattah took the occasion to highlight Umoja’s “Think Green Peace” initiative. Under the initiative, Umoja residents and volunteers have turned vacant lots near its West Philadelphia compound into thriving “peace gardens” of growing vegetables.
Fattah said the peace gardens are places where people can come to bury their grievances.
“This is what I see for the future — these gardens all over Philadelphia — burying grievances so that people don’t feel like they have to fight it out,” said Fattah.
During the celebration, City Council members Bill Green, Jannie Blackwell and Jones presented Fattah with a city citation.
The third day of Kwanzaa was also marked during the celebration. Guests were entertained with performances from singer Denise Tisdale and the Universal African Dancers and Drum Ensemble.
Despite the campaign finance scandal that’s broken over her head, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown seems secure in her leadership position on city council — for the moment.
Earlier this week the city’s Board of Ethics released a settlement agreement with Brown, in which she agreed to pay a record $48,834 fine for financial improprieties — including using campaign funds to repay a personal loan.
The embattled councilwoman — once considered a strong possible candidate for mayor — could be stripped of her leadership post by a vote of council. Published reports have suggested that her council colleagues are discussing the possibility.
But none would say so on the record.
“Not that I know of,” said council President Darrell Clarke, when asked Thursday if there was a movement afoot to remove her as majority whip, a post Clarke once held.
Majority Leader Curtis Jones was among those who declined, on Thursday, to speak on the matter publicly.
Earlier in the week, he told reporters that the Ethics Board report was not grounds to remove Brown.
“I don’t see where her leadership within council, as whip, which is defined as the ability to garner votes, being able to move legislation, is impacted by the findings of the board,” he said Tuesday.
Speaking off the record, another council member said that council might be spurred to action if the report resulted in any more allegations, criminal or civil charges.
Brown admitted that she used campaign funds to pay back a personal loan from Chaka Fattah Jr. — the son of U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah — using the money to stave off foreclosure after she fell behind in mortgage payments.
The news prompted almost immediate calls for her to resign from her council seat, and even spawned a website urging Philadelphians to recall her in a special election.
Speaking to reporters after Thursday’s council meeting, Brown said she did not have any indication that her colleagues intended to strip her of her post.
“No,” she replied tersely when pressed by reporters.
Council leaders were aware that she was the subject of an Ethics Board investigation, she said, adding that now everyone on council was aware.
Asked if she was concerned, Brown added, “I feel good that I will be measured on the totality of my work product. I feel good in knowing that consistently, in my 13 years here, I’ve made not good choices but very good choices. I feel good in knowing that I was very honest, I was very forthcoming [with the Ethics Board.]
She referred reporters with more questions back to a statement her office released Tuesday.
“I will do everything in my power to make amends,” she said in a statement released by her chief of staff David Forde.
In a statement, the councilwoman admitted to a number of “errors.”
“It is clear that there were a number of errors that occurred during the last campaign,” she said in the statement.” I take full responsibility for the conduct of my campaign and have taken corrective steps to ensure that future reporting is clear and accurate.”
The headline grabber was the loan from Fattah Jr. — known as Chip — which came in December 2010, just after Brown made a phone call to his congressman father seeking assistance in the effort to save her home. Shortly after the phone call, Fattah Jr. loaned Brown $3,300 — the final chunk of money she needed to stall bank action against her home. The loan was later repaid by the Friends of Blondell Reynolds Brown committee.
In campaign filings, the settlement found, Brown lied about the repayment, listing it as a payment for printing services. Additionally, the report noted that Fattah Jr. was employed by a for-profit school that relied on city council approval for its funding, which came through the school district. At the time, the school had a $4.5 million contract with the district.
“I … must take full responsibility for an error in judgment regarding the repayment of a loan, through campaign funds, for a personal matter,” Brown said in the statement. “I have subsequently made the Friends of Blondell Reynolds Brown whole through reimbursing that amount with my personal funds.”
Fattah Jr.’s phone number was no longer active. The congressman did not respond to requests for comment.
The loan from Fattah Jr. was not the only mistake Brown made.
Documents released by the Ethics Board — 25 pages in all — showed Brown’s campaign finance reports contained more than 170 “errors,” which the board broke down into 165 “material omissions” and six “material misstatements.”
A cursory accounting of the omissions and misstatements showed that Brown collected but failed to properly account for at least $46,600. She also inflated account balances for campaign accounts.
Among the omissions outlined by the settlement was a $4,000 donation from the Friends of Marian Tasco, and in the next reporting cycle a $4,000 debt to the Friends of Marian Tasco. A $2,500 gift from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was also on the list of donations that were not reported. Brown also failed to report a $150 donation from former SRC chairman Robert Archie and $250 from Evelyn Smalls, the president and CEO of United Bank.
The settlement, announced late Monday, also included a number of other incidents where Brown admitted to playing fast and loose with campaign funds. In several instances, she pocketed campaign contributions; in others, her campaign took amounts over the legal limit from a campaign related political action committee.
In one example, Brown took a signed, blank check from entrepreneur Sid Booker, then made it out for a $1,000 and deposited it in her personal bank account. Similar incidents, where Brown took campaign money and put it in her personal account, happened on four different occasions netting her $1,400.
Ethics officials noted that Brown voluntarily disclosed some of the transactions.
The report has already resulted in the firing of one city employee named in the settlement documents. John D. McDaniel was fired Tuesday from his job at the airport, where he was employed as an assistant director with a salary of more than $87,000. In 2010, he was Brown’s campaign manager.
McDaniel had also worked for Mayor Michael Nutter, who, after firing him, issued this statement.
“I have known John McDaniel for a long time, and certainly I’m disappointed by his actions and admissions as outlined in the Ethics Board report,” said the mayor. “The dismissal was “imperative to ensure the integrity of our government and our personnel,” he said.
As Philadelphia’s murder rate soars, officials are grappling with ways to contain the violence, which has claimed more than 300 lives this year.
“How come as a city we are not in an outrage?” asked Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who this week held a roundtable to discuss ways to end the problem. “We have to get to a level of activism that we take back the city.”
The event, held Wednesday at city hall, drew participants from local universities and hospitals who couched talk of the epidemic of violence in terms of public health. In addition to Johnson, council members Curtis Jones and Dennis O’Brien also attended.
This year, 316 people have been murdered, putting the city on track to break previous records. Murder is only one measure of violence. According to Ralph Taylor, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, for every one murder, there are 94 other incidents of violence, a fact that pushes violence in Philadelphia to epidemic levels.
The vast majority of those incidents involve African Americans.
“If you take it in context, all of the African Americans killed by other African Americans - it is more than all of the lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan in the history of the organization,” said Jones.
Experts gathered around the table agreed that the solution to the problem lies in the community.
Violence begets violence, creating a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself.
“Exposure to violence and stress and trauma has an effect,” said John Rich, chair of health management and policy at Drexel University’s School of Public Health.
People who are repeatedly exposed to violence often exhibit symptoms similar to those of soldiers in war. In reaction, they get jittery, often begin self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, and they arm themselves because they don’t feel safe.
“They develop many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Rich said.
The cycle will only continue as long as children are exposed to violence.
“Philadelphians will not be safe until their children are safe,” he said.
While lauding Johnson for hosting the event, Charles Williams, a psychologist from Drexel, said the problem cannot be legislated or policed away.
The epidemic will end only when the community steps up, children realize they have a future, and the city’s leaders get serious about solving the problem.
“Politicians need to say ‘We can’t do this alone. It’s 50/50. You have to meet us half way,” said Williams. “What we have to do is be honest with the community.”
That is often politically unpleasant.
Williams pointed to the fact that Philadelphia has more Black leaders than most other cities in the country, yet deep rooted problems in the African-American community persist.
“We have the highest dropout rate, the highest crime rate, one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates, one of the highest teen pregnancy rates,” he said.
This week’s roundtable was part of a larger effort spearheaded by Johnson that includes monthly gatherings where he, other council members and people from the community can exchange ideas.
POWER — Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild — is determined to be plugged in to the $6 billion expansion project at Philadelphia International Airport.
And after the second of four meetings in June — with the third one scheduled for 6:45 p.m. Monday, June 18 at St. Raymond’s Catholic Church, 1350 W. Vernon Road — it’s equally apparent that elected officials are coming on board in support of POWER’s push.
POWER’s concern is that qualified minority workers will be overlooked when the more than 100,000 temporary and permanent positions open up in construction and orbiting services. The multi-billion dollar project is estimated to inject millions into the local economy over the next several decades; the expansion project itself could take 15 years to complete.
Despite opposition from United Airways and a handful of residents in Tinicum Township, Pennsylvania, the expansion project is well underway, as the city has selected the firms that will manage the logistics of the project. So there’s no time better than now to ramp up support from the community and local elected officials, POWER organizers say.
Arch Street United Methodist’s Reverend Robin Hynicka, long at the forefront of POWER’s push, said minority and economically-challenged qualified workers haven’t benefited from the array of construction jobs that have popped up downtown, saying that while these companies were able to take advantage of tax breaks, the community didn’t benefit from the jobs these work sites created.
“We must change this,” said Hynicka during a recent rally and information session at Congregation Rodeph Shalom. “As people of faith — as a city — we can no longer subsidize projects that don’t put our neighbors back to work.”
Philadelphia City Councilmen Kenyatta Johnson and Curtis Jones have supported POWER since the beginning; fellow Councilmen William Green and Mark Squilla also voiced their support for POWER’s agenda, saying they would commit publicly to working with the coalition.
POWER laid out its set of economic justice principles at its latest meeting, which include first-source hiring so that the city’s unemployed have a fair shot at landing a job; providing resources for creating an enhanced training and recruitment model; and an increase in minority participation in trade apprenticeship programs.
“The Philadelphia Airport is our biggest economic engine,” said POWER organizer and Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir/Heart of The City Rabbi Julie Greenberg. “Using that engine to address city poverty and unemployment only makes sense. Local hiring requirements at the airport can serve as a model for other large, subsidized projects in our city.”
POWER seems to be partly motivated by a similar campaign in Los Angeles. There, community organizers were able to broker the Community Benefits Agreement between the Los Angeles faith-based coalition and the city’s airport and municipal leadership. The community, City of Los Angeles and LAX agreement came in 2004, when all parties entered a legally binding agreement that addressed the $11 billion airport renovation plan there. The community coalition was granted several conditions due to the agreement, including $15 million for airport job training, establishing a firm to oversee local hiring, soundproofing area schools and residences and increasing opportunities for minority and women in the actual modernization of LAX.
“The win-win of public support for the Los Angeles Airport — in exchange for meaningful local hiring and training systems, and living wage provisions — is a model for Philadelphia,” said Reverend Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church.
In making multiple visits to Philadelphia, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has shown he isn’t afraid to take the fight deep inside a longtime Democratic stronghold. And Romney’s campaign is attacking President Barack Obama’s stance on the one issue most critical to the majority of Philadelphians: public education.
Romney visited Guion S. Bluford Elementary School in West Philadelphia — a Renaissance School matched with a “turnaround” team led by Universal Companies and its founder, Kenny Gamble — on Thursday. In declaring that African-American schools need more money, Romney ripped a page from Obama’s playbook by bringing the conversation to the group of people affected the most.
The Republican presidential candidate visited the school a day after declaring education is the “civil rights issue of our era.”
Romney repeated that declaration during the school visit, but struggled to defend his view that class sizes aren’t a major factor in educational success. Local African-American leaders also said his push for more two-parent families isn’t realistic in their community.
As of press time, officials with Universal haven’t returned calls seeking comment. The School District of Philadelphia also wasn’t aware of Romney’s visit. Bluford sits in City Councilman Curtis Jones’ 4th district, and during Thursday’s Council meeting, Jones voiced his displeasure at both Romney’s low-key visit, and the presidential hopeful’s stance on education.
“Unbeknownst to many people [Romney] was here this morning at Bluford Elementary school where he was espousing his ‘class sizes don’t matter’ and everybody knows, even internally, size matters — class sizes,” Jones said, thanking his Republican colleagues on council for not meeting up with the former Massachusetts governor.
Jones said he only became aware of Romney’s visit through an update on KWY newsradio. Mayor Michael Nutter and District Attorney Seth Williams joined a rally outside of Bluford, condemning Romney’s stances — and for creeping quietly into Philadelphia.
In advance of his visit, Romney and his election campaign have simultaneously attacked Obama’s stance as elitist while urging districts to do away teacher unions.
“You know, President Obama likes to talk about how he’s for the underprivileged, but when it comes to the money that comes from the teachers union, he’s putting that campaign cash ahead of the needs of our kids. We have to recognize it’s time to put kids first, to get education on track by giving people greater choice in schools, by making sure we reward the very best teachers with great careers and rising income,” Romney said via a statement released by his campaign. “We know what to do to make our schools better.”
Those remarks mirror what Romney recently told Fox News’ Stave Doocy. When asked about the president’s education agenda, Romney wasted little time in going into attack mode, pointing to a Washington, D.C., school choice program that Romney claims Obama and the teachers union shuttled.
“We have a teachers’ union that too often stands in the way of the kind of reforms that would make education work. We know, for instance, in Washington, D.C., that school choice there helped immeasurably with young people - improving their quality of learning and their skills, and yet the President shut down the program,” Romney said on the news program. “We’ve got to put the unions behind, and put the kids first.”
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan assailed the notion that teacher unions are standing in the way of school reform. Jordan noted that the PFT has sacrificed and produced several rounds of givebacks during recent contract discussions. Jordan said there are other factors in union negotiations that either Romney doesn’t know about or fails to acknowledge.
“We have consistently [partnered with the district on cuts] and I would defy anyone from the board who suggests we haven’t been very effective in working with the district to keep health care costs as low as they can possibly be through negotiations,” Jordan said, during a recent editorial board meeting at The Tribune. “That’s a reality that all organizations have to build in; you shouldn’t ask people to work and not have health care.”
Lis Smith, a spokeswoman with President Obama’s reelection campaign, quickly responded to Romney’s visit to Philadelphia — and to the assertions Romney made; striking at Romney’s often-criticized business models and asking if the presidential hopeful will apply the same tactics to education as he did while at Bain Capital.
“When he’s in Philadelphia today, will Mitt Romney tell the truth about how he wants to apply Romney Economics to education? As we’ve seen throughout Mitt Romney’s career in both the private and public sectors, Romney Economics is all about the short term,” Smith said via a statement released by the Obama reelection campaign. “We’ve already seen what Romney Economics meant for Massachusetts students — larger class sizes, a de-emphasis on critical early education, teachers laid off, and in one year alone, the second-largest per-pupil cuts in the nation … these aren’t the priorities Americans want in our President.”
Tribune staff writer Eric Mayes and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
City Council’s unease with the Actual Value Initiative — the shift from property taxes based on partial values to one based on full market values — was apparent this week during budget hearings.
A number of members are concerned that the shift, which was supposed to be revenue neutral, is actually a tax increase.
“You need to address the outstanding questions as relates to the math of this on the issue of whether or not we are asking the public for a tax increase,” said Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. on Wednesday morning as he summed up concerns about AVI.
Jones was just one member of Council who peppered Finance Director Rob Dubow and Budget Director Rebecca Rhynhart with questions and comments over several days this week as Council dug into Mayor Michael Nutter’s $3.6 billion budget proposal.
The administration’s budget numbers show that the move to AVI would provide an additional $90 million in funding for the school district this year, for a total of $673 million. The city, which splits property tax revenue with the district, would collect $458 million, roughly the same amount it collected last year.
Administration officials have avoided calling that extra revenue a tax increase, and instead say it represents the amount captured by increasing property values, which have risen since the city froze assessments in 2010.
But council members, who now appear to be fielding more questions from angry constituents, are nervous.
“This AVI issue is probably going to be the most difficult and angry issue that we’re facing — maybe since I came into council in ’92,” said Councilman Jim Kenney. “I can’t yet find a justification for explaining to people that I represent, citywide, why the additional $90 million makes sense.”
Kenney, like many of his colleagues, voted for property tax increases in several recent budget cycles, and said this week he supports funding for public schools. But, noting that in testimony Monday School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos said previous school administrations were guilty of “bad fiscal policy,” Kenney added that he wanted a better idea of how the district would spend the additional money.
His questions and comments suggested that council might feel more comfortable if revenue figures were changed to eliminate the added $90 million for the district.
“Would you agree with me, subjectively, that with the $90 million off the table it would be difficult for people to argue that this is fact a tax increase?” he asked Dubow, who declined to “get into whether it’s a tax increase.”
Dubow then added that he was sure the district was aware that it would need to justify the added money.
Last year council approved a 3.9 percent property tax increase after school officials, led by former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, said if it didn’t the district would be forced to get rid of full-day kindergarten and yellow buses.
“We were spun,” said Jones, agreeing with Kenney that he would need to know where any additional money was being spent.
Council members are also concerned about how the administration plans to roll out AVI.
The mayor wants to see it done this year. Under the administration’s plan, residents will receive their new assessments in October, and bills based on the new numbers in December.
That concerns council members who are being asked to make decisions based on budget numbers that could change as residents challenge tax bills through city appeals and maybe even court challenges.
“If we for some reason go forward and find out what we’re doing here, the formulation, the method is not legal … and all those appeals are granted we’d collect less revenue, correct?” asked Councilman Mark Squilla.
Dubow said the city had factored greater appeals, losses and lower collections when drawing up the budget.
“We’re assuming that goes up substantially,” he said.
At last week’s city council meeting, Squilla emerged as one of the prime opponents of AVI after he introduced legislation that would freeze property tax millage rates and assessments at current levels.
Squilla also raised concerns about a portion of the city’s AVI plan that would create a $15,000 exemption for residents’ primary residence. That portion of the plan needs approval by the state legislature before it can be enacted.
“We’re still at a point where we cannot give the public real information because we don’t know everything that is going to happen,” said Squilla.
Two bills — one that requires energy benchmarking and another that requires ten-year batteries in fire alarms — were signed into law by Mayor Michael Nutter this week.
The first, which required public buildings to benchmark and report energy and water usage, was touted as a way to improve efficiency.
“Energy benchmarking and disclosure will encourage people and organizations to think how to be more energy efficient and present opportunities for improvement in energy management,” said Nutter said as he signed the bill into law.
The bill amended the ‘Energy Conservation’ portion of The Philadelphia Code, requiring large commercial buildings to benchmark and report energy and water usage data. City officials hope the bill will force owners to be more aware of their energy use and to find ways to improve efficiency. According to a statement from Nutter’s office, “Building owners will need to benchmark their buildings using Energy Start Portfolio Manager and report the results to the city beginning in 2013.”
The information will be made public in 2014.
The Mayor’s Office of Sustainability will issue regulations this fall and begin doing outreach and education in the winter and spring.
The bill was sponsored by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who was present at the signing.
“Energy benchmarking will provide the critical information and data necessary to make Philadelphia a more energy efficient city,” she said. “Inevitably, we will hand over the keys to this planet to our children and grandchildren. I join the Mayor in making sure that to the best of our ability, we hand them a more sustainable and healthier planet to grow and prosper.”
The second bill changed the city’s Fire Code, requiring smoke alarms in one- and two-family buildings to have 10-year, non-removable batteries.
Smoke alarms are required on each level of a dwelling, including the basement. On the floors with one or more bedrooms, the smoke alarm for that floor is required to be installed in the immediate vicinity of the bedrooms
One- and two-family dwellings built on or after January 1, 1988, and apartment dwelling units, are not affected as those dwellings are required to have hard-wired smoke alarms.
The law will go into effect Jan. 9, 2013.
“This measure will make the job of the Philadelphia Fire Department – ensuring the safety of our homes and businesses – that much easier. Tragedies can be prevented when working smoke alarms are present,” said Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers. “Ten-year, lithium battery-powered smoke alarms provide our citizens with a longer period of Optimum Fire Protection and Community Risk Reduction.”
Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., who sponsored the bill in council lauded the its becoming law.
“With this bill fire safety is no longer obsolete,” he said. “No longer is the reminder change the clock; change the battery relevant.”