City Councilman James Kenney is one step closer to realizing his mission of screening “Bully” to middle-school students in the Philadelphia School District.
Now that the Motion Picture Alliance of America has lowered the film’s rating from “R” to “Unrated,” it allows the district to contemplate the screening. Toward that end, a group of administrators and teachers attended Monday’s night’s screening in order to form their own opinions on the value of the movie.
“There are 50 seats the district will take advantage of, and administrators, counselors and teachers will see it first. Then we will see what they have to say,” said district spokesman Fernando Gallard, noting that this is the first time district officials have formally screened the film, and there will be at least one more screening for district officials before any decisions can be made. “There is a lot of interest in the movie, and after we’ve seen it, we’ll take the next step.”
The controversial film, created by the Weinstein Company and recently opened nationwide, follows the lives of several bullies, their victims and involved families for an entire academic year, bringing into stark contrast not only the damage bullies inflict, but the on the causes and effects of nefarious activity.
The MPAA takes the ratings process seriously, and wouldn’t have changed it had the filmmakers not altered the film; but when the Weinstein Company released an edited version of the film, the MPAA decided to review the film.
“Per the standard rating process available to all filmmakers, The Weinstein Company decided to resubmit a new, edited version of Bully to be rated, and the ratings board gave this new version of the film a PG-13 rating for intense thematic material, disturbing content, and some strong language – all involving kids,” said Joan Graves, chairwoman of the Classification and Ratings Administration. “In the case of ‘Bully,’ the ratings system has worked exactly as it is supposed to: parents have been kept informed of the content of each version of the film, and they have been given the information they need to make movie-going decisions on behalf of their kids.”
Kenney, an At-Large Councilman, has been a proponent of screening the film for area students, and has embarked on a relentless campaign to both convince the MPAA to lower the film’s rating, and get the school district to screen it. Concurrently, Kenney has also raised considerable funds to cover the tickets and transportation for the students, should the district allow it. And although pleased with the MPAA’s reversal, Kenney knows there’s still more to do.
“Well, we are continuing to raise money to get as many kids and administrators to the theatre, and we are working with [Safe Schools Advocate] Kelly Hodge and [School Reform Commission Chairman] Pedro Ramos to get everything necessary” for the potential green-light from the district, Kenney said. “I am very optimistic, but we need to continue our efforts to affect as many people as possible with this movie.”
Getting the ratings change is just one of the tumblers that had to fall in place to make this screening a reality, officials said. “Bully” is a commercial release, meaning students would have to get bussed to the theatre and pay for tickets. Part of the decision includes whether or not to make students and their families bear the financial burden of the trip, or if the district will absorb the hit.
Kenney has raised more than $10,000 so far to help with the logistics, so if the district does take a hit, it won’t be a deal-breaking one.
“Councilman Kenney has been very helpful,” Gallard said. “Now we are looking for the best way to take advantage of the great offer and support the councilman has given us.”
Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers was feeling the heat this week as City Council’s Committee on Labor and Civil Service took him to task for a new plan to deploy firefighters in five-year rotations — a plan loudly opposed by the union.
“You will hear from many people today about why we shouldn’t do this,” said Ayers in his testimony. “I remind you that there are many more you won’t hear from today, but I certainly hear from them and they have been looking for this opportunity.”
Several members of Council — all of whom expressed their displeasure with the new plan from Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration — grilled Ayers for well over an hour Tuesday morning.
Administration officials announced the plan on Nov. 1 and it immediately caused an outcry from firefighters. Scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, it re-deploys 293 senior firefighters — those with 10 or more years of service — putting them into a five-year rotation, forcing them to work at firehouses across the city rather than the ones where they’ve spent the majority of their careers.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Bill Gault, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 22, told reporters at recent press conference. He did not testify Tuesday.
Gault has called the plan “vindictive” and said it would lead to unnecessary deaths. “Firefighting is a team game. Don’t break up the team. It’s a recipe for disaster. People will die. Fireman will die.”
A couple hundred firefighters packed the chamber Tuesday, punctuating the proceedings with shouted commentary and occasionally interrupting Ayers’ testimony. The commissioner refused to speak over the commotion, sitting stony faced until committee Chair Jim Kenney either waited out the noise, or brought the crowd back to order.
But the fiercest opposition came from members of the committee, who pressed Ayers relentlessly about the re-deployment plan.
“None of this makes any sense,” Kenney told Ayers.
Each member of council who spoke disapproved of the plan – largely echoing union objections. One also questioned the administration’s motives in implementing the re-deployment plan. Some have suggested that the plan is part of an administration effort to weaken the union.
“It’s being put into place to break that down,” said Councilman Mark Squilla.
Department commanders contend the plan is needed to increase the experience of firefighters by exposing them to a variety of settings and neighborhoods. Ayers acknowledged the union’s objections, but accused members of fear mongering to get their way.
“Change brings angst, but sometimes people need to know what to let go of,” he said. “The union has tried to scare the city of Philadelphia, our residents, into thinking that they are less safe.”
Local 22 has been feuding with the Nutter administration since 2008.
Twice an arbitrator has granted firefighters a contract, and twice the administration has appealed it. Last week a Common Pleas Court threw out the latest appeal by the administration, but insiders suggest that another appeal is likely.
Kenney blasted the mayor for the standoff over a contract.
“This is not necessarily directed at you,” Kenney said to Ayers. “But, some of the things people do in frustration – when over a five year period they are treated totally disrespectfully in every aspect of the employer/employee relationship. When what we have in this state is binding arbitration for uniformed employees who cannot strike and it,s appealed, and appealed, and appealed and appealed and going to probably be appealed again. You expect people to want to come to work in a cheerful manner when they’re treated so disrespectfully?”
He noted that contract negotiations with police have not been the same.
“This has been a tooth pull from the beginning,” Kenney said.
Ultimately, Council has little real authority in the matter, though members’ opposition to the plan does ratchet up the political pressure on the mayor.
Proposal calls for $2000 fine, vehicles destroyed
Of all the bills and resolutions passed during this week’s Council sessions, the one which spells out the criminality and enforcement of all-terrain vehicles on city streets may have the most immediate impact on residents’ quality of life.
The bill, introduced by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown on behalf of the Nutter Administration, restricts riders from operating, stopping, parking or idling on public pathways and parks.
The bill also authorizes Philadelphia Police to confiscate the vehicles, and assess its driver a whopping fine of $2,000. Once confiscated, the illegal vehicles will either be destroyed or otherwise disposed of, and the bill will make it virtually impossible for these vehicles to return to Philadelphia streets.
“The bill is in response to what many of my colleagues will tell you is the number one complaint from constituents — the illegal riding of ATVs throughout the streets and neighborhoods of Philadelphia. My office has spent the summer speaking with a host of stakeholders — including the police, the Nutter Administration, community leaders and ordinary citizens who have been impacted from all angles on the issue,” Brown said. “There is no silver bullet answer that will alleviate the concerns of those who seek to ride ATVs and those who are put in harm’s way by the activity.
“This is step one, the first in a series of proposals that must occur in order for us to get a handle on this complicated and multi-layered issue.”
Brown cited data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which found that 521 ATV-related deaths occurred between 1982 and 2010. Of those, 105 were juveniles under the age of 16.
Philadelphia Deputy Mayor for Environmental and Community Resources Michael DiBerardinis voiced his pleasure with the bill in a statement released in conjunction with the legislation.
“ATVs are a public safety threat that cause significant damage to our city’s parks and recreation centers. These illegal vehicles prohibit the majority of children, youth and families from enjoying these spaces in the manner for which they were intended,” DiBerardinis said. “This legislation is another viable tool to help us protect our city’s treasured public spaces.”
While perhaps not as urgent as Brown’s legislation, Councilman James Kenney has altered one of his bills.
Kenney previously introduced a measure that would require the police to ticket an illegally parked car before a private towing company could remove it. Sensing that his legislation would add additional stress to an already overworked police department, Kenney’s legislation now calls for tow-truck operators to first take a picture of the illegally parked vehicle before towing. The idea is that a picture will go a long way toward vindicating either the tow truck company or the individual driver, should the owner of the towed car contest the matter in court.
City Council also passed several other resolutions, including an ordinance to amend The Philadelphia Code, which allows for increased transparency and for other pertinent information to be included in the Finance Director’s annual report, along with a Councilman Kenyatta Johnson-authored resolution that calls for Governor Tom Corbett to immediately address the state’s transportation needs by fast-tracking the implementation of several cost-saving measures included in Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Report of 2011.
The only withdrawn resolution was the Councilman Mark Squilla-sponsored ordinance that would amend a portion of The Philadelphia Code, which would provide a new tax and establish a tax rate on real estate. Squilla’s plan would also allow the School District of Philadelphia to impose its own tax on real estate within the city.
Labor committee to hold fire safety hearings
As its spring session winds down, City Council on Thursday tackled a variety of issues from authorizing hearings on the recent deaths of two firefighters to approving plans for a trash-to-energy plant.
Council met to begin clearing its calendar as it prepares to recess for the summer. As it dealt with a number of items, a much larger one — the Added Value Initiative property assessment — was also on the agenda Thursday. The last scheduled meeting for this session is June 21.
Members unanimously agreed that the Labor Committee should hold fire safety and administration hearings in the wake of the deaths of firefighters Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney, who died in April while battling a warehouse fire in Kensington.
“The hearings are intended to help prevent future tragedies,” said Councilman Jim Kenney, who proposed the hearings.
“It’s not necessarily to cast blame on anyone, but to review all the information … so we can prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again,” said Kenney.
Neary and Sweeney, both members of Engine 10, Ladder 7, died April 9 while battling a five-alarm fire at an abandoned warehouse at York and Jasper streets.
They were the first firefighters to die in the line of duty in the city in six years.
Also at Thursday’s Council meeting, opposition emerged to plans to build a plant that will produce energy in the form of fuel pellets made from the city’s garbage.
Citing concerns that the plant would simply burn more trash than it would turn into fuel pellets, Brady Russell, with Clear Water Action, asked Council to delay a vote for two months.
“The contracts were never reviewed by the solid waste review committee,” Russell said, reeling off a list of concerns that centered on fears that the plant would burn most of the waste. “From the green perspective, it’s only greener if the green you’re talking about is money.”
The cost to incinerate is less that landfilling, he said, but more harmful to the environment.
“In terms of global warming, it does more harm on balance,” Russell said.
The local Sierra Club also objected to plans for the plant.
Plans are to build the $22 million plant this summer in the Northeast. It will harvest recyclables from the city’s 143,000 tons of trash, then turn the remaining solids into fuel pellets that can replace coal at chemical manufacturing plants, cement kilns and electric generation plants.
Despite the protest, Council approved two bills giving contracts worth $256 million over the next four years to Waste Management and Covanta 4 Recovery for hauling and getting rid of the city’s trash. According to Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson, the two contracts would save the city about $7 million a year. In addition, she projected that the plant would generate about $1.25 million annually in tax revenue.
Council also heard from City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, who asked members to approve raises for poll workers. Council authorized hearings on how poll workers are paid.
Singer told Council that Philadelphia’s polls workers’ pay was equal to those in Memphis. She asked that Council raise their pay to prevailing wage.
“Our poll workers are defending democracy,” she said. “We ask a lot of them, and they have an added responsibility — in November they will have to enforce the voter ID law … It’s a big election. And, we expect there will be a lot attention on Philadelphia and how we conduct our elections.”
Alleged cop slayer freed 10 days before shooting
Taking a look at the state Board of Probation and Parole, City Council will hold hearings on the board’s practices and procedures, in a move approved this week by Council.
“I fear for the public safety of our city,” Councilman Dennis O’Brien who proposed the hearings, citing the murder of police officer Moses Walker Jr., who was shot and killed on Aug. 18. “We should look at all of the board’s policies and unwritten rules of practice.”
Walker’s alleged killer, Rafael Jones, had been released from prison just 10 days before the murder. He was apparently freed on “special probation.”
A state investigation into the matter led to the firing of three employees late last month. A board spokesperson said at the time that the investigation has resulted in changes to board procedures.
O’Brien remained unconvinced.
Walker’s “alleged killer should have been an wearing electronic monitoring device, but was never fitted for one. The alleged killer should have been arrested after failing a court ordered drug test, but remained free on the streets,” O’Brien said.
The councilman worried that board officials were more concerned with lowering the recidivism numbers and coping with prison overcrowding than with public safety.
“I fear the numbers are driving this issue … dictating policy,” he said.
Prodding the U.S. lawmakers to take action to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” Council approved a resolution introduced by W. Wilson Goode Jr., urging Congress and the president to end the Bush tax cuts, preserve Social Security and Medicare and boost education and infrastructure spending.
“This is a national issue that demands a local voice,” Goode said. “Because, it will have local consequences.”
Members voted on a number of measures as they prepared for their winter recess. The last meeting of the fall session is Dec. 13.
Council also unanimously agreed to hold hearings looking into a school district plan to close 46 schools. The education committee, led by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell will hold the hearings, which have not yet been scheduled.
Hearings will also be held to look into the possibility of a city partnership with a nonprofit in operating a casino. Councilman Kenyatta Johnson called the hearings to examine the “feasibility and legality” of the idea, which he called an “extraordinary opportunity.”
The Nutter administration contends the idea is illegal.
In a preview of next week’s meeting, Blackwell and Councilman David Oh got into a squabble over his proposal that would penalize skateboarders and bikers for intentionally damaging public monuments, memorials or works of art.
Though Council is not expected to vote on the bill until next week, Oh proposed an amendment that would lower the fine he first proposed two months ago.
Oh introduced the administration bill in October, but it was tabled after Blackwell objected. In its original form, it would have imposed a $75 fine or arrest for anyone vandalizing or destroying public or private memorials or artwork. It also gave judges the authority to impose fines up to $2,000 and 90 days in jail for repeat offenders. In the amendment that sparked this week’s debate, Oh suggested lowering the maximum fine to $1,000.
The move did not sway Blackwell.
Finally, Council backed a resolution urging the administration to delay implementation of a controversial plan to put firefighters on five-year rotations to companies across the city. Councilman Jim Kenney drafted the resolution which was backed by the entire council.
Kenney recently convened hearings on the re-deployment, which is wildly unpopular with the city’s firefighters’ union. At Thursday’s meeting, he said the idea “needs further conversation.”
Administration officials plan to begin re-deployments on Jan. 1.
Council withdraws bill that would have imposed fines, jail time
Like a pedestrian in Love Park, a group of skateboarders knocked down a proposal that would impose fines as high as $2,000 and a 90-day jail sentence for individuals who deface or damage public property, memorials or art, at City Council’s meeting on Thursday.
“It turns our kids into criminals — not for doing drugs, or engaging in violent crime, but rather for participating in an athletic and productive activity, something that enhances one’s health and well-being,” said Robert Williams, owner of Exit Skate Shop in the Northern Liberties, who led the charge in council chambers.
He was one of a group of seven skateboarders who appealed to Council to strike down the proposal, arguing that the penalties were too severe and that the definitions included in the bill were too vague. Williams argued that the bill did not define what made a work of art, or even what a public structure was. That left skateboarders vulnerable to improper arrest, he said.
“The ability to determine what is or what isn’t art, publicly accessible or private owned is not a learned ability. And, the children of the city, some of which are skateboarders, have not naturally developed this ability and also, quite frankly, I believe that the arresting officers have not either,” he said. “They are not qualified to determine what is or what isn’t art.”
The bill was an administration proposal introduced on the mayor’s behalf by Councilman David Oh, who defended the concept — but after requests from Council members Jannie Blackwell and Bill Green, quickly agreed to hold the proposal.
It would impose a $75 fine or arrest for anyone vandalizing or destroying public or private memorials or artwork. It also gave judges the authority to impose fines up to $2,000 and 90 days in jail. Though Oh said the bill was not limited to penalizing skateboarders, opponents said they felt singled out.
“No one is trying to prevent people from skateboarding or doing health activities,” Oh said. “But there is what we understand to be scared ground.”
He urged skateboarders to “police themselves” and use more common sense and good manners when skateboarding.
Blackwell, largely echoing the objections of skateboarders, opposed the bill in committee and said she could not support it if it came up for a vote. She objected to the fact that the proposal did not make the posting of no skateboarding signs part of the law, and that many of the terms in the bill were not adequately defined. She added that the city already has a law against defacement of public property that includes a $300 fine.
“Nowhere are we talking about that,” she said. “What we have done with this legislation is talk about imprisoning people for 90 days. We’re talking about raising the fine to $2,000. Certainly skateboarders are picked on and singled out.”
She said that she might support some sort of similar bill.
Green said he was swayed by several of the skateboarders’ points during the public comment period.
In agreeing to hold the bill, Oh said he thought it wise to “make it more clear” and urged skateboarders and other interested parties to give council their point of view.
The instant response by Oh was unique in council annals. And, at the behest of Councilman Jim Kenney, who quipped that it was the first time “something happened during the public comment period,” the item was placed on what’s called the suspended calendar making it off limits to further public comment during Council meetings. That spares Council members for having to hear about the issue over several successive weeks until the bill can be re-worded and again brought up for a vote.
Council’s public comment period is about a year old and something that members opposed, but were forced to adopt after a court ruled that the public must be allowed to address members.
In other news, Council approved the creation of a banking review committee, which would allow members to examine the lending practices of the banks it does business with in an effort to end “banking disparities.”
The move was suggested by Councilman W. Wilson Goode and praised by several groups that urged the city to go a step further and create a public bank.
Goode said committee will aid Council in enforcing another of his proposals, now law, the Fair Lending and Community Reinvestment Ordinance, which requires city depository banks to annually submit goals for lending in low and moderate-income communities, as well as a long-term strategic plan to address any lending disparities disclosed in an annual study.
“City Council has the authority to designate city depositories and fairly broad power to place conditions on such depositories,” he said.
When trying to convince the School District of Philadelphia to screen a controversial movie to its students, it pays to have an advocate on your side — especially when that person is Kelly Hodge, the recently installed Safe Schools Advocate.
Councilman Jim Kenney — the primary force behind the effort to have the film “Bully” shown to middle school pupils — made a wise decision to include Hodge.
“I was invited to join this small working group that Kenney put together to try to share this movie with as wide an audience as possible. And from where I’m sitting, no one could say this movie is not an important subject matter,” Hodge said. “It deals with the issue of bullying in school districts around the country.”
“Bully,” directed by award-winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch and opening at the end of the month in New York City and Los Angeles, follows the lives of several students who were bullied (or were doing the bullying) for an entire school year, and brings in to stark reality the toll such behavior takes on the victim, the aggressor and their families.
But the movie, given its authentic subject matter and no-punches-pulled language, has received an “R” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, precluding it from being considered by the district, spokesman Fernando Gallard said. Specifically, the “f-word” is used five times in “Bully,” landing the movie its “R” rating.
Still, for those who have seen the movie and support Kenney’s initiative, the utterance of a long-common curse word shouldn’t be the mitigating factor in this movie not being shown.
“ I saw it in its entirety. It’s very compelling and provides insight into what goes on with the students and how they feel, and how their parents feel,” said Hodge, both a former assistant district attorney in the juvenile division and a public defender. “You really can’t put it into words until you see it. I was happily surprised to see how the adults — teachers, administrators and other grownups — react when [bullying] is brought to their attention.”
But it won’t be brought to the attention of Philly’s school-aged youth if advocates can’t get the rating changed.
Kenney is doing everything in his power to have the movie screened — and to get the rating changed. To accomplish that, Kenney has set up petitions on Change.org and also posts regular updates through his Facebook page.
Kenney has also raised considerable funds to be used to pay for the showing if the R-rating is downgraded, sparing another expense for the cash-strapped district.
“We raised $10,000 from the Philadelphia Beverage Association,” Kenney said. “All it took was one ask, and they have responded very positively. It has also given us more credibility with other groups, so we shouldn’t have any trouble” raising enough money to cover the screening.
Kenney will join Hodge and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown — co-chair of council’s education committee and a strong supporter of this movement — for a special screening tomorrow, followed by a brief question-and-answer session.
Reynolds Brown recently acknowledged “Bully” has an uphill slough given its rating, but believes it to be a worthwhile film with a timely, paramount message.
“The over-arching purpose absolutely outweighs five words,” Reynolds Brown said. “Given the purpose and audience we’re trying to attract and inspire to not engage in this ugly activity, it does outweigh those words — and I fully stand by Councilman Kenney.”
Unanimous resolution opposes deadline on homeowner protection
City Council this week called on court officials to preserve the city’s Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program, rather than enact a proposed change that would cut the time frame residents and banks have to hammer out alternatives to foreclosure.
“We really believe it’s going to cost a lot of people their homes,” said John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, who urged council to approve the measure, which council unanimously did.
The program, which gives banks and homeowners a chance to reach a deal before foreclosure proceeds, has been heralded as a national model.
First Judicial District Administrative Judge John W. Herron wants to cut the time for mediation to 150 days. According to Dodds, the change could go into effect as soon as May.
Under current rules, there is no time limit — and Dodds worried that a time limit favors banks who can simply do nothing until the limit is reached and then foreclose.
“The problem is that banks do not have their act together at all,” Dodds said. “All the bank has to do is do nothing — then the family goes right out the door.”
More than 5,000 Philadelphia families have saved their homes through the diversion program since its inception.
Council members said it should remain untouched.
“It is not time to end the mortgage diversion program,” said Councilwoman Marian Tasco. “It is a national model. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Herron could not be reached for comment.
The move comes as the Philadelphia metropolitan area faces a significant increase in foreclosures.
Two weeks ago, a report by RealTrac found that the number of foreclosures jumped to a total of 2,940 in February, a 47.2 percent increase over the same period last year.
Council also approved a resolution urging the state legislature to move on a package of bills that would change the statute of limitations for sexual abuse in civil cases.
State Rep. Louise Bishop and former House Speaker, now Councilman Dennis O’Brien introduced the proposal last year in Harrisburg at the height of the Penn State sex scandal. The bills have languished in committee ever since.
“Every time we’ve introduced legislation it has laid in committee,” Bishop told members of council.
She stood during council’s session to urge members to approve the resolution, and to tell, in very frank terms, the story of her own sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather.
“I was young. I didn’t really know what was happening to me, didn’t understand it,” she said. “But every time my stepfather had an opportunity to caress me, feel me, bother me, he did.”
It didn’t stop there.
“I woke up one night to find him in bed with me,” said Bishop. “Not only was he in bed with me, he was in me. It was a very, very, horrifying and difficult for experience for me. But, because I knew that my grandfather, who lived with me, would kill him if he knew, and because I knew it would break my mother’s heart … there was absolutely nothing I could do but hold it within.”
It is not the first time Bishop has gone public with the story of her abuse. She decided to reveal her secret last November as she advocated for the laws.
“I could not hold it any longer,” she said.
The reform bills would give victims of child abuse and child sexual abuse until they are 50 years old to press a civil suit. Under current law, victims have until they are 50 to press criminal charges, but only until they are 30 years old for civil suits.
In addition, the proposal would also create a two-year window to revive cases in which the statute of limitations has expired.
Similar reforms were adopted in Delaware in 2007.
In other news, council will vote at its next meeting on a resolution by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown “calling for justice and standing in solidarity” in the Trayvon Martin case.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Brown, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King.
She said many Black parents are required to have a talk with their sons similar to the “birds and bees” talk — but known as the “existing while Black” talk.
Finally, Councilman Jim Kenney introduced a bill that would change the Home Rule Charter to require individuals running who hold public office to resign before running for another office. The bill was referred to committee.
Between 35,000 and 45,000 property assessment appeals – up from 2,000 – are expected next fall if the city proceeds with plans to move to a full valuation property tax system, said an official with the Board of Revision of Taxes, on Monday.
“The number of appeals will increase,” said Judge Alan Silberstein, chairman of the BRT board. We’re anticipating anywhere from 35,000 to 45,000 appeals if everyone is assessed.”
Silberstein and the agency’s executive director Carla Pagan outlined the agency’s budget during council hearings, breaking down projected expenses for council members as they go through Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposed budget line by line.
Agency officials have requested $1.04 million for the 2013 fiscal year.
The bulk of those funds would cover salaries and benefits, which totaled $672,000. But, in her itemization of expenses, Pagan included nearly $400,000 in contingency expenses. Those funds would be needed in the event the city presses forward with its move to full valuation.
The money would cover the hiring of up to four new staffers, new supplies and equipment.
“If the city-wide initiative is completed for tax year 2013, the department will need an infusion into the budget for 2-4 temporary support staff and an increase.”
At the moment, the BRT has a staff of five.
The BRT, which was gutted of much of its power two years ago after the eruption of a patronage and corruption scandal, now handles tax appeals and eminent domain appeals. Assessments are handled by the Office of Property Assessment, which is part of the city’s finance department.
No one is quite sure what to expect next year, but Silberstein said BRT projections were based on data from other municipalities who made the same change to full valuation.
“We won’t know until we see what the Office of Property Assessment does, and how many appeals that will trigger,” Silberstein said. “That’s why these contingencies included in the budget are merely contingencies. We really don’t know what will happen. We may very well have to come back before council … and ask for additional funds.”
Over the last three years, the BRT has not handled more than 2,400 appeals.
In 2009, when 15,218 properties received revised assessments, the agency heard 2,376 appeals. With 20,483 new assessments in 2010, the agency heard 2,322 appeals. With assessments frozen in 2011, the agency heard just 1,785 appeals.
With such an enormous burst of new appeals the board could have to hire more clerks, possibly more hearing masters and start holding morning, afternoon and evening hearings.
Council has been grappling with the administration’s plan to move to full valuation as it studies Nutter’s budget, which includes revenue projects based on the change.
Though almost everyone agrees the move must happen, few, if any, members of council show any enthusiasm for the change.
In fact, during Monday’s hearing, Majority Leader Curtis Jones and Councilwoman Cindy Bass seemed to endorse the creation of a council subcommittee to make sure council has more advice on the matter before it takes action.
“I think I’ll ask the president [Darrell Clarke] to create a sub-committee, and at least get your experience and share that knowledge base,” Jones said, speaking to Silberstein.
Council members also took note when Silberstein said he thought the shift to full valuation should include a $25,000 homestead exemption. The administration’s plan does include a $15,000 exemption, contingent on approval by the state legislature, but Silberstein said many other states have higher exemptions.
Council members, who now appear to be fielding more questions from angry constituents, are nervous about the move to actual value.
“This … 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 during a recent hearing.
Jim Kenney: Company breaking promise to serve low-income areas
Concerned that telecom giant Verizon is overlooking the city’s poor neighborhoods as it rolls out FiOS, its fiber optic cable network, Philadelphia City Council on Thursday authorized hearings on the company’s franchise.
The unanimous vote came over the objection of Doug Smith, a Verizon vice president who said the hearings were unnecessary.
“Table it. Table it,” Smith said repeatedly during the public comment section of the meeting, referring to a resolution, sponsored by Councilman Jim Kenney, to authorize hearings.
But Kenney refused to back down.
“To quote Shakespeare, I think he doth protest too much,” said the councilman. “When a large, national corporation tells us that there’s no need for hearings, that’s generally a pretty good reason why we should have them.”
Smith worried that hearings would compel the corporation to divulge proprietary information in a public setting. Kenney dismissed the notion.
“This is a public contract,” Kenney said. “It should be discussed in public. They have proprietary concerns. I understand that, but we awarded this franchise in a public way, and this is the public’s business.
The city granted Verizon the right to roll out FiOS in 2009. At the time, the agreement was heralded because when installation of the fiber optic network was complete — in 2013 — residents would have an alternative to Comcast, which currently has a monopoly on cable in much of the city.
“Your constituents are benefiting from the price and competition,” Smith said. “In response to the millions of dollars of investment and the flow through benefits of that investment in a very difficult economic environment, Verizon is rewarded with this resolution calling for hearings based on unreliable sources that are simply wrong.”
Kenney said he had become concerned after hearing that the corporation was not rolling out its program in low-income neighborhoods.
Earlier this month, Kenney told reporters that someone who worked for Verizon told him the company was not complying with its franchise agreement, which requires that it provide service citywide.
“We’ve had information coming from inside the company that says they may not be following what they committed to do when we granted the franchise,” Kenney told reporters last week. “We were happy to have competition with our current major cable provider, Comcast. But we want to make sure that every neighborhood in the city is getting built out with the FiOS, and not just neighborhoods that can afford to pay the fees,” he said.
Smith said the information was incorrect.
“We don’t do business like that,” he told council members on Thursday. “We are building in low-income neighborhoods. It’s a contractual obligation that we take very seriously.”
He added that he was concerned that Kenney had based his call for hearings on information from an unnamed source.
Kenney held his ground.
“The more and more agitation I sense from Verizon, the more I suspect we should have the hearings,” he said.
In other news, Council approved a resolution urging the state legislature to repeal its expansion of the “castle doctrine,” which gives Pennsylvanians the right to stand and use deadly force when confronted with a situation that they feel threatens their life.
The resolution passed 16-0 with Republican Brian O’Neill the only member to vote against the measure.
Council failed to move on a motion made two weeks ago by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell that would authorize hearings on Mayor Michael Nutter’s ban on feeding the homeless in public parks. It was the second week in a row that the item was on Council’s calendar but failed to move.
Nevertheless, the fact that it was on the calendar allowed the public to speak on the matter and so Niko Rayes, with Food Not Bombs, took the opportunity to chastise Nutter for his stance.
“We stand without shame with those have fallen on the hardest of times and who Mayor Nutter clearly has no understanding of,” she said.
Nutter has formed a task force to study the options for groups who serve meals outdoors and named Blackwell as one of its members.