Philadelphia students are back to school and the controversial flash mob attacks are practically non-existent since.
Confident that the curfew crackdown was successful, Mayor Michael Nutter is now proposing permanent and drastic curfew changes in spite of the decline in flash mob violence in targeted areas.
The Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), located within the confines of the curfew enforcement area, continues to align with the curfew times so that the students they serve are well on their way home to avoid being found on the streets after hours.
“The curfew ordinance has a direct impact on us,” said Nijmie Dzurinko, PSU executive director.
PSU programs, meetings and resources are scheduled so students have ample travel time to navigate home when they must use public transportation and are not able to travel with a parent.
The students themselves appear to be impacted the most by the harsh curfew restrictions being enforced by police officers. PSU student members feel that working students have the biggest challenge in dealing with the curfew hours.
“A lot of my friends work because they have to or they enjoy making money on their own,” said Bernard Nesmith, a senior at South Philadelphia’s Furness High School. Nesmith personally noted the flash mob label is both inappropriate and creates the thought that the average teenager is bad.
For many students, there is the notion that because older teenagers are able to work, they are able to enjoy their earnings.
Many youth patronize the popular and abundant downtown and West Philadelphia eateries, cinemas and retail stores that are often not found within their individual neighborhoods.
Philadelphia’s extensive public transportation system makes it all the more accessible for youth to travel within and outside of the city perimeter to take advantage of some of the many benefits offered in Center City and surrounding areas.
“Unfortunately, many of the students impacted by the curfew enforcement areas are working part-time jobs downtown, where they are unable to navigate home in sufficient time,” Dzurinko said. “The students enjoy being downtown as much as tourists. Not all large or small groups of students lead to violence.
“Individuals who break the law should be dealt with on an individual basis,” Dzurinko added. “Collective punishment targeting a small geographic area is not going to solve the root issue.”
In her fifth year as executive director, Dzurinko feels honored to work with young people who move from being subjects of their conditions to agents for change.
She has observed that too often young people are wrongly criminalized, punished and stereotyped for various reasons.
“The focus should be more on implementing programs and resources that can help the students not punish them,” Dzurinko said.
Guns. They seem to be everywhere and everyone seems to have them. This has been one of the main concerns of Mayor Michael Nutter and District Attorney Seth Williams, both raised in West Philadelphia where gun violence has taken its toll on the communities.
Nutters’ controversial Stop and Frisk policy, which allows officers more liberty to stop citizens suspected of carrying illegal firearms, is one method used by the mayor to rid the streets of the guns used in crimes.
While there are those who contend that the measure stigmatizes Black and Latino men amounting to racial profiling, others feel that anything that could help prevent gun violence should be utilized.
It might be a no-brainer for some that guns need to be taken off our streets and more legislation ratified which would control their use in the city limits, however others disagree.
In fact, one piece of legislation, H.R. 822 The National Right-To-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011, would take away a state’s right to determine who could or could not carry a concealed weapon within their state.
On Sep. 13 Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey asked Congress to vote against the measure.
“We have a uniquely diverse nation. What works where I currently serve as commissioner of Philadelphia … does not work for our neighbor across the river in New Jersey,” said Ramsey during the hearing. “This bill would allow people to carry concealed and loaded guns in every state without consideration for the minimum standards created by their governments.”
With 279 shooting deaths in the city this year, not including 2,777 robberies with guns and another 2,039 aggravated assaults with guns Philadelphia is pressured to resolve the gun crisis.
Philadelphia now has another ally in its fight to maintain its right to control gun permits within its borders in Sen. Larry Farnese (D-1st District) who has championed the cause of closing the “Florida Loophole,” or the law which allows those denied permits in Philadelphia to go to Florida and, acquire a gun permit, and carry those guns in Philadelphia where they were initially denied.
“I think that public safety is paramount to Philadelphia success and the ability of Commonwealth to move forward,” said Farnese during an exclusive interview.
According to Farnese, the issue of guns and gun violence extends beyond political boundaries and affect businesses and communities in the region as well.
Businesses go where they feel safe, where their property and clients can be protected. For this reason, gun violence not only cost lives but, according to Farnese, affects the goods and services, along with the employment prospects, in the areas affected.
“We want folks to come to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and go to our schools and get their degrees but then they leave,” said Farnese about the economic and social impact of crime on the population, “we want them to know that if they want to start their families here they are going to be safe. They are going to be able to have their families and their grandchildren come visit. Those are the kinds of economic viability issues that are going to help Philadelphia and Pennsylvania,” explained Farnese.
Farnese introduced S.B. 622 which now sits in the Judiciary Committee and would, in effect, close the loophole if ratified.
“You cannot ignore that the gun lobby is very large and extremely powerful,” said Farnese, “this is about fixing a loophole, a mistake in the law that is being exploited by bad folks to the detriment of not just innocent men, women and children which should not have them [guns] but it is also an assault on police officers each and every day that are out there on the front lines and they and their family are giving their lives.”
Farnese believes that police officers not only need the necessary tools to ensure that they can do their jobs such as proper equipment, but also need the legislative tools necessary to not only do their jobs but also to help ensure that they can do so more safely.
“When I am at a funeral of a fallen officer and I see their families there, elected officials can certainly provide the cars, the bullet proof vests and the radios but we also need to give them the legislative equipment that they need to make themselves safer,” said Farnese, “I have a real problem with that, if you want to mourn over a fallen police officer who have made the ultimate sacrifice than you should fight the political pressure, say that this loophole is ridiculous, its clearly an exploitation of a hole in the wall and we as legislators should do everything to fix it.”
The city has agreed to use union labor for city-funded construction projects over $5 million — and the city’s trade unions have agreed to higher local, minority and female participation goals on those projects, in an agreement announced this week.
“Fifty percent of the hours for those jobs must be set aside for Philadelphia residents,” said Mayor Michael Nutter at the press conference Tuesday. “At least 32 percent of those are for minority males, and 7 percent for women.”
Nutter, along with officials from the Greater Philadelphia Building Trades Council, announced the agreement at a press conference where the mayor signed an executive order reinstituting project labor agreements, contracts that lay out the terms of work for the unions in city projects.
For decades, the city has been trying to force the trade unions to include more minorities and women on union jobs. Though this agreement used the word “goal” rather than language that would require those participation rates, union leaders promised the goals would be met.
“Every craft has committed to meet their goals,” Pat Gillespie, business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, told reporters.
The trades council represents a number of unions or crafts. Blacks are most heavily represented in the laborer’s union, in which members are less skilled and lower paid than in others.
Nutter said a third party organization would be chosen to monitor participation in each contract. None had yet been selected. The goals will apply to all contracts over $5 million and those that require the involvement of more than one building trade.
Unlike more detailed participation goals for standard city contracts, which lay out different goals for different ethnicities, the project labor agreements lump all non-white groups into one category with one goal.
The city and the trade unions have been at odds for many years — as city officials tried to pry open the unions and force them to employ more minority workers — something the unions strenuously resisted. For example, City Council and the unions had a lengthy showdown during the construction of the $700 million addition to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The unions resisted minority participation, and defied Council attempts to try and find out how many union workers were minorities.
Ultimately, Council did impose goals on the project. But, the fight and the publicity it generated obviously lingered in Gillespie’s mind because he said he hoped this week’s agreement would end the widely held view that “[We’re] just a bunch of fat, white guys from the suburbs. That’s not the case, never has been the case, but that’s the way we were characterized.”
Nutter said the new agreement would assure that diversity is automatically part of future contracts.
“Diversity is vital as we put our city’s residents back to work with these projects that improve the quality of life for all Philadelphians,” he said.
The project trade agreements do more than establish participation goals. The agreements will also prevent strikes and allow for cost savings. Nutter’s executive order also established an advisory committee for Project Labor Agreements, which will monitor and review all PLAs and will make periodic evaluations of the use of PLAs. The members of the Committee are the mayor’s chief of staff, the city solicitor, managing director, director of finance, deputy mayor for transportation and utilities and deputy mayor for economic development.
Frustrated at the political gridlock in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Thursday released a report that members hope can be used to re-focus national attention on the need for spending on infrastructure, transportation and education.
“It must be the mission of this bipartisan organization to make sure that the priorities of cities are addressed by both presidential candidates through the course of this upcoming election and beyond,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, president of the conference which was meeting in Philadelphia this week. We want to remind both presidential candidates, the Congress and Washington in general that when you invest in cities, you invest in America.”
The report, a 116-page document titled U.S. Metro Economies, compiled by the consulting firm IHS Global Insight, provided a detailed statistical snapshot of the nation’s cities and predicted modest economic growth for the remainder of the year.
Short-term projections in the report anticipated a 1.4 percent increase in employment in metropolitan areas by the end of 2012, and a 2 percent growth in city’s share of gross domestic product. In addition, the report anticipated that over the next 30 years, cities will grow 32 percent, adding 84 million to the nation’s population centers.
For that growth to happen smoothly the nation needs to invest, concluded the report. However, over the last several years, investment has fallen. Public spending on infrastructure in the United States has fallen to 2.4 percent of the gross domestic product, according to the report.
Nutter noted that infrastructure spending had been at 3 percent of the GDP not long ago, saying, “It’s going in the wrong direction.”
“We need to make smart investments today to ensure that we will continue to grow in the future,” Nutter said. “The nation’s mayors are calling for investments that will not only create jobs today but that will pay dividends for decades to come.”
Speaking to the Tribune after the press conference, Nutter said the report would be used as a launch pad for a massive lobbying effort in Washington, D.C., urging the federal government to invest directly with cities. Officials were already working on a draft of a condensed report that will prioritize the mayors’ concerns. It is expected in the fall, Nutter said. It will also be used in discussions with various state governors.
A lack of investment will cost more in the future, said Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, Calif.
“Underinvestment in infrastructure, there is going to be costs in the long term that are going to impact everything else that we do,” he said.
Perhaps more important than the report was the obvious frustration of mayors from cities, large and small, felt with the country’s political leaders, particularly Congress.
“We need Congress to do their job, so Americans can get a job,” Nutter said.
Others were even more outspoken.
“We’re done asking the federal government for help,” said Mayor Frank Ortis of Pembroke Pines, Fla. “We’re going to take action and tell the federal government our cities need help. And, we’re going to lead the way. We want action. We’re going to go to the Hill and say we want to put our people to work.”
Using House Speaker John Boehner as an example, Mayor Donald Plusquellic of Akron, Ohio, said the partisan divide, fueled by the tea party, has paralyzed Congress.
“He treats us like crap,” Plusquellic yelled at one point during the press conference.
After the meeting, he explained that traditionally, Congressional and administration leaders from the cabinet level down have taken the time to meet personally with the mayors of large cities in their states but that Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has not.
“He used to be a pretty good guy,” Plusquellic said. “It used to be Democrats and Republicans working together. We have this partisanship now.”
Plusquellic said he’s met with Boehner’s staff but not the Speaker, but if he could sit down with Boehner he’d urge him to remember the old days.
“Sitting down and talking to people works,” Plusquellic said. “He treats all of the mayors and the leaders of this country like crap.”
“It’s symptomatic of what’s going on with Congress. If you’re not going to listen to 90 percent of the country … in November we’ll see if 90 percent of the country listens to you,” said John Dickert, mayor of Racine, Wis.
Mayor Scott Smith of Mesa, Ariz., explained that the frustration has been building for years.
“Every mayor in the room has been through the fire over the last three or four years. Every mayor in the room has had to make decisions we didn’t like,” said Smith. “Our frustration boils over because at both the state and national level we don’t see our legislators taking the same approach. It’s frustrating.”
Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to implement asset testing for food stamp recipients is wrong and mean-spirited.
Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said an asset test will be implemented by the Department of Public Welfare in the coming months, but the administration has not decided its dollar-value level.
In a letter to the federal government late last month, the agency said it was considering a bar on recipients who have more than $2,00 in savings or other assets subject to the rule, or more than $3,250 for people who are over 60 or disabled.
On Thursday at a press conference at City Hall, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Mayor Michael Nutter, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and state Sens. Vincent Hughes and Shirley Kitchen urged Corbett to reconsider the plan slated to start May 1.
“This is one of the most mean-spirited, asinine plans to come out of Harrisburg in a long time,” said Mayor Nutter.
Vilsack refuted the Corbett administration’s stated reason for implementing asset tests — cost-cutting and fraud prevention — saying that Pennsylvania already had one of the lowest fraud rates in the nation, and added the program is funded by the federal government.
“It’s not going to save the commonwealth of Pennsylvania a single dime,” Vilsack said.
“The money for the program is federally funded. Number two, it’s likely going to cost the commonwealth of Pennsylvania money because when you institute an asset test you have to make sure that you create a process by which those applications are reviewed.”
On Wednesday, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell warned that an asset test would be expensive to administer and harmful to the economy, particularly in poor neighborhoods where food stamps are often a major source of business for small grocery stores.
“They’re not all minority, they’re not all urban dwellers,” Rendell said at a Capitol news conference with about a dozen state House Democrats. “They’re our neighbors.”
If the Corbett administration’s plan is costly and unnecessary why is it being proposed?
The answer is gutter politics.
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s attacks on the food stamps program and calling President Obama “the food stamps president,” were thinly disguised racial code words that helped him win the Republican presidential primary in South Carolina.
Gingrich linked food stamps with Blacks although the majority of the people using food stamps are not African American. According to 2010 Census numbers, about 26 percent of food stamp recipients are African American, 49 percent are white and 20 percent are Hispanic.
At a time when Americans are facing sustained unemployment and rising food prices, Corbett and conservative Republicans are shamelessly attacking one of the most reliable safety nets for families who suddenly find themselves unable to pay for food.
Cities United aims to build national movement
On Monday, Oct. 24, in the Philadelphia suburb of Darby Township, there was a drug-related shooting that left an 18-year-old Black male in critical condition and a 16-year-old under arrest.
Witnesses told police they had seen three young men talking about drugs in the Briarcliff vicinity around 3 p.m. Then a shot was fired and witnesses told police the 16-year-old fled the scene to a nearby house, where he was subsequently arrested. Police found 30 bags of marijuana at the scene of the shooting.
This one incident could easily be described as a microcosm of how violence is precipitated among young Black males — not just in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, but from coast to coast across America. Virtually every major city has a monstrously high murder rate among young Black males. And that level of violence, experts say, is far beyond a crisis. It has been allowed to become a catastrophe of horrific proportions.
Reducing, if not ending that violence is the focus of numerous community programs and organizations — and on Tuesday of this week, a group of mayors from across the state and nation gathered at the National Constitution Center to strategize on how to truly and adequately deal with the problem.
The gathering, called Cities United: Building Communities to Reduce Violent Death Among Black Men and Boys, was started by mayors who were joined by community leaders for the purpose of moving beyond just talking about the problem and taking action that goes above the programs, initiatives and solutions already in place to amplify them into a national movement.
Mayor Michael Nutter, who spearheaded the gathering, said what every resident of the Black community already knows: murder is the leading cause of death for African American males between the ages of 15 and 24.
That violence and the consequential fallout of incarceration and unemployment, Nutter said, has depleted the presence of Black men in the community.
“This is an epidemic that’s been going on too long,” Nutter said. “And unfortunately, you will find African-American males at the bottom of good categories and at the top of negative categories, all of which contribute to a degradation of the overall quality-of-life in Black neighborhoods.”
According to figures culled from reports researched by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 85 percent of the Black victims of homicide are male and 51 percent are between the ages of 17 and 19. Across the nation, Blacks accounted for 49 percent of all murder victims in 2005. Black males accounted for 52 percent. That violence, say those working the streets, is rooted in hopelessness, desperation and despair. It is also rooted in a sub-culture that acts out what it assimilates from a popular media that glorifies murder.
“I can actively count the number of murders that I’ve personally seen,” said Jordan Harris, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Youth Commission and the co-founder of Youth Action Inc. “Growing up in South Philly, I watched people being killed. Many of our young people feel like they could be the next one killed - or the next one shooting someone. Part of the problem is that too many young men don’t have men in their lives. If that father figure is not present in the home, the streets will provide it.”
Brandon Jones, a young outreach worker with Philadelphia Cease Fire, agreed.
“Our young men are filled with hopelessness and they are desperate. If we want to solve this problem we have to bring them to the table and then listen, carefully, to what they have to say,” Jones said. Jones, who was recently released from prison for a drug-related shooting said one-on-one intervention is essential to ending the cycle of violence.
“It’s not easy to forge trust or relationships with these young men. We have one client that took six months to come around. I didn’t come from a broken home, I had a good family — father and mother — but I wanted to fit in. I now call it being a part of the ‘in crowd’ because you either end up incarcerated or in an early grave. I didn’t want to take the slow way to success.”
While participants shared information on the various causes of the high murder rate of African American males — absent fathers, poverty, joblessness, lousy public education — one issue kept returning to the top of the list: illegal guns.
“In our schools, our young people don’t have new books, but they know where to get an illegal gun,” Harris said. “It’s not hard to get an illegal gun, they know where to get them and if they get them and if they feel disrespected or otherwise insulted — for any reason — they will use them.”
Mayor Nutter, who said that illegal guns have become a plague in the Black community, pressed representatives from the federal government concerning what should be done to stop the flow of illegal firearms. Those representatives shared what is being done; but Nutter said he knows what federal prosecutors are doing.
“I know you’re prosecuting gun traffickers and federal time is federal time — you’ll do every bit of it. But this is what’s being done on the back end. We need to interrupt the flow of illegal guns on the front end. If someone opens up an envelope and finds powder inside it might just be Gold Medal flour but in a matter of minutes that entire area will be surrounded by federal officers. If someone finds a suspicious bag at my airport, my airport will be closed — shut down in minutes. I’m amazed by how quickly federal resources can be brought to bear anywhere in the country. We can fire a missile and put it in someone’s bedroom on the other side of the planet. Why can’t we get that same level of attention to the problem interrupting the flow of illegal guns? I would just like to hear the federal government say this is a problem. This is not a Second Amendment issue, I’m all for the Second Amendment, this is about stopping illegal guns from getting into the hands of young Black men.”
The “food fight” over Mayor Michael Nutter’s Actual Value Initiative intensified Thursday with the mayor and state Sen. Anthony Williams firing back at opponents of the initiative, which appears stuck in City Council.
“Our message is pretty straight forward and pretty simple. At this point, we have a property assessment system that has been broken for … generations,” Nutter said. “Many Philadelphians … because of a flawed system have been paying much more than they should be in taxes. At the same time many individuals have been paying a lot less than they should, essentially being subsidized by the poorest individuals in the city. In the end, all taxpayers are losers.”
AVI would change the way the city assesses real estate, moving from assessments based on a fraction of property value to the full market value.
“No more fractions. No more complications. You should not need a math degree to be able to figure out what your taxes are,” said the mayor.
Williams was a little more outspoken in his defense of the plan, chastising members of the city’s delegation in Harrisburg for breaking ranks in Harrisburg.
“I’ve watched some public officials tear to shreds the validity of AVI, so I found it very important to go public,” he said, accusing opponents of “fear mongering” and adding that the divisions among local lawmakers could ultimately dissuade the state legislature and governor from taking action on several state bills needed to implement AVI.
“Harrisburg is watching us. Those bills were moving through the state legislature quite effectively, the governor was prepared to sign them until Philadelphia decided to have its own food fight,” he said.
Williams declined to call out legislative colleagues for their opposition.
But, two weeks ago a group of state legislators — joined by Councilmen Bill Green and Mark Squilla — announced their opposition to AVI, calling on the administration to delay implementation for another year. At that time, state Sen. Larry Farnese announced that he was introducing legislation in Harrisburg that would give Council the option to wait another year.
Waiting is not an option, Nutter said this week.
“Once the new values are in, we have to use them,” Nutter said, adding that not to was “asking for litigation.”
Critics cite three reasons for their opposition. First is the fact that new assessment figures will not be available until July, after City Council is expected to vote on a budget based on Nutter’s AVI figures. Second, because Nutter’s proposal includes an additional $94 million in revenue for the school district, critics charge the mayor with trying to push through a tax hike by another name. And, finally, many worry that AVI will mean higher taxes for their constituents.
Nutter countered all three arguments at his press conference.
Implementing property tax reform this year is needed, the mayor said, because the system has been “broken” for generations. The additional revenue is not a tax increase, he argued, simply a way to “capture” the increase in property values since the last reassessment in 2004. And, while admitting that taxes will go up for some, they will come down for others.
Ultimately, the fate of AVI lies in the hands of City Council, which has been debating the issue for months. Members are now looking at 14 budget related proposals.
Council leaders have been reluctant to discuss what direction those talks have taken.
“I never say what a majority of members are interested in until they do it,” Council President Darrell Clarke told reporters after this week’s Council session.
He did say that Council seems committed to providing some added funding for the school district, but would not say if it would meet the district’s request for $94 million.
“The biggest question centers on where that money is going and how it’s going to be spent and what levels of accountability can be put into place,” he said.
A proposal by Clarke would provide about $85 million. Several council members have said they would like Council to have more input on how district money is spent.
“Whatever process is established in this particular funding cycle for the school district, we would like to see a little more dialogue.”
Majority Leader Curtis Jones compared Council’s approach to that of a pilot preparing his plane for takeoff. Members are looking at several options and will decide which one to take on after factoring in a variety of conditions.
“We are a plane that has to have several runways — and we’re running out of time to take off,” he said.
Jones would not be drawn into a discussion of which of options might be gaining traction, calling all of the proposals as “alternate Plan A’s.”
“We want to be prepared for any eventuality,” he said.
Council seems prepared to put its muscle where its mouth is, this week approving a resolution urging the School Reform Commission to go back to the negotiating table with SEIU 32BJ in an effort to avoid the layoff of 2,700 union employees in a district effort to balance its budget, which is includes a $218 million deficit.
Much of Council’s negotiations are now going on behind the scenes.
This week members met in small groups — to avoid violating the state’s Sunshine Law — in private meetings to discuss their options.
“Our process, particularly at this point, is a process that requires significant conversations within the body,” Clarke said. “Trying to do that in an extremely public way is probably not conducive to us getting a budget.”
A public hearing has been scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday and Council will meet for its regularly scheduled meeting Thursday.
Technically the deadline for budget approval is June 1. But, Council has often recessed, rather than adjourned, its last meeting in May allowing a vote beyond the deadline.
Clarke said Council would have a budget passed by July 1, the start of the city’s fiscal year. He noted that many of the proposals before Council also require some action by the state legislature, which would need to approve, for example, a homestead exemption.
In other news, Council unanimously agreed to change the name of the Criminal Justice Center to the Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice. A chorus of civic leaders urged Council to rename the court building in Stout’s honor. A long serving municipal court judge, she was the nation’s first female Black judge and the state and nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice.
Finally, Councilman Brian O’Neill introduced a bill that would give grandchildren of firefighters and police officers at 10-point advantage on the exams required to secure departmental jobs. A similar break is already given to children of both.
Officials with the financially distressed School District of Philadelphia have repeatedly said that the district would need an infusion of funds — at least $60 million from the city and $120 million from the state — to ensure its survival. The city took a big first step in answering the call, as Mayor Michael Nutter unveiled a series of new tax programs and initiatives that could net the district $95 million annually, well above the district’s target.
“I am proposing a revenue package to generate new money for investing in the education of Philadelphia’s schoolchildren. This set of recommended proposals is sustainable and substantial; the key is, they are also doable,” Nutter said, flanked by Hite and members of the School Reform Commission. “As I have already previously announced the supported increase in the liquor-by-the-drink tax, our proposed increased will generate approximate an additional $22 million by increasing the tax from ten percent to 15 percent. This proposal is scheduled to start on July 1, 2013.
“I am also proposing a city cigarette tax; the city currently has a tobacco tax, but cigarettes are not included in that tax,” Nutter continued. “The cigarette tax I am proposing will begin in January 2014, and will be set at $2 per pack. It will generate approximately $45 million in half a fiscal year.
“Almost all of the revenue from these taxes will be used to invest in the educating young children, and allows the Health Department to continue its smoking cessation programs.”
The third key, Nutter said, to delivering the much-needed funds is giving more power to Tom Knudsen, who is tasked as chief revenue collector. Knudsen is intimately aware of the district’s sinking finances, as last year he orchestrated a $300 million-plus bond deal so the district could get through the academic year.
Nutter has said a ramped-up delinquent tax office could net the district upward of $28 million.
While Nutter and Hite voiced optimism — with neither saying what would happen if the state doesn’t come up with its share – there are roadblocks to the district getting the money.
First and foremost, the city cannot pass any new tax laws without first receiving authorization from the General Assembly. Although state Senator Vincent Hughes has introduced a pair of bills — Senate Bill 944 and Senate Bill 945 – that would spur action at the state level, in city coun
cil hearings, Councilman Bill Green voiced strong reservations about Nutter’s package — and the city’s relying on action from the assembly.
“While I support the mayor’s proposals to help schools, they are unlikely to pass the General Assembly, and frankly, they miss the point,” Green said from the council floor. “Even if they do, there is no more help coming from the General Assembly, so there will be a $200 million gap. The city is simply not able to fund the gap for the current failing system by itself. The issue today is far more complicated than just throwing more money at the school district.
“The question is whether the district is too big to succeed.”
Nutter’s proposal alsoreceived a chilly response from the Philadelphia Tavern Owners Association/Licensed Beverage Association, whose president, John Longacre, blasted the plan as another unfair tax hoisted upon small business owners and average-Joe consumers.
“I think it’s a terrible idea. Philadelphia is the only county in the state that already has an over-the-counter liquor tax; every other municipality in this state is able to function their government without putting it on the backs of consumers,” Longacre said. “Philadelphia is already the second highest-rated city in America in terms of tax burdens on its citizens. Businesses in Philadelphia are already paying an inflated sales tax, paying a four percent wage tax, already paying a net gross profit tax and a business privilege tax. We are already paying taxes that don’t even exist in other counties, and we’re already overpaying on taxes as is; and now they want to add another tax that doesn’t exist anywhere [else] in the state.”
Longacre does care about the plight of public education — in his view, it’s just unfair to ask businesses and taxpayers to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Instead, Longacre believes a leaner city government would cure many of the city’s fiscal ailments.
“In our opinion, the city needs to be run more efficiently, and you can [help the district] without compromising on the backs of business owners. The city could cut wasteful spending, but more importantly, if the city collected on real estate taxes at a rate commensurate with other cities, it would add $100 million every year,” Longacre said. “There are other ways to fill the school funding gap, other than to put strain on an already overtaxed business.”
Longacre said Nutter apparently has considered the effect this will have on the smaller bars, theorizing that most retailers will pass the tax hike on to their customers, which will lead to establishments losing customers. To not have that happen, Longacre said many smaller tavern owners will just eat the increase, thus shrinking their margins even more.
“It makes an already existing ridiculous tax even more ridiculous,” Longacre said, noting that there is already a 10 percent tax on drinks. “The fact that national publications are reporting that Philadelphia is the second-ranked city in terms of tax burdens, and to propose even more tax increases is clearly not doing anything to address the core problem, which is the efficiency of government.”
On the government side, as Nutter thanked and congratulated Council President Darrell Clarke for his hard work on the liquor-by-the-drink tax — Nutter and Clarke talked about and worked on the bill for more than a year — Clarke was quick to point out that, although his is generally satisfied by the news, there’s still a bit left to do.
“There’s a proposal we’ve talked about as an alternative to raising real estate taxes. We’ve tried our best, as we come up with solutions to increase revenue, to do things differently, as opposed to the traditional model of, ‘we need money. Let’s stick our hands in taxpayers’ pockets,’” Clarke said. “Real estate, wage or other things that people tend to not have any alternative. But if you have a liquor-by-the-drink or cigarette tax, and if you don’t want to pay that tax, you can simply not drink or simply not smoke.
“The last two tax votes for the schools were last minute, and they were very difficult votes, done in a way that was somewhat scattered, essentially cobbled together a series of votes from different members to try and push for measures, ” Clarke continued, noting that he was mildly surprised when he learned the figure from Nutter’s proposal was $95 million. “In spite of that, here we are with an additional $300 million-plus deficit, so it’s clear that’s not the way to fix this problem.
“I want to emphasize that I’ve said in response to the mayor’s proposal, that I am pleased with the fact that the Pennsylvania General Assembly, particularly the Philadelphia Delegation, that continues to be supportive of measures that help the City of Philadelphia,” Clarke continued. “The reality is, the school district proposal cannot be in lieu of support from the state. I have said the city’s portion of the request is the smallest part of the puzzle, so even we are successful in coming up with additional revenues for the school, it’s still not going to matter, because reality is, until you get close to hopefully the $120 million the district is requesting, and some understanding as it relates to the school district as it relates to the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, we’re not going to be in a position to maintain the current level.”
Councilman Mark Squilla has emerged as one of the more influential of the six new members of City Council — a critical voice during the recent budget battle, and one that helped convince Council to delay the Actual Value Initiative — a controversial property tax reform measure.
“It was a good learning experience,” said the freshman councilman, who represents the city’s 1st Councilmanic District. “We learned how to compromise and come up with different solutions from maybe something the administration thought would work.”
Squilla is a member of what council members jokingly call the “serious six.” The six members who took their seats in January and were immediately swept up in an epic budget battle, the perfect storm of tax reform, education crisis and politics.
Looking back — nearly everyone agrees that the new members rose to the task.
“They’ve earned their title,” said Majority Leader Curtis Jones, at the end of Council’s spring session. “They were here to stand up for their core convictions.”
According to Squilla, the group has been energized by a common desire to change the status quo.
“Everybody is really serious about making a difference,” he said. “That energizes some of the other council members that have been there for a long time. We have the willingness to make tough decisions.”
None were as visible at Squilla during the debate, though he downplays his role.
“I didn’t think we were getting all the information that was necessary,” he said. “Once some of the other members started seeing that, they also started saying ‘wait a second.’”
His colleague Councilman David Oh put it this way: “What he did, in an effort, I think, to get more information faster was say, ‘hey look if you don’t get it to us, this is what is going to happen — we’re going to delay it.’”
While Squilla stood squarely in opposition to the mayor’s proposal, and frequently said he thought the move to AVI was premature, comparing it to diving into a pool when you couldn’t see the bottom. His criticism of the administration, Mayor Michael Nutter, in particular was muted — unlike that of some other council members.
“I know that people tried to get a fight between Council and the administration, but even though we disagreed on a lot of things [Council] was still able to work with the administration,” Squilla said, crediting Council President Darrell Clarke with his deft handling of the tensions.
“We’ve always been able to be straightforward with each other,” Nutter said. “He seems to be a guy that wants to get things done. He’s not looking to do something else or anything. He seems like he has principles and things that he cares about.”
Ultimately, Squilla was so persuasive that Council voted to delay AVI for another year.
His philosophy, Squilla said, is one of making things happen.
“My philosophy as a whole is to get things done. I hate when people tell me things can’t be done,” he said. The goal of Council should be ‘let’s get it done.’”
Surprisingly that even applies to AVI — provided it’s done right.
“Let’s get it done,” he said, his voice rising. “We can help the mayor do something that nobody else was able to do, but it speaks well for Council. Let’s get it done. It’s a hard thing to do. Let’s not pass it off because it’s going to make some people mad.”
Squilla, who replaced long-serving Councilman Frank DiCicco, has no prior experience in holding elected office but was, since 2008, president of the Whitman Council, and boasts of two decades of community service on his résumé. When DiCicco announced that he would not be seeking re-election he endorsed Squilla. He also collected Nutter’s endorsement during his bid for Council.
Though AVI is likely to dominate Council’s agenda well into 2013, Squilla hopes to get some things done in his district and to tackle other issues faced by the city — jobs and crime. He doesn’t have all the answers, but is open to suggestions.
“Let’s try some new things, even if they don’t work, we’re trying,” he said.
Squilla also hopes that Council exerts a greater influence over the school district by keeping a firm grip on the purse strings.
“Without education, our city is going to fail. We have to make sure that they’re accountable and the only way we can do that is withhold money,” he said. “We have no other say.”
A graduate of St John Neumann High School and La Salle University, Squilla has been married for 22 years to Brigid, a nurse anesthetist. The councilman’s three daughters and son currently attend high school and college in the Philadelphia area.
He’s optimistic about the city’s future.
“I think we have the potential to really move forward,” he said. “The changes we need to make over the next three or four years are very, very important because if we cannot make positive changes — improve our schools, decrease crime — the people who have given the City of Philadelphia a chance will move. This is our time to make it work.”
As the School Reform Commission searches for a new superintendent, the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity ramped up its pressure to include more clergy in the selection process during a press conference on Tuesday in front of School District of Philadelphia headquarters on North Broad Street.
Black Clergy president Terrance Griffith and Bright Hope Baptist Church’s Reverend Kevin R. Johnson joined local NAACP president Jerry Mondesire and a slew of local clergy in demanding the school district do all it can to put children first.
“The School District of Philadelphia is undergoing radical education reform with little or no input from taxpayers, parents, students, teachers and voters,” Johnson said, noting that he has two children in the public school system, and they will soon be joined by a third. “Interim appointees, who represent the mayor, governor and business interests, are moving forward with a plan to radically decentralize the district, with no publicly stated and clearly articulated vision on decentralization and how this radical education reform will benefit all children in the school district.”
Johnson and others point to the district’s Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen’s prediction that the district will face a $145 million budget gap for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2012 — and that some have suggested deficits twice as deep. Johnson also referred to City Controller Alan Butkovitiz’s scathing report that outlined the now well-known budget gap of $61 million that the district must close by July of this year.
Johnson blasted the district for basically throwing good money after bad, by hiring contractors and paying them exorbitant fees, while squeezing the services and programs it offers its students.
“In order to address this fiscal crisis, the SRC’s answer has been to hire outside debt-reduction consultants with lucrative short-term multi-million dollar contracts, eliminate Promise Academies, cut summer school, lay off school safety officers and move forward with a plan to decentralize the district,” Johnson said, referring to the $6 million contract the district awarded The Boston Group. “There seems to be a radical education reform agenda being imposed — with no superintendent or captain to steer the ship.”
Mondesire minced no words in placing blame for the crisis facing Philadelphia public education.
“The problem begins right down the street at City Hall — it starts with the mayor, and ends up right here with the SRC, and the governor who cut the funding in education,” Mondesire said, pledging that the NAACP will back the Black Clergy’s moves. “These are the real culprits in this skullduggery. [The SRC] wants to decentralize the system because they eventually want to get to a privatized system, and that would destroy public education.”
While short on providing actual solutions to the multi-pronged issues facing the school district, Griffith made it clear that he was not pleased with the series of meetings the SRC held throughout the city, or with the selection team itself.
“We’re looking for fair education for our kids. Education is not a Center City right, but a right for all children in Philadelphia,” Griffith said. “We are looking for a good superintendent, and we want to be a part of the process. We do not believe the members of the SRC and a few other people should determine who the superintendent is, with some orchestrated community discussions.”
Indeed, the SRC has recently completed the last of 21 meetings throughout the city, during which it gathered information from attending stakeholders on what qualities they are looking for in a new leader. These meetings ran concurrently with discussions on the closure of nine public schools throughout the city. And through some painful cuts — including the reduction of security staff and closing school buildings on weekends — have allowed the district to nearly cut in half its budget gap for this year.
And last week, the SRC released a statement that it had — on Mayor Nutter’s recommendation — added Reverend Albert Campbell, pastor of Mt. Caramel Baptist Church, to its SRC search team committee, a unit that already included mayoral appointments Lori Shorr and Sylvia Simms. Pedro Ramos serves as SRC chairman, and committee members include Len Riser, Patricia DeCarlo, Robert Wonderling, Fred Ginyard, Ed Williams and Ken Kring.
When asked about Reverend Campbell’s appointment to the SRC, Griffith would only say that he “loved Pastor Campbell.”
Campbell, who will celebrate his 46th year as spiritual leader of Mt. Caramel, says his appointment “may have the potential to strain a few relationships,” but Campbell — himself a member of the Black clergy association who once served as secretary for the organization — also believes the integrity and devotion of the members will overcome any disagreement over his appointment.
“I think, for the most part, the brotherhood and the solid foundation that exists among the brothers and sisters who are pastors and part of the pastoral arena will remain intact,” said the 79-year-old Campbell. “So I am reasonably comfortable with our ongoing relationship as it relates to the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and as it relates to the Baptist Pastors and Ministers Conference.
“We’re not strangers, but I am amongst the elders — and there is awareness of my reprioritization of my life.”
Campbell said his relationship with Nutter goes back more than 30 years, when Nutter was a member of the church’s choir. That relationship continued through Nutter’s appointment as City Council president, and then through Nutter’s two successful mayoral campaigns.
“When he decided to run for mayor, we conferred; he consulted me, and I gladly gave him my judgment about the wisdom of his running,” Campbell said. “He was running against the odds; there were two or three other prominent Black politicians who threw their hats in the ring.
“I encouraged him to run,” Campbell continued, “and I have stood by my commitment to support him, be his spiritual consultant as well as one of his up-close and personal critics.”
Meanwhile, the school district also released an update to its “Educational Leadership Criteria” which it will use to select a new superintendent. The new superintendent should “be sensitive to issues of equity within the school system; manage the business aspects of the district with unwavering focus on what is best for the educational enterprise; understand and respect the diversity of the City of Philadelphia; engage, listen to and be responsive to students, families and other stakeholders; be committed to transparency and openness in the management of the school district and understand that excellent schools should be determined by more than standardized test scores, but a collection of school-based outcomes.”