Even with increase, school district’s revenue portion falls short
A 3.6 percent property tax increase was approved by City Council Thursday, the final piece of the city’s $3.6 billion spending plan, which officially set the city’s total allocation for the school district at $40 million.
It passed with a 12-4 vote.
Council members Jannie Blackwell, Bill Green, Dennis O’Brien and Brian O’Neill opposed the increase. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez was absent.
Blackwell called the increase “unconscionable” and said she felt obligated to oppose the move because many taxpayers in her district couldn’t afford higher taxes.
“I had to stand up and fight for them, even though we knew votes were there,” she said. “We have to try our best to represent the people who bring us here.”
For the average taxpayer, the tax hike means an increase of about $50 on a $1,400 bill.
This year’s increase comes on top of three consecutive tax increases. In 2010, members approved a 9.9 percent increase over two years and in 2011 added a 3.85 percent increase on top of that.
Coupled with a vote last week that raised the city’s use and occupancy tax by 19 percent, this week’s vote set aside $40 million for the school district, far less than the $94 million requested by the administration.
Council President Darrell Clarke said the decision was tough one.
“At the end of the day, we’re here to make tough decisions,” he said, adding that this year’s lengthy budget process allowed council to “reset the agenda.”
He was referring, in part, to the fact that Council will now have a voice in how a portion of the money aimed at the district will be spent. At least $20 million of the money destined for the school district will come through an accountability grant, which will hinge on the district’s cooperation.
“We will have substantive conversations, and we will formulate accountability measures as it relates to the passage of that grant,” said Clarke.
In the end, the feeling that Council was misled by district officials last year made members less compliant this year.
Even as members voted to approve some extra funds for the district, they criticized the School Reform Commission for again failing to keep them in the loop. At least four members said District officials failed to give them timely notification of last week’s meeting with candidates for superintendent.
“I want to echo my displeasure with the School District on the notification process for including us and any other stakeholder in the discussion about the superintendent,” said Councilwoman Marian Tasco. “It was unforgiveable to give [only] 24 hours notice.”
In addition to finalizing school funding, Thursday’s vote also laid to rest the possibility that Council would approve the administration’s Actual Value Initiative, which will now be delayed until next year.
Clarke urged members to consider how Council would deal with implementation over its summer recess.
“We just weren’t ready,” Clarke said. “But, there is a commitment to move forward with AVI in a fair and equitable way.”
He lauded Mayor Michael Nutter for getting Council to commit to AVI — albeit not within Nutter’s timeframe.
Despite divisions over the property tax increase, Council passed its operating and capital budgets with only one dissenting voice. Each passed with a 15-1 vote each, and in each case Councilman Bill Green voted against.
In other news, Council voted 10-6 to repeal a tax credit for low-income Philadelphians, which would have saved low-income residents an average of $300 a year. The ordinance was approved in 2004 at the behest of long-time Council member the late David Cohen.
His daughter, Sherrie Cohen, this week asked Council members to keep the law, which would not have taken affect until 2016 on the books.
“The poverty rate in Philadelphia today is 27.6 percent,” she said. “And, it’s only increasing. If Council votes to repeal this ordinance, they are increasing the misery and hardship of working Philadelphians.”
Councilmembers Cindy Bass, Blackwell, W. Wilson Goode Jr., Kenyatta Johnson, O’Brien and Mark Squilla voted against repeal.
Finally, Council decided, with a 9-5 vote, to retain Wells Fargo Bank for its payroll banking service. A number of protestors from Fight for Philly and Occupy Philly asked Council to terminate Wells Fargo’s business with the city, citing the bank’s “discriminatory and predatory lending practices.”
“‘Business as usual’ is not working out for too many of us,” said Anne Gemmell, political director for Fight for Philly. “We cannot afford another year with a bank that is too big to trust.”