Not surprisingly for a former union man, Councilman Bobby Henon’s priority for his district and the city is jobs — not the service jobs that are common across the city, but good jobs in manufacturing.
Henon represents the city’s 6th Councilmanic District — a meandering district that runs along the Delaware River on the city’s east side with a finger that juts west into the 10th District. It is an area that once held much of the city’s manufacturing.
The new councilman, once political director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 98 — led by Philadelphia political heavyweight John Dougherty — would like to see that heritage revived, but with a fresh twist.
“I’m engaged with the manufacturers in the city, and I’ve been working with the mayor in attracting manufacturing back into the city,” he said.
The jobs created won’t be like the jobs that historically buoyed the city’s economy.
“It’s not the same old manufacturing of yesteryear,” he said. “It’s smart manufacturing — you need to know how to read a rule, use a protractor, use some formulas and calculation to set the machine.”
Henon admits that it’s a stretch, and may take years to accomplish, but it’s worth the effort.
“Hopefully we can attract businesses back into the city,” he said.
Though Henon is one of six new faces on City Council, he, like most of the others, has been a fixture in city politics for some time. Still, his baptism by fire in this spring’s budget battle was something of an eye-opener.
The fight centered on a proposal to shift the basis of the city’s property taxes from bills based on fractional property values to one based on market values.
It was a change that worried many of his constituents.
“My constituents are frustrated,” he said. “This is the third year in a row their taxes have gone up.”
Ultimately, the idea was shot down — at least until next year.
Henon thinks waiting was prudent.
“I’m happy we made the responsible decision not to rush,” he said. “Because it was rushed.”
While acknowledging the need for property tax reform, Henon said he’s not sold on exactly what it will look like.
“I am for a fair and equitable property tax system, what that is going to look like at the end of the day I’m unclear on,” he said. “It’s hard to make decisions with no information.”
Henon’s district, while mixed racially and socio-economically, includes a large swath of the city’s solid middle class. Many of the problems he deals with are quality of life issues — zoning, property maintenance, renters versus owners, tax delinquency.
He’s already established one move — the Bad Neighbor Initiative, aimed at forcing homeowners and landlords to properly maintain their properties with pressure from Council and neighbors — and is now in conversations with court administrators, discussing the possibility of a court dedicated to quality of life issues. The primary advantage of a separate court would be that cases would be heard more quickly. It would relieve some the existing backlog and introduce sentences that could benefit the community.
“The public approach is to change the behavior of people,” he said. “For those who habitually break the law, we have an opportunity, if this moves forward, to put them to work in the community. Let them give back to the community.”
Looking at the city as a whole, Henon said Council is likely to face another difficult budget season next year.
“I see Council looking at more ways to find dedicated funding to the city. I’m not for raising taxes anymore,” he said, explaining the he expects to see savings largely through efficiencies and cuts.
“There needs to be more cuts. We have to cut,” he said. Asked where he could anticipate cuts, Henon replied, “That’s what we have to figure out.”
He suggested more public and private partnerships as a way to help maintain services while cutting spending.
“We can do more of that — if it’s structured,” he said.
One thing he ruled out was laying off employees. And, while it’s not council’s bailiwick, Henon said he hoped to see the administration reach a contract agreement with its municipal unions, which have been working without a contract since Mayor Michael Nutter took office.
“I believe in the sanctity of collective bargaining,” he said, adding, “To intervene is not the smart thing to do unless asked. The administration needs to sit down with the unions. The unions need to sit down. Everybody needs to put their egos aside and try to work things out.”
It’s a lesson driven home during the budget negotiations, when Henon realized his decisions would affect the entire future of the city.
“Being on the other side of the rail, making these decisions that impact every citizen in the city is a little different,” he said.
Beyond the end of the year, Henon said he expects big things.
“You’ve got six new freshman. You have people who are very ambitious, who are looking to take bold steps,” he said.