City Council continued digging into the newly revised zoning code this week, with a hearing Wednesday that seemed to promise slow going for zoning reform as Council members raised questions about a myriad of issues from re-entry centers, adult uses, night clubs and day care centers.
Though concerns from individual neighbors and their Council representatives varied, the core worry was the same across the board — residents wanted a say in shaping the future of their neighborhoods.
Already, 10 amendments have been proposed by Councilman Bill Green.
Community members and neighborhood groups voiced their concerns this week too.
“The current draft is much improved, but we believe there is room for substantive improvement,” said Steve Huntington of the Crosstown Coalition, a group of 13 neighborhood associations from Overbrook to South Philly, who testified Wednesday.
Nearly 50 people were scheduled to testify. They represented a patchwork of special interests that varied widely by neighborhood.
According to Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Zoning Code Commission, the new code provides more opportunity for community members to voice their concerns before variances are granted or large projects are given the green light.
The proposed code gives neighborhoods a voice through designated Registered Community Organizations (RCOs) that will provide community input for specified geographic areas. They will be registered by the city and required by law to hold public meetings. They will not take the place of individual residents.
“An individual citizen will have the same right as a member of an RCO to present testimony [at a zoning hearing],” Gladstein said.
Large projects, even those allowed by zoning classification, will be subject to community review through Civic Design Review Committees.
Council members also worried about the process recommended by the Zoning Code Commission in regards to implementing the code. The ZCC has recommended a two-step approach with the code adopted first, and maps rolled out later. Doing so, they said, separates large policy questions from neighborhood concerns and politics. Several Council members suggested that the new code be phased in district by district while the old code remains in place for the rest of the city.
“We’d rather not deal with this bit by bit,” said Alan Greenberger, chairman of the Zoning Code Commission, cautioning that rolling out zoning changes district by district would essentially mean the city had two zoning codes and could present legal challenges that would be difficult to defend against.
Rewriting the city’s zoning code has taken four years. Members of the Zoning Code Commission were appointed in 2007 and given the task of cleaning up and simplifying the city’s Byzantine code, which now extends to more than 650 pages.
The latest incarnation of the code, under scrutiny this week, is down to 384 pages.
Administration officials hope to have Council’s recommendations by Oct. 20 and final approval of a new zoning code by Dec. 15.
Even under the best of circumstances, a complete overhaul of city zoning rules will take years. Once the code is adopted, which administration officials hope will happen before Council adjourns in December, new maps for 18 zoning districts will need to be drawn up four districts at a time — which is a process expected to take five years.
Maps are now being drawn up for lower Southwest Philadelphia and Overbrook and nearby neighborhoods. In January, members of the Zoning Code Commission hope to begin Center City and the lower Northeast.
“The current zoning code is so broken that none of us trust it,” Greenberger said.
Councilman Bill Green has again stepped up to the microphone to blast Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration for not providing the data Council needs to make a decision on Nutter’s proposed property tax Actual Value Initiative. Green has released a spreadsheet that will help residents estimate how the proposal will affect them.
“In implementing AVI, we must proceed with full information, make data-based decisions and keep the public informed every step of the way,” Green said as he announced the launch of his spreadsheet to a small group of reporters on Monday at City Hall.
The spreadsheet provides the tools for property owners to use to estimate the value of their property and of their current assessment and plug them into the spreadsheet to get an educated guess of their property taxes under AVI.
As an example, Green walked reporters through the calculator using a house valued at $120,000 — the median property value in the city.
Under the current tax system, the property taxes would be $1,520.
Under AVI, there is a range of possibilities, dependent on whether Council enacts a homestead exemption, and how much, or whether council approves a smoothing measure proposed by the administration — but under most scenarios, taxes would go up.
For example, with no homestead exemption, the taxes on the property cited would rise to $1,755; with a $15,000 exemption they would rise to $1,600, and with a $40,000 exemption, they would jump to $1,310.
If council approves several amendments proposed by Green, the tax bill for the same property would be $1,607, $1,492 and $1,200 respectively. With the administration’s smoothing proposal, taxes would rise higher than under any of the other proposals to: $1,705, $1,744 and $1,732 respectively.
Green emphasized that the numbers generated by the spreadsheet were based on conversations and data provided by the administration and other sources, and represented a “best guess” by his office. He said he hoped it would serve as a way to provide residents with much-needed information.
“We now have a model,” said Green, adding that he was surprised the administration hadn’t provided a similar tool for Council and residents.
At the core of his opposition to the administration’s plan is a lack of information — particularly, the administration’s inability to provide Council with the total value of real estate in Philadelphia. That number is crucial, Green argues, because it is what will drive the rest of the city’s calculations as it moves to AVI, which is supposed to be revenue neutral, and generate the same dollar figure in its first year as was generated under the current system this year.
But administration officials have been unable to provide that figure, along with others, because the reassessment won’t be completed until July at the earliest.
Council must pass its budget by June 1.
“Would you sign a contract to buy a house at a price based on a formula with variables that won’t be known until a month after you move?” Green asked.
He has also expressed concern that the move to AVI will shift the majority of the tax burden to homeowners, because home values are expected to change dramatically with new assessments while commercial assessments have been kept more current and so more closely reflect the new value.
That has created an unintended shift in the administration’s plan which, Green said, will hit homeowners disproportionately hard. He estimated Monday that property taxes would not increase by 9 percent, as administration officials projected, but closer to 30 percent.
There might also be other unintended consequences, Green said, but without complete data it was impossible to tell.
“The unknown unknowns may exceed the many known unknowns,” he said.
An outspoken critic of the administration’s plan, Green said with more data he could be persuaded to support the move to AVI this year, because more complete information would allow Council to weigh in on ways to protect taxpayers.
“I could get comfortable with the shift to AVI this year,” he said.
Council has been wrestling with the mayor’s budget proposal for weeks and it is uncertain whether it can be passed before the June 1 deadline. Last week Green proposed several amendments to the mayor’s plan, and there are a couple of other pieces of legislation circulating in City Hall too.
He said he was unsure how his proposals would be greeted in Council chambers.
The administration has remained firm about the need to implement AVI this year.
Nutter’s spokesman, Mark McDonald, said he hadn’t seen the spreadsheet and couldn’t comment on specifics, adding, “We’ve been in discussions with the councilman … We’ve been working with councilmembers to try and answer their questions and we certainly have been in conversation with Councilman Green about the issues he’s raised.”
The spreadsheet is available at Green’s website, greenforphiladelphia.com.
Its first meeting resulted in Philadelphia City Councilmen Kenyatta Johnson and Curtis Jones both supporting its platform.
Now, POWER — Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild — hopes to make further inroads with its second “Economic Justice Forum” to be held Tuesday, June 12 at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 615 N. Broad St. That meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.
The topic du jour is the planned $6-billion expansion of the Philadelphia International Airport, a project that is slated to create thousands of temporary and permanent jobs. The expansion could take 15 years to complete.
POWER’s officials want to make sure that an equal portion of the jobs created by the project go to qualified minority workers.
Longtime Arch Street United Methodist Church Reverend Robin Hynicka said he has seen the damages wrought by economic inequality, and has prayed that a project like this would come along and revitalize the economy — and certainly the qualified workers among his flock.
“For over 30 years, I have prayed with unemployed and underemployed folks who live in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty. While some of my prayers were answered and individuals found work, far too many others in the neighborhood never did. I am still praying but the prayer is bigger, bolder and in unison with clergy and laity from over 36 congregations,” Hynicka said. “Our collaborative prayer includes the vision for 10,000 new jobs for unemployed Philadelphians, the creation of training programs and support systems that provide preparation for these jobs and the passing of legislation that creates a practical pathway to these jobs.
“In particular, this prayer includes support for City Council to enact legislation that will provide opportunity for Philadelphia residents to work at the temporary and permanent jobs that will be created by the Philadelphia International Airport Expansion Project,” he added.
This is the second of four such meetings POWER has established at community locations throughout the city. Council members Johnson and Jones attended the last meeting, and Council members Bill Green, David Oh and Mark Squilla have confirmed their attendance for Tuesday’s meeting, POWER officials said.
The timing is crucial. Earlier this month, the city took a huge step forward in the planning of the expansion, hiring three firms to manage the logistics of the project. Minority firms Delon Hampton & Associates and CMTS Inc. will join CH2M Hill, the lead planning company for the expansion.
The project has met some opposition, particularly from residents of Tinicum Township, several of whom may be dislocated by the expansion. US Airways — one the airport’s biggest users — has also filed a federal lawsuit to block the expansion.
Mayor pledges continued focus on safety, education in second term
A victorious Mayor Michael Nutter urged city residents to work with him to continue the “Philadelphia renaissance,” started in his first term, as he prepared for his newly won second term.
“We’re not done yet,” he told an enthusiastic crowd gathered Tuesday night at the Radisson Warwick Hotel ballroom. “This is the time to look forward to the next four, 10, 25 years … But I can’t do it without you.”
The mayor appeared just before 10 p.m. to give his victory speech. Though relatively early, it was already apparent that he had easily won over two other challengers on the ballot.
In unofficial results, Nutter captured almost 75 percent of the vote. Republican challenger Karen Brown got 21.7 percent and the third candidate on the ballot, Wali “Diop” Rahman, garnered 3.6 percent.
The early victory was hastened by the city’s use of computers to electronically count the vote — only the second election in which they’ve been used. By 8:45 p.m. websites and networks across the city were declaring Nutter the winner. Hundreds, including U.S. Rep Chaka Fattah, state Sen. Anthony Williams and Councilman Jim Kenney, packed the ballroom to congratulate Nutter.
The mayor reminded residents of the achievements of first term: a 14 percent reduction in shootings, a 15 percent dip in violent crime, a 20 percent drop in murders, graduation rates over 60 percent and nine years of test score gains.
“I believe that we have now set Philadelphia on a new path,” he said. “We’ve redefined our future and we are beginning — beginning — to realize our true potential of this historic, remarkable city.”
But, rather than look back, he chose to focus on the future.
“Let there be no mistake, this is just the beginning,” he said. “We have much more work to do. Tonight is not a time for satisfaction, but of impatient restlessness, a sense of urgency, of boldness. Tonight is a time to push forward.”
He outlined the priorities of his new term.
They included a continued focus on public safety — especially illegal gun use.
“You can now actually rent a gun,” he said. “Do your cowardly act and then return it. That’s insane … We’re not done until the penalty for being caught with one of those illegal weapons is so devastating that you would think twice about even touching a gun.”
He vowed to battle poverty, which he said affects one in four Philadelphians.
“We must redouble our efforts to continue to attract businesses and jobs to Philadelphia,” he said, linking that to better education. “We cannot grow. We cannot compete. We cannot prosper if we don’t focus like a laser beam on creating a learning environment to allow each child, boys and girls, to reach their learning potential.”
In city council races, all of the Democratic at-large incumbents retained their seats. They were, in order of number of votes: Bill Green, Kenney, Blondell Reynolds Brown, W. Wilson Goode Jr. and Bill Greenlee.
On the Republican side, preliminary numbers showed David Oh winning one of two minority seats with state Rep. Dennis O’Brien, former speaker of the House capturing the other.
Only about 140 votes separated Oh from his nearest competitor, Al Taubenberger, and a recount was underway at Tribune press time. It could be weeks until results are certified.
In the district races, machine candidates largely carried the day. Mark Squilla carried the First District. He will replace Councilman Frank DiCicco who is retiring at the end of the year. In the Second District, state Rep. Kenyatta Johnson will take over Council President Anna Verna’s seat when she retires in January. Union officials Bobby Henon carried the Sixth District, replacing Councilwoman Joan Krajewski. In the Eighth District, represented by Donna Reed Miller, who is leaving at the end of the year, Cindy Bass won.
All of the incumbent district council members kept their seats.
Finally, city commissioner’s chosen were: Democrats Stephanie Singer and Anthony Clark and Republican Al Schmidt.
State Rep. Jewell Williams won the sheriff’s office with the backing of 76 percent of voters.
Democratic incumbent Ronald Donatucci kept his title as register of wills.
Eliminating start-up fees, lower privilege tax get bipartisan support
Two tax bills — intended to eliminate business start up fees and cut the city’s business privilege tax — moved out of committee this week.
Both had council leadership’s stamp of approval and the endorsement of the mayor.
“At the end of the day we were all seriously working to make sure that our businesses seriously benefit in the city of Philadelphia,” said Majority Leader Marian Tasco, at a press conference late Monday afternoon, held to announce that both bill had been approved by the finance committee.
High business taxes and licensing fees have long been blamed for pushing business from the city to the suburbs.
In combination, the bills were expected to cut taxes by more than $70 million.
“The proposals in front of us today are the kinds of things we’ve been in favor of,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, who took the unusual step of publicly endorsing the tax measures before they were presented to the full council. “We’re still in challenging economic times, but we need to do something to jump start our own situation.”
The first bill, sponsored by Councilman Jim Kenney, would waive the business privilege tax for new businesses that employ at least five city residents full-time in their first year, and add five full-time jobs, again for city residents, in the second year. In addition, the $50 business privilege license fee would be waived, as would all related business license fees.
The business privilege tax is 1.415 mills on gross receipts (one mill equals one tenth of one percent) and 6.45 percent on taxable net income. In addition, new businesses pay licensing fees ranging from $50 to $500 before they can open in the city. Those fees would be waived — though the licenses would still be required.
Kenney, who said that while official unemployment figures put unemployment at 11 percent, that number is probably closer to 25 percent, adding that he hoped the bill would spur job creation in the city.
“I think the problem we’re facing in this country and in this city is unemployment,” he said. “These two bills will hopefully break the jam. To allow people, again, to think about coming to the city and staying in the city.”
A second, sponsored by council members Bill Green and Maria Quinones-Sanchez, would provide a $100,000 exemption on the gross-receipts portion of the business-privilege tax and exempt the first $100,000 in sales for the net-income portion on the first $100,000 in sales. It also included a provision called single sales factor apportionment, taxing just sales made in the city.
“Philadelphia city government… sent a clear message to the business community in the region and the nation: Philadelphia is open for business,” said Green. “We want you here. We want you to create jobs here.”
Venue to become Georgie Woods Entertainment Center in 2015
City Council on Thursday, March 15 voted to rename the Robin Hood Dell East. Effective in January 2015, the venue in North Philadelphia will be known as the Georgie Woods Entertainment Center.
Council unanimously supported the name change, which came over the objection of one man, Joey Temple, who urged Council to rewrite the bill renaming the entertainment venue so the name change would take place immediately.
“Why wait until 2015?” Temple asked Council during the public comment portion of the meeting. “I think Georgie Woods’ name should go up immediately.”
Temple, an ex-gang member, credited Woods with turning his life around and said Woods didn’t get the public recognition he deserved.
“Not a lot was done in his favor,” said Temple.
The bill’s sponsor, Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr., explained that city custom mandates a 10-year waiting period between the death of a notable Philadelphian and the naming of a public facility after him or her. Woods died in 2005.
“He would have been proud of the renaming of the Dell,” said Jones.
Jones also introduced legislation that would make the Police Advisory Commission permanent and expand its authority through a change to the city charter. He also called for an investigation into the commission, which has a backlog of 400 complaints.
“Maybe it needs a referendum for greater independence, or maybe the current structure needs to be tweaked,” Jones told the Tribune earlier this week. “Either way, people need to have confidence that their complaints will be heard — and if they’re legitimate, that some fair action will be taken. Police officers should also be confident that false allegations will be dealt with swiftly too.”
The proposal was referred to committee.
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell took Mayor Michael Nutter to task for a ban on feeding the homeless outdoors in city parks.
“What if Jesus were around at this time, trying to spread some fishes and some loaves of bread? I guess he’d be in trouble,” Blackwell fumed. “It amazes me that we have to give, but the giving that one makes out of one’s own reserves is being regulated.”
Blackwell, well known for her advocacy for the homeless, chastised the mayor in a blistering seven-minute speech before council. She condemned the ban and related policies that would fine violators up to $150 after two warnings.
“It is unconscionable that we have decided that we’re not allowed to feed the hungry,” she said.
Nutter, citing health and safety concerns, announced on Wednesday that he had instructed parks commissioner to begin enforcing a ban on feeding the homeless in public parks within the next 30 days, as part of a new administration policy.
He pitched the policy as one centered on public health and safety concerns, and as way to assist people needing food and shelter.
“Aside from the dignity provided by sitting down at a given time in a given place for a nutritious meal, an indoor location enables the city and its partners to offer health, mental health, housing, a place to receive mail and other needed services to this very vulnerable population,” he said.
The mayor added that until the many groups that feed the homeless outside and those that have indoor facilities can coordinate their activities, the outdoor groups can feed people on the apron at City Hall.
They “will be required to sign up with the Department of Public Property and reserve the days and times for their activity,” said Nutter. “Those who wish to provide safe food will be welcome to do so, and we will try to coordinate their feeding to assure a more balanced, predictable schedule for the hungry.”
Finally, as council begins to dig into Nutter’s budget proposal, members voiced their opinions of the administration’s plan to change the way property values are assessed, switching the basis of taxes to full market value.
The administration plans to enact full valuation assessment later this year. Councilman Bill Green has urged the administration to delay a year to implement its plan in the name of bolstering confidence in city government.
However, the administration’s plan seems to have growing support among council members as they study revenue options. Full valuation would net about $90 million more dollars in revenue for the school district. The city would not receive any more than it does now, approximately $458 million.
“The administration is conflating two issues,” Green said this week. The “move to full value, which is required under state law, and revenue. They are separate and distinct issues. As we move to [full valuation] we should have that debate and make sure we have as much information as possible. As we talk about additional revenue … we should have a discussion about whether or not it is needed.”
Though the mayor’s budget does not include a formal tax increase, the city expects to collect about 8 percent more in property taxes next year as it moves to a tax system based on market values.
Administration officials are loathe to call that added revenue a tax hike.
“That would be a tax increase,” Green said.
School reform efforts already underway will essentially accomplish many of the goals laid out in a new proposal released this week by Councilman Bill Green, said an official with Mayor Michael Nutter’s office.
“The mayor has not had an in-depth conversation with the councilman on this proposal,” said Nutter’s spokesman Mark McDonald. “He certainly appreciates new ideas being put forward. In this case, it appears that the compact that was just signed this week addresses the issues being raised by the councilman.”
Green vehemently disagreed, characterizing his plan not as a reform measure, but as a plan to implement “continuous improvement.”
“I’m not talking about reforming schools,” said Green. “Reform is folly. We need continuous improvement. Reform implies that once you do it, it’s done. I don’t understand how a compact between four entities improved test scores.”
Green’s proposal, released Wednesday, would split the school district in two and put a portion of city schools under the control of a school board appointed by the mayor, with the rest moving to state oversight along with other troubled schools across the state.
His suggestions came just one day after Nutter, state, district and charter school officials announced the formation of the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact, agreeing to share education strategies and methods at schools across the city in an effort to improve education.
“The mayor’s point of view is that, in terms of turning around low-performing schools, we have now a very robust compact signed by the commonwealth, the city, the school district and the charter associations. We think this is the way forward,” McDonald said.
Green argued that the compact would not create the sweeping change needed.
“What I would like to hear, if people think this is a bad idea, is, ‘How do you transform the way schools will work?’ Or do you think the incremental gains are going to move the dial?” he said. “They have to do something to change the way the schools are working.”
The councilman acknowledged that his proposal, in the form of a 12-page policy paper sent to Philadelphia’s state legislators, would be controversial.
State Rep. James Roebuck, chair of the House education committee, said he hadn’t had time to fully review the proposal.
“I haven’t seen it yet,” Roebuck said when asked for comment. Roebuck said he’d seen media reports but wanted to be better informed before commenting.
“I’m not entirely certain what he’s actually proposing,” he said.
Roebuck said he intended to thoroughly look over the policy paper and would respond then. State Sen. Anthony Williams, a member of the Senate education committee, could not be reached for comment.
It would take action by the state General Assembly and the governor to dismantle the district’s current oversight board, the School Reform Commission.
Since 2001, the School Reform Commission, a five-member panel appointed jointly by the mayor and the governor, had governed the district. The mayor appoints two members, the governor three, and the governor also has the authority to name the board chair.
The SRC was created as part of a state takeover of the district in an effort to improve slumping test scores and address perennial budget woes.
But reform efforts have not paid off, Green said.
Instead, the district is “stagnating,” said Green, comparing the situation to that of a ship beached on a sandbar and in danger of sinking.
“High tide is coming and time is running out to get seaworthy,” he wrote.
In his report, Green noted that fewer than half of the district’s schools — 46 percent — made adequate yearly progress in 2011, and that the district estimates that it will take more than a hundred years, until 2123, to get all students at grade level in reading and math.
Dividing the district would do two things, he argued. It would increase local control and accountability and remove local political hurdles from reform efforts needed to turn around the city’s worst schools, and bring the additional resources needed from the state.
In Green’s proposal, the school board, with members appointed by the mayor, would take control of the city’s best performing schools. The remainder would be placed under the control of a state authority charged with reforming them.
He compared his ideas to reform initiatives in Louisiana.
There, the state took over 77 schools, primarily in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, while letting individual districts continue to operate successful schools.
“The school district is too big to succeed,” said Green. “And, it has too many inconsistent and varying missions to be successful at all of them. We should just take the most difficult mission and give responsibility to a group that is dedicated to only that.”
Real reform is imperative, Green said, because the future of the city is a stake.
“We have to do something for the children who are in school today,” he said. “We’ve got five or six generations who will not have successful lives if we continue at the current pace of change.”
Nutter says city can’t afford resulting revenue loss
City Council let stand a mayoral veto of a proposed cut in the city’s parking tax, but the bill’s sponsor vowed to re-visit the issue next year.
Councilman Jim Kenney, who sponsored the bill that would have cut the tax from 20 percent to 17 percent, said he didn’t have enough votes to pass the measure over Mayor Michael Nutter’s veto, a move that would take 12 votes.
“Apparently the mayor has learned to lobby in the last couple of days,” Kenney said. “So, I will not be asking my colleagues to put up a vote, but I will tell now that the first day back in session, in January, this piece of legislation will be re-introduced.”
Council passed the bill three weeks ago with a 12-5 vote, seeming to guarantee that it could withstand a veto.
But, Kenney told reporters after the meeting that four members of Council — he declined to say who — had changed their minds, temporarily sinking his proposal.
Council members Bill Green, Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, Brian O’Neill, Blondell Reynolds-Brown and Darrell Clarke were the original five members to oppose the bill. O’Neill and Brown reiterated their opposition again on Thursday.
“This industry does not bring tears to my eyes at all,” O’Neill said, noting that the tax cut was only for the parking industry and not across the board. “They absolutely gouge people who come into the city.”
The proposal came at time when city revenue is again falling, added Brown, and parking officials said in public testimony that they would not pass the savings on to their customers.
“The parking industry has not made any real commitment to lower parking rates for customers,” she said, adding that with revenue projections lower than expected, the city could not afford to lose any more money. “Given … the city’s revenue loss we simply cannot provide this reduction for the parking industry.”
Nutter, in explaining his decision, said the cut, which would not have gone into affect until 2014, would have cost the city $24 million over four years.
“This is the wrong time to adopt new tax breaks, particularly for a single industry,” he said, in a letter to Council, noting that sales and wage tax revenues had fallen $10 million below projections so far this year. If that trend continued, he said, the city could lose $60 million over the next two years.
In other news, Council is expected to vote on whether or not to join a suit that would ban natural gas drilling with hydraulic fracturing until a full environmental impact study is completed.
And, the council designated Oct. 8 as Indigenous Peoples Day and approved a resolution that set the first Saturday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day.
City Council President Darrell Clarke’s head is full of ideas, and he just wants to get on with it already.
“I have a sense of urgency,” Clarke said, as he reflected on his first few months as president. “I’ve got to do stuff. I’ve got municipal marketing. I’ve got a development district. And, the other members too, we’ve got projects.”
Some of his ideas — like municipal marketing, selling advertising space on city property — have been controversial. But, Clarke, at a recent Tribune editorial board meeting, said it's time for city government to begin looking at fresh ways to generate revenue.
He’s going to keep throwing out ideas until he’s solved the problem.
Clarke has been portrayed as something of a sphinx – quiet, diligent, a man who worked best behind the scenes. That’s pretty much how he’s operated since being first elected to council in 1999. He held a leadership role, majority whip, but it was one that allowed him to remain in the shadows.
That’s impossible as council president. Yet, his tendency to shun the spotlight is evident in his leadership style.
“I guess I’m decentralizing the council president’s authority. I think it’s been very helpful, and I think it’s been good for the members,” he said.
Already the tenor of council has changed.
For the first time, a council president, who has traditionally exercised great authority in what legislation moves, when and who on council is involved, has delegated quite a bit of that authority.
“I think I’ve tried to be fair,” he said. “Every council person chairs a committee, which is unprecedented.”
As an example, he pointed to Councilman David Oh, a freshman and a Republican, two strikes against him under traditional council leadership, but Clarke has put in him charge of the Committee on Global Opportunities.
“He’s supposed to be chairing that committee,” Clarke said.
As president, he also expects every member to pull his or her weight.
“Don’t expect me to do the follow up,” he said. “You do the follow up and make sure the legislation gets enacted properly. They love it.”
Clarke recognizes that to get some of his ideas put in place he’ll have to collaborate even more – primarily with Mayor Michael Nutter.
“The reality is that the legislative branch of government cannot implement programs. That is, to a large degree, some of the frustration that a legislator suffers. Because at the end of the day, you can have nine million great ideas, but if the mayor chooses not to implement it that’s all it is, an idea,” he said.
The relationship between the two men – often acrimonious – is evolving.
“To be determined,” was how Clarke described it.
He stepped into the city’s top legislative job in January during a period that was deceptively quiet. Council, now knee-deep in budget hearings that are convoluted with concerns over a move to a property tax system based on full property values, and this week’s bombshell about the school district’s budget, is wrestling with issues that will shape the city’s long-term future.
Critics worried that the influence of his political mentor, former Mayor John F. Street, would be too evident.
Nutter campaigned vigorously behind the scenes against Clarke’s election to the presidency. The mayor backed former Majority Leader Marian Tasco.
Clarke doesn’t seem to hold a grudges.
He joked about Tasco’s recent participation in Dancing with the Philadelphia Stars, a charity dance contest Tasco won.
“It was a little bit rigged,” he said laughing.
As far as Nutter is concerned, Clarke admits that for progress to be made the two men will have to collaborate. The city made little progress under Mayor Bill Green, who was constantly at odds with council, he said. W. Wilson Goode had a better relationship with council but the city was broke at the time. Ed Rendell, during his tenure as mayor, managed to work well with Council President John Street.
“Street sat down and said ‘this is what I want’ and Ed said ‘this is what I want’ - they worked a deal and stuff happened,” said Clarke.
Whether that will happen remains to be seen.
In any event, Clarke now has a greater respect for former Council President Anna C. Verna, who steered council from 1999 to 2012.
“Every day I think about Anna Verna with a newfound respect,” he said, adding that he hoped he could be an example for his colleagues. “We’ve been given a significant opportunity and responsibility — and we need to treat it as such.”
Public testimony continued Thursday in City Council over Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposed actual value initiative, or AVI, a plan to radically overhaul property tax values in Philadelphia.
None of those who spoke during the hearing expressed total opposition to the plan; in fact they acknowledged that the current property tax assessment system is unbalanced and extremely flawed. The greatest concern was the fear that Council could vote on the issue before all of the property reassessments are completed — which won’t be until 2013.
“We’re not against AVI,” said James Foster, publisher of the Germantown Chronicle. “But we are concerned about how its passage will impact the economy of the city. I call this an awakening to the reality of neglect in the city. We have one of the best transit systems in the country and I would ask that Council members take a ride on a train, get a window seat going just outside the city and a window seat going back in. All of these trains go right through the hearts of your districts. You will see what’s left of the economic base that made Philadelphia great. Dilapidated buildings, abandoned houses, impromptu junkyards, and of course, empty blocks where buildings once stood. What do all of these properties have in common? They are paying no real estate taxes. They are paying no business taxes and are employing no residents of Philadelphia. Bad decisions drove people out before — and if this passes you will once again see another several hundred thousand leave in short order.”
Foster also said that Council and the Nutter administration should put more emphasis on collections of tax delinquent properties.
Last week, City Council approved to the new property tax system, but the final vote is pending. The proposal, which if passed along with the Use and Occupancy tax, would bring more than $85 million more for the financially limping school district. But public support for the new measures is shaky and residents are concerned that council is being pushed to pass the bills before all of the property assessments are in. The vocal residents who testified on Thursday, along with some members of Council are asking for a one-year delay in AVI, a proposal offered by City Councilman Mark Squilla.
“Our primary concern is the long term impact that raising the tax bills will have,” said Jeff Carpineta, president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association. “Some residents could find their tax bills going up from $800 dollars to $2,500 or $3,500 dollars. These residents could wind up making late payments on mortgages or in some cases even face foreclosures, decreasing the values of the communities and dumping more properties on the market. We’ll see more residents dislocated. If we don’t have a year to work this out, it could be a disaster.”
Residents stated their agreement that the current tax assessment system needs to be fixed. Mayor Nutter wants to fix Philadelphia’s broken property-tax system by reassessing all homes and businesses, and in the process, raise millions for the school district. Revamping the property-tax system will give city residents the most accurate assessments in years.
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 in a previous interview. “Once the new values are in, we have to use them.”
Councilmen Bill Green and Mark Squilla have announced their opposition to the proposal, calling on the administration to delay implementation for another year. And state Sen. Larry Farnese has also come on board, saying he was introducing legislation in Harrisburg that would give Council that option. Opponents say they’re being asked to vote on something before all of the information is available and assessment figures will not be available until July.
Over and over during Thursday’s hearing, residents and business people alike implored Council to delay the process for one year.
“Really, I’m very pessimistic about Philadelphia’s prospects for the future,” said real estate developer Richard Snowden. “The notion that this Council is even considering a property tax increase, coming on the heels of other recent large tax increases and a jump in virtually every fee the city imposes on businesses indicates a blatant disregard for the people of this city. Due to the unreasonable scale and lack of phasing of this policy I have alerted our employees, tenants and members for 2013 includes enormous rent increases which many simply cannot afford to pay. We’ll see layoffs and curtailments in restoration and rehabilitation of buildings — all so the city can get its thirty pieces of silver. Many small Mom and Pop businesses will simply close their doors.”