Philadelphia is on track to set a murder record this year — 75 percent of them with handguns — and city officials are trying to find new ways to stem the flow of blood.
Already the city has the highest murder rate of the nation’s 10 largest cities, a distinction it’s held since 2006.
And, the guns keep popping — with 208 murders this year, “Killadelphia” is earning its notoriety.
“Gun violence is the biggest problem we have,” said City Councilman Bill Greenlee. “The gun violence in this city is completely ridiculous, and we have to be open to everything and everybody to try and solve it.”
Greenlee was one of a handful of council members who attended a roundtable discussion with a group called GunCrisis.org on Tuesday at City Hall. The event, hosted by Majority Leader Curtis Jones, was intended to spark a discussion on how the city can deal with the murder epidemic.
GunCrisis.org was started by former Daily News photographer Jim McMillan, who launched it in March.
McMillan said he grew tired of documenting the city’s crime epidemic, and decided to do what he could to help end it. While he admitted that a number of factors go into creating the problem, he said that too much time was lost in discussing them and not enough on just trying to get people to lay down their guns.
“We have to avoid getting paralyzed by the myriad of social problems and causes, and just say, ‘what if we stop shooting?’” he said.
The toll in lives is particularly heavy in the Black community. Statistically, urban Black men are 200 times more likely to be murdered then their white counterparts. According to the Philadelphia Police Department, from January 2007 until June, 645 Black males between the ages of 7 and 25 were murdered in Philadelphia.
But, it has an enormous cost for the entire city.
“This is a pressing issue for all of us — no matter what part of the city you live in,” said Jones.
According to figures unveiled Tuesday, the total cost of the city’s violent crime to each resident is about $2,400. A 10 percent reduction in crime would save the city $17 million a year, or $240 per resident. A 25 percent reduction would save approximately $44 million annually.
McMillan said he endorsed a concept that has worked in Chicago, where violent crime is treated like a public health epidemic — using the same three steps that health officials used when faced with a health crisis: isolation, interruption and behavior modification.
Council members said they were open to any possible solution.
“We’ve tried lots of things, unfortunately, nothing has worked yet,” Greenlee said. “I listen to the news every night and think ‘My God, there is another person in the city getting killed.’”
Finding a way to end the violence is vital.
“In order for us to for us to move forward as a city, we have to have a safe city,” said Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. “I’m here to make sure that as we move forward, we have a progressive and an aggressive agenda focusing on the issue of gun violence.”
For seven years, Renee Norris-Jones was a “prisoner of war” — daily facing the horrors of domestic violence that included beatings, threats on her life, and threats to her children.
“I’ve had more black eyes than I can count,” she told City Council’s Committee on Safety, on Monday, March 19. “I’ve had hot grease poured on me. I lost two children I gave up for adoption because I could not protect them.”
Norris-Jones was one of several survivors of domestic violence advocating for more shelter space and funding for victim services as council investigates the impact of proposed state budget cuts to city services.
Under Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget, funding for various human services programs, which includes services for the homeless and shelters for victims of domestic abuse, would be slashed approximately 20 percent, about $40 million.
“The cuts under human services are unbelievable,” said Councilman Bill Greenlee. “The folks in Harrisburg are living in another world up there - or don’t care.”
Cuts proposed for this year come after years of previous cuts, magnifying their impact. In addition, cuts at the state level seem poised to curtail services in other areas, which could cause a cascade effect - straining the system even further.
The system that provides services for victims of domestic abuse is already overwhelmed.
Philadelphia, a city with a population of 1.5 million, has just one 100-bed shelter dedicated to emergency housing for victims of domestic abuse. Last year, it served 615 people and turned away 7,705.
“We cannot meet the shelter needs of domestic violence victims in crisis in our community,” said Meghan Kincade, director of the shelter, which is run by Women Against Abuse.
Other large cities have a higher ratio of beds when compared to their populations.
Washington DC, with a population of 600,000 has a 96-bed shelter. Baltimore, Md. has 84 beds for its population of 631,000 and Pittsburgh, with a population of 310,000 has shelter for 32 people.
Those are beds dedicated to emergencies; the city also tries to provide longer term, independent housing through the Office of Supportive Housing, which also assists in providing housing for the homeless, veterans, people with disabilities and people with HIV/AIDS. So, as budgets shrink across agencies, the OSH finds that it is more difficult to meet growing needs.
“OSH has experienced a 339 percent increase in overall demand for family emergency housing between [fiscal year] ’08 and 2011,” said Dainette Mintz, director of the Office of Supportive Housing
And, while incidents of domestic violence nationwide have been declining, in Philadelphia, they are on the rise.
“In 2010, the number of households experiencing domestic violence was 438,” Mintz said, noting that her statistic probably under reported on the phenomenon, which is difficult to track because of the shame it provokes in victims and families. “The count in 2011 was 477.”
Statistics are difficult to compile because domestic violence is a crime that often isolates and shames the victim - who may not report it. Shelter is crucial to ending that isolation and making sure victims get the assistance they need to build new lives.
“The need for a temporary and immediate shelter is a priority for survivors of domestic violence, who do not have the luxury of time to wait … for other housing.”
Norris-Jones struggled for years to escape the violence that had engulfed her life – turning first to her mother and sisters. They could offer no help. Finally, she turned to her father, a man she idolized.
His response left her isolated and with few options.
“His words to me were ‘what did you think marriage was?’” she told the committee, choking back tears. “I had no place to go.”
So, she called Women Against Abuse.
“You called, and you hoped there was space,” she said. “Because if there wasn’t, he already knows you’re gone by now and that’s where you’re going to go back if there isn’t.”
Norris-Jones had finally managed to escape from the man who had held a gun to her head to keep her from leaving.
“WAA was my Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad,” she said.
Had she stayed, it’s likely she would have died.
“My husband went to jail for chopping his mother up with an axe,” Norris-Jones said.
Committee members merely took testimony Monday. City officials have little to say about what cuts will be approved the state legislature. And, it’s unclear what city officials could do to meet the need for shelter, but several ideas are floating around city hall.
Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, a committee member, said he was trying to come up with a plan to use some of the vacant property across the city to address the shelter crisis.
“We give away a lot of public property to developers,” he said.
Domestic violence has a disproportionate effect on African-Americans.
Nationally, nearly a third of African-American women reported at least one incident of domestic violence. As a group, African-American women make up 8 percent of the population nationally, but represented 29 percent of female victims, and 22 percent of homicide victims in domestic related crimes, according to statistics from the Institute of Domestic Violence in the African American Community, University of Minnesota.
Men too can be victims. Approximately 12 percent of Black men reported being the victim of domestic abuse.
The controversial paid sick leave bill was comfortably approved by City Council Thursday, over the objections of the business community, which has argued that the move will hamstring the city’s economy.
Council disagreed and approved the bill by a vote of 11 to 6, a larger margin than in 2011 when a similar measure passed by 9-8, only to be vetoed by Mayor Michael Nutter.
“These workers are good people and they work hard and they deserve the right benefits,” said the bill’s sponsor Bill Greenlee, urging his colleagues to support it. “And it’s time to do the right thing.”
It passed with the approval of members Cindy Bass, Jannie Blackwell, Blondell Reynolds Brown, W. Wilson Goode Jr., Greenlee, Bobby Henon, Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones Jr., Maria Quinones Sanchez, Marian Tasco and Council President Darrell Clarke.
Voting against the proposal were Bill Green, Jim Kenney, Dennis O’Brien, David Oh, Brian O’Neill and Mark Squilla.
Nutter would not say whether or not he would veto this proposal.
“It is my policy; I don’t predict what I’m going to do on legislation,” the mayor said, adding that his broad views had not changed.
The bill would require employers to provide one hour of paid sick time off for every 40 hours worked. Large firms, those with 20 employees or more, would be required to give seven sick days a year. Small employers, those with between 5 and 20 employees, would give four paid sick days. Organizations with fewer than 5 employees are exempted.
The vote was preceded by a lengthy debate as members aired their differences and the public had a chance to comment.
Business officials again argued against it.
“We ask for a no vote on this legislation for one simple reason. It will not create one new job in Philadelphia,” said Rob Wunderling, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
Oh and Green pointed out that Philadelphia has high unemployment – 10.6 percent, according to Green – and is expected to lose jobs in the coming years. Oh said those jobs were likely to be low-paying.
Both men were booed by the audience, which consisted of many union members.
“The issue is going to be whether we are going to create more jobs or lose more jobs,” said Oh.
Several city residents asked Council to put business interests aside and think of the working man.
“If you all want to do something for, we the people, pass the bill. Stand with us,” said Marvin Robinson.
Vincent Fragle, a member of of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, District Council 33 put the issue in the context of the city’s labor movement.
“What are you going to do?” he asked, saying that all workers – union and non-union, public and private –- deserved sick days. “Are you going to get your heads out of the sand or just smile and shake our hands and give us the bull**** like you’ve been doing?”
Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said members needed to think of the larger context of history.
“We cannot be afraid of pushing the needle in the right direction for the sake of humanity,” he said. “We will be judged, not by what we do for the strongest of us, but by what we do for the weakest of us.”
Hoping to persuade a veto-proof two-thirds of his colleagues on city council to approve an earned sick-leave bill, Councilman Bill Greenlee has gone on the offensive.
“I’d like to think the mayor will have a change of heart on this, but I’m not counting on that,” Greenlee said. “He’s been pretty definitive that he opposes it. But, we’re hoping that 12 council people will see the light.”
It is Greenlee’s second attempt to get a sick-leave bill in place.
Last year, he managed to shepherd a bill through council. It was approved in June 2011, but Mayor Michael Nutter vetoed it in September. Unable to muster the 12 votes needed to override a mayoral veto, the bill died.
But, Greenlee remained dedicated to the concept.
He said at that time that he would re-introduce the bill, and said this week that he plans to do so in January.
A spokesman for the mayor, Mark McDonald, said the administration doesn’t comment on legislation until it’s formally introduced.
When he vetoed the bill in 2011, Nutter cited concerns that forcing employers to give sick leave would make the city less business friendly.
“It would put thousands of jobs at risk and discourage businesses from coming to Philadelphia,” he said. “I do not believe this is the time or the place for this piece of legislation.”
Though he might change the bill slightly, Greenlee said his strategy is not to change the bill to make it more acceptable to opponents, but to persuade enough of his colleagues to back the bill so that council can override another veto.
“We’ll probably tweak the guidelines of how many days somebody has to get, and what we’re calling small businesses,” he said. “But, what we’re trying to do is another attempt to convince enough council people that it’s the right thing to do.”
The last incarnation of Greenlee’s bill, which council approved 9-8, required employers with 11 or more employees to give workers seven paid sick days a year. Companies with fewer than 10 employees would be required to provide four days of paid sick leave.
An estimated 210,000 workers in Philadelphia do not have paid sick leave.
On Tuesday, Greenlee declined to say whose support in council he could count on this time around, commenting only that he had enough support to pass a bill again. He admitted he was still shy of the votes to override another veto if it came to that.
“But I’m close,” he said optimistically.
He hoped to convince doubters that earned sick leave would benefit workers and business.
“It’s good for the businesses too, because satisfied and happy workers are more productive,” Greenlee said. “You show respect, you get respect.”
The African-American Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce both opposed the bill in its last incarnation.
Hoping to assuage their doubts, Greenlee held a round table discussion on the topic earlier this week that featured businesses who have paid sick days and think it’s been positive for their business.
“Most of the fears are imaginary,” Greenlee said. “There are businesses doing it now, and it’s not hurting them.”
He noted that several other cities, including San Francisco, Calif., Washington D.C., and Seattle, Wash. all have sick leave laws.
“It’s going to happen eventually everywhere. It’s just a matter of are we going to do this up front or are we going to be in the back, as, unfortunately, we are with many other issues,” he said.
The city does have a bill that requires companies that receive city money to provide sick leave. In October 2011, council passed it by a 15-2 vote and Nutter signed it.
Those businesses included contractors and sub-contractors with contracts over $10,000 that extend at least a year, provided the company has gross receipts of $1 million or more; nonprofits, acting as prime or sub-contractors with contracts of $1 million or more that extend at least a year and recipients of city leases or franchises with 25 or more employees.
The bill requires those businesses with 11 or more employees to give employees up to seven sick days a year. Companies with 10 or fewer workers would have been required to give four sick days annually.
The battle over paid sick leave is shaping up to be one of the major debates of City Council’s spring session with both sides digging in as Council considers a bill that would require most companies in Philadelphia to give employees paid sick days.
“This government-knows-best, heavy-handed mandate is a significant burden,” Patrick Conway, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, told members of City Council on Tuesday during Health Committee hearings on the issue.
His argument was countered by a waitress who said she’s often worked sick because she can’t afford to take a day off, unpaid.
“Everyone who waitresses works while they’re sick because they don’t have sick time and they need the money,” said Rosemary Devine.
Their arguments represented the larger debate on the issue which broke down along health and social justice lines and economic considerations. Both sides said they represent the best interests of employees and the city. The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce is against the bill as is the African-American Chamber of Commerce. Labor advocates are for it.
Under a proposal from Councilman Bill Greenlee most employers in Philadelphia to give workers earned, paid sick days.
The bill has been amended while in committee – in its current guise it would require employers to provide one hour of sick time off for every 40 hours worked. For large firms, those with 20 employees or more would be required to give seven sick days a year. Small employers, those with between 5 and 20 employees, would give four paid sick days. Organizations with fewer than 5 employees are exempted.
The issue has divided council and the administration and business and labor advocates for more than a year. A previous bill was narrowly approved by council in 2011. It was vetoed by Mayor Michael Nutter, who cited economic concerns as the reason for his opposition.
Greenlee re-introduced a similar proposal earlier this year.
This week he sensed an administration grudge against his persistence.
The hearings were held by the Health Committee – yet the administration sent the head of the Commerce Department, Alan Greenberger, to answer questions. Greenlee wanted Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz to testify.
Schwarz did not appear and Greenlee blasted Nutter.
“I think Schwarz is an honorable man,” the councilman said, saving his anger for the mayor. “To not have the health commissioner come to a hearing is the most disrespectful thing this administration has ever done.”
Greenberger called the bill “commendable” but said the administration would prefer to see a statewide bill which would level the field between Philadelphia and the surrounding counties.
“It is the goal of this administration to make it easier to do business in the City of Philadelphia in “order to increase our competiveness vis-à-vis the suburbs and other cities,” Greenberger said. These employers told us they might have to reduce the pay of their employees or reduce jobs. It might lead to increased costs for their customers.”
With other options, Greenberg worried many businesses will simply avoid Philadelphia.
“Businesses will be scared off from coming here when they have choices,” he said. “Had this been a different economic climate our point of view might be different.”
The arguments were one sided, Greenlee said: “You just talked about businesses.”
When one opponent said businesses could no longer afford “unfunded mandates” from the city, Greenlee got riled up.
“Minimum wage laws were unfunded mandates. Child labor laws were unfunded mandates,” he said, dismissing the entire point of view. “It is a matter of whether it’s right or not.”
At one point he grew so exasperated he blurted out: “I feel like I’m dealing with the Tea Party or something.”
More than 40 people were scheduled to testify at the hearings with several more, including U.S. Rep. Bob Brady who supported paid sick leave, submitting written testimony. The audience, which booed occasionally, waved signs with slogans like: “fired for being sick,” “paid sick time now” and “no germs in my pasta.”
It was too early to predict what might happen to the bill during a council vote, Greenlee said. Support seems fall largely along party lines with Democrats, who make up a majority, supporting and Republicans opposing – though several Democrats have voted against the measure.
Councilman David Oh, a Republican, summed up his concerns.
“Philadelphia is on track to lose about 75,000 jobs over the next five or six years,” he said. “I suspect we’re not losing high paid, high skilled jobs…the challenge that we will all address is how we bring more jobs into the neighborhoods of Philadelphia.”
Former Health Commissioner Walter Tsou said the bill provides health and business benefits: “in the long run [an employee] will be more productive if they can get their illness treated or controlled,” he said.
Two of outgoing City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller’s aides have been fined by the city’s Board of Ethics — and one of them was fired after admitting to performing unauthorized campaign work at Miller’s City Hall office.
Communications director Michael Quintero Moore and Kacy Nickens — who also happens to be Miller’s niece — were both fined by the board. Nickens was fired, too, after the pair admitted to working on fliers and other campaign material for Verna Tyner’s campaign at Miller’s office.
Miller endorsed Tyner in the May primary, after announcing that she would not seek re-election.
Moore has agreed to pay fines totaling $3,800–$1,800 for violating the city’s ethics code, which prohibits the use of city time and property for campaign work, and $2,000 for trying to obstruct the Board of Ethics’ investigation into the matter. He’s allowed to keep his $60,179 job until the end of the year, but then must seek employment outside City Hall for at least one year.
Nickens agreed to pay fines totaling $300 for doing campaign work in Miller’s office. She lost her job, at a salary of $30,000. The terms of the settlement also bar her from returning to a city job for one year.
Officials with the Board of Ethics announced the settlements early this week, after the board ratified the settlement agreements. Miller was not part of the settlement.
On May 13, just days after Miller announced her retirement, city officials raided her office, seizing stacks of documents and several computers.
According to documents released this week, they found Nickens “seated at Councilwoman Miller’s desk, surrounded by hundreds of copies of 59th Ward fliers promoting Verna Tyner … at the same time, the office photocopier was printing out additional copies of the fliers.”
Moore created the flyer using a computer, email and printer in Miller’s office, and gave more than 1,000 copies to Nickens with orders to fold them. He also admitted to creating other campaign materials for Tyner with office equipment at City Hall. In addition, documents released by the ethics board said Moore received reimbursement for the cost of putting together the fliers and used a City Hall computer to review the checks he received.
After the investigation started, Moore admitted to destroying computer files linked to the investigation and refused to take part in a board interview under oath, leading to the obstruction charge.
The investigation highlighted the barroom brawl atmosphere surrounding the election to replace Miller in the 8th District. Seven candidates ran in the primary. Tyner had Miller’s backing, but Cindy Bass, who ultimately won, had the backing of several Democratic Party bigwigs, which was unusual. Typically, the outgoing candidate anoints his or her replacement with the blessing of the party — or at the very least does not oppose the party favorite publicly.
That was not the case in this instance.
And when a letter on Miller’s official letterhead endorsing Tyner went out, ethics officials zeroed in on her office. At the time, officials from Miller’s office and Tyner’s campaign characterized the letter as “an inadvertent staff mistake.”
Tyner has a long history in City Hall, having served as chief of staff for the late Councilman At-Large David Cohen and Councilman At-Large Bill Greenlee.
Bass, who will take Miller’s seat in January, has a long history with the Democratic Party and deep ties to U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah.
BALTIMORE — In an unusual foray into policy, City Council President Darrell Clarke has begun a quiet campaign to bring more surveillance cameras to Philadelphia’s streets.
The program comes under the mayor’s authority, but Clarke has some ideas of his own.
So, he led a delegation of four council members — Cindy Bass, Curtis Jones and Bill Greenlee — in daylong tour of Baltimore on Thursday to look at its much-lauded program. It was an effort by Clarke to prod administration officials in Philadelphia into embracing a more expansive and sophisticated camera surveillance program.
“The camera program, for one reason or another, never really realized the expectations that we anticipated,” Clarke said. “We’re trying to get this back on track. It’s gotten to a point where I felt the need to personally go out and see what I believe to be one of the best models.”
His frustration goes back to former Mayor John Street’s administration. But, Clarke has raised his concerns with the Nutter administration, he said, and has not gotten what he considers an appropriate response.
“We haven’t gotten a real explanation as to where we are going with this in the City of Philadelphia,” he said.
The visit hinted at a divide between Clarke and Mayor Michael Nutter. Clarke, while remaining extremely circumspect in his comments, said: “I need to get a little more engaged. I need to arm myself with as much information as possible. That’s why I took this trip.”
Though Baltimore has roughly half of Philadelphia’s population of 1.5 million, officials there have put in place a network of more than 700 surveillance cameras that combines public and private resources, a move that police officials said cut crime by 25 percent.
Despite the difference in size, there are many similarities between the two cities. Both have working class roots and similar demographics. Both have a prosperous downtown heavy with tourist sites. About 38 million people visit Philadelphia each year. Baltimore greets about 11 million each year. Both cities are made up of strong neighborhoods, many of which are decaying, and both have similar housing stock. Both are regional centers for large research hospitals and universities.
And both have also been plagued by high crime.
In 2011, murders in Baltimore hit a 34-year low at 197. In the late ’90s that number was often above 300. Last year the number of murders crept up again — hitting 217 — but, according to Lt. Robert Morris, crime in all other categories has dropped.
Baltimore spends about $1.8 million annually to monitor and maintain the network of cameras, said Lt. Samuel Hood III. Determining the city’s initial investment is difficult, Hood said, because from the start the city relied on private partners. He estimated a municipal outlay of roughly $8 million.
Hood estimated that Baltimore gets a $1.50 benefit from every $1 the city spends, and that 97 percent of cameras are fully operable every day.
Philadelphia has a $13.9 million surveillance camera program, but a recent report by Controller Alan Butkovitz found that it is largely dysfunctional. The report, released in June 2012, found that fewer than half of Philadelphia’s police cameras worked. According to Butkovitz’s audit, only 102 of 216 cameras worked.
“This has resulted in a cost to the city of $136,000 per operating camera,” wrote Butkovitz in the report.
More importantly, Clarke said, Philadelphia’s thugs know the cameras don’t work.
“Quite frankly, no one is watching — and the criminals know it,” he said.
In Baltimore, someone is always watching.
“We don’t have enough police officers,” said Baltimore Councilman Brandon Scott. “But, we have [cameras] and someone is always watching.”
The Baltimore Police Department has 3,000 officers and 700 civilian employees. Philadelphia has a force of about 6,600.
A group of retired police officers — hired through a private company that contracts their services to avoid pension rules that would force them to forfeit their pensions if they returned to a city job — monitor the cameras 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. In addition, the data is stored for 28 days. They do more than just watch. They are trained to keep an eye out for signs that a crime is about to happen, and work to stop it.
“Before it hits the news we stop it,” Hood said.
As an example, he showed a video clip of man leaving a parking garage with a conspicuous bulge at his waistband. The monitor suspected that it was gun. That suspicion was confirmed when police later confronted the man, and he did indeed have a gun.
The picture quality of the video footage is so good that in one example, a bullet could be seen streaking across the screen. Faces are easily identified.
The camera network doesn’t just monitor high crime areas. It is also used near the Inner Harbor, a busy tourist hub, where it helps police officers monitor crowds, especially during large scale events.
“There is no more anonymity downtown,” said Hood.
Cameras are just part of the city’s crime prevention efforts, which also include giving police officers mobile phones that include GPS and a tracking device that allows them to see video feeds from nearby cameras in real time — giving them the advantage of being able to see the scene of an incident as they prepare to respond. School police help monitors during student arrival and dismissal times.
In addition to capturing images, the camera network is part of a larger intelligence network that uses computers to bring together information from a number of sources including arrest, prison, probation and parole records, traffic records, gang affiliations, and whether or not the person was the victim of a crime. Hood said police also used Facebook.
Hood admitted that cameras sometimes push crime out of one area and into another — but as the number of unmonitored areas shrinks, criminals have fewer and fewer options. Scott added that at first, many residents resisted the idea of cameras in their neighborhoods.
“Now we have people asking for them,” he said.
The tour included a stop in East Baltimore, once one of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods. It still displayed signs of distress. Many houses were abandoned and boarded up — in some cases entire blocks. But, under a program administered by the city’s East Baltimore Development Inc., a nonprofit group charged with turning the neighborhood around, even boarded up homes are neatly kept, and the streets were spotless.
Surveillance cameras are part of a broader strategy to turn the neighborhood — an 88-acre swath of city adjacent to Johns Hopkins — around.
At the close of the tour, Clarke said he was impressed with the city’s surveillance program.
He was not prepared to discuss how much he’d like to spend on a similar program in Philadelphia, saying only that it was time for the city to “get fully committed.”
There are several hurdles — chief among them money. Baltimore’s timing contributed to its roll out of cameras. The city installed large chunks of the fiber optic network that links the cameras in the years after 9/11, a time when the federal government was providing funding for such projects. That funding is largely dried up.
Council members also worried about privacy concerns. They seemed to agree that in most instances, safety concerns were paramount.
“Post 9/11, I’m willing to give up a little of that,” Jones said. “Criminals will evolve as we do.”
City Council on Thursday passed a resolution urging the School Reform Commission to halt, for one year, its plan to close more than three dozen schools.
“We’re talking about a plan that should be thought out — with the community involved in the discussions — not being told afterwards and then being told that’s community inclusion,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who sponsored the resolution on the moratorium. “We’re not saying we’re not willing to talk about it. We’re saying we need inclusion on making decisions like this, so let’s hold up.”
The vote took place after one of the more spirited debates in Council’s recent history. Members made their points for more than an hour in front of a packed chamber and a balcony jammed with spectators who waved signs, booed, jeered and cheered, occasionally taxing Council President Darrell Clarke’s patience.
Ultimately, the resolution passed with a 14-2 vote. Members Maria Quiñones-Sanchez and Bill Green voted against it. Councilman Jim Kenney was absent.
“We cannot tell the district to right-size itself, and at the same time not give it money, and at the same time interfere in every single decision,” Sanchez told her colleagues. “It is irresponsible without additional money to tell the school district they cannot do anything.”
While the moratorium came with the enthusiastic support of the audience, which hooted and cheered at passage of the resolution, Council has no authority over the School Reform Commission, and so the vote was largely a show of members’ frustration.
Council cannot force the SRC to halt its plans.
However, it was also a signal — a very strong signal — to school commissioners that this year’s budget battle, when Council will exert its influence over how much money the city will give the district, is going to be tough when it comes to school funding.
For the last three years, Council has raised property taxes in an effort to give the district more money. This year that seems less likely to happen, and while Council doesn’t have any authority over the SRC, Sanchez pointed out that school commissioners will be unable to deal with their own budget without knowing how much money they will get from the city.
“No final decision can be made until we pass a budget,” she said. “I’m prepared to discuss additional funding in a responsible way — and then ask for a moratorium.”
Though she voted against the moratorium, Sanchez said that did not mean the district’s plan had her wholehearted approval. She, too, was annoyed at the way the SRC has handled the rollout of its plan to displace 17,000 students by shutting down 37 schools in an effort to save $62 million.
But, the fiscal reality that the district faces means that schools will close, she said.
Nearly everyone agrees that some schools will have to close. District enrollment is down by about 70,000 students and projected to keep dropping.
Council will get to question school administrators at 11 a.m. on Feb. 12 when it will hold hearings on the plan. Members have complained that they and the community were excluded from the district’s planning process and that the plan ignores some of the city’s realities like turf battles, transportation and logistic difficulties, as well as the impact of closing schools on the surrounding neighborhoods.
In other news, Councilman Bill Greenlee re-introduced a paid sick leave bill that would require employers to give workers one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked.
The timing of his move coincided with one of the worst flu seasons in recent years. Greenlee was quick to capitalize on that fact, noting that the workers who lack paid sick days often have the greatest interaction with the public.
Chef Calvin Okunoye said he called off sick and “was told I wasn’t pulling my weight.”
He had delaying skipping work, worried about how he would pay rent with a smaller paycheck.
“That’s not a choice any worker should have to make,” he said.
Council approved a similar measure in 2011, but Mayor Michael Nutter vetoed it, citing concerns first voiced by business leaders that it would increase the cost of doing business in Philadelphia. Greenlee vowed then that he would bring the matter back to the table and on Thursday, the first day of Council’s spring session, he made good on his promise, and said he was confident he had enough votes to outgun the mayor.
“I’m confident this bill will become law,” he said.
Council also voted 14-3 to override a mayoral veto that blocked changes to the newly adopted zoning code. Green, Sanchez and Councilman Mark Squilla backed the mayor. The remainder of council stuck with Blackwell, voting to override Nutter and change zoning rules to require developers to meet with more community groups in an area before it proceeds with plans, and to provide widespread notification development plans. Under the new code, developers had been required to meet with just one community group, a registered community organization designated to represent a specific area.
With its Thursday vote, Council changed that.
“This bill creates notice requirements that are almost impossible to legally comply with,” Green said. “They will hold up projects in the courts for years … We will all rue the day this veto was overridden.”
Finally, Council agreed to hold hearings on tax exempt properties owned by nonprofit organizations.
“We cannot continue to ask property owners for increased sacrifice [rising property taxes] when we have tax exempt, nonprofit institutions with profit margins that rival major corporations,” said Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who called for the hearings.
Two new reports cast very different light on a proposal that would require companies doing business in Philadelphia to give employees paid sick leave.
One, done by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, has concluded that the legislation would provide a “net economic benefit” for Philadelphia. A second, prepared for the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, found that mandatory sick leave would “make it difficult for the city to compete with other jurisdictions in attracting and retaining businesses.”
Both were released last week by the city’s commerce department, just as city council was preparing to hold hearings on the matter. Those hearings will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday in council chambers.
The debate over mandatory paid sick leave has been going on for the better part of two years, and has divided council and the Nutter administration. Roughly 182,600 employees in Philadelphia lack paid sick leave, according to the study done by the Institute. Some estimates suggest that as many as 210,000 people in Philadelphia do not get paid sick days.
Councilman Bill Greenlee has a bill in committee that would require companies to give sick leave. Companies with fewer than 11 employees would be required to provide five paid sick days and larger firms would have to provide nine days.
According to William Dunkelberg, a professor of economics who did the chamber’s 8-page study, about 32,000 employers would be affected by the bill at a cost between $350 and $752 million, as well as the loss of about 4,000 jobs.
“This legislation diverts the efforts of the entrepreneur from the main task of providing goods and services and creating jobs,” wrote Dunkelberg in his report.
His analysis did not include any benefits for employers or the city in terms of new revenue. And, added that even employees would not benefit.
“It ... reduces the options that employees have to negotiate an employment package that is most desirable to them,” he wrote. “The more their compensation is mandated, the fewer options they have.”
Dunkelberg estimated that “the law would create a financial and administrative burden to employers in Philadelphia that would cost the city both jobs and tax revenue.”
The other study estimated a much lower cost, about $51 million, and suggested a number of benefits that would result in a net savings of about $574,000. Savings come largely from estimates of lower employee turnover and a reduction in costs because of less sickness in the workplace, estimated at $49.8 million and $2 million respectively.
In addition, the 23-page report by the women’s institute expected “community savings” linked to lowering disease transmission. Those savings were projected at $24.2 million from reduced nursing stays, $7.7 million from less norovirus contagion, $293,000 from less flu contagion and $10 million saved from fewer emergency room visits.
Overall, concluded the report: “The analysis … still finds an economic benefit from the proposed legislation.”
Last year, Greenlee shepherded another bill through council, one that ultimately failed after a mayoral veto. It was approved by a vote of 9 to 8 in June 2011, but Mayor Michael Nutter vetoed it in September. Unable to muster the 12 votes needed to override a mayoral veto, the bill died.
When he vetoed the bill in 2011, Nutter cited concerns that forcing employers to give sick leave would make the city less business friendly.
“It would put thousands of jobs at risk and discourage businesses from coming to Philadelphia,” he said. “I do not believe this is the time or the place for this piece of legislation.”
In response, Greenlee has revived his proposal, with a few changes, and has the backing of Council President Darrell Clarke, who is a sponsor.
Paralyzed — and still unable to reach a consensus on a budget deal — City Council continued to wrestle with the details of a spending plan, as the clock continues to tick toward June 30 — the end of the fiscal year.
There are 14 different budget related proposals now before Council. Council members continued to meet late Thursday June 7 but at the publishing of thise article no deal had been announced.
“This is the most challenging budget process that I have been through,” Council President Darrell Clarke told reporters on Thursday, noting that he has served on Council for 12 years.
A deal will be reached by July 1, Clarke said, but would not commit to anything sooner.
“We want to make sure we have spending ability on July 1,” he said.
Two budget related issues have splintered members — an administration proposal to change the way property taxes are assessed, moving from a traditional assessment based on a fraction of a property’s value to one based on the full value of property — called the Actual Value Initiative — and the fact that a cash strapped school district is pressing members for more money.
Members are worried that they need to pass a budget before the administration can provide all the new assessment data, which won’t be available until July at the earliest, needed to reach an informed decision on AVI. Similarly, they are concerned that they have little oversight over how the district, which has repeated asked for more money, spends its allocation from the city.
On Monday, Clarke announced Council will consider both AVI and funding for schools in separate votes.
But by Thursday, severing the two issues seemed to have translated into little forward momentum for budget talks. Members met in the morning for their routine meeting, but most of the day was occupied with budget talks.
For the most part, discussions continued privately, with members meeting in small groups throughout the day. Members rotate in and out of meetings in small groups to avoid violating the state’s Sunshine Law. In a hint of possible discord, members remained sequestered longer than expected, delaying a meeting of the committee of the whole, which is required to move any legislation before Council.
“We need to make some decisions and we’ll vote those out of committee,” Clarke said.
He would not say what was going on behind the scenes nor comment on how close members were to reaching a deal.
“There is never a deal until it’s done,” he said. “I learned that a long time ago.”
If members fail to reach an accord — with at least nine votes — they could vote all 14 proposals out of committee and vote on each one in Council.
Late Thursday afternoon, Councilman W. Wilson Goode said he expected to see some action on bills related to revenue, but didn’t expect any action on the expenditure side.
Procedurally, any legislation would be required to have two readings — over a period of two weeks — and be open to public scrutiny before members vote.
Anticipating some sort of movement Thursday, several members of the public loitered in chambers hoping to give Council members their opinion on AVI.
One man, who declined to give his name, waved a slip of paper with several rows of numbers on it. Cornering a reporter, he said that by estimates he’d heard in hearings previously, property taxes for about 270,000 homes would go down and that they would go up for about 60,000 residents.
“Do you think that’s fair?” he asked, pointing to the paper. “They’re the ones that have to do the heavy lifting.”
He could later be seen forcefully showing his lines of numbers to Councilman Bill Greenlee.
It’s constituent passion like that that has members hesitant to take a stand.
“I’m not afraid to take a tough vote, but I like to know what I’m voting for,” Clarke said.
A budget has to be passed by the end of June because the city’s fiscal year begins July 1 and without the legislation to authorize new spending, the city would be unable to pay its bills.
At the moment, the final meeting of the session is scheduled for June 21.
Council has been inching toward a consensus for several weeks. Earlier this week, acting as a committee of the whole, Council members approved an added exemption for gentrifying neighborhoods.
The bill, which was fast tracked to Council, would provide tax forgiveness — for ten years — for residents living in neighborhoods with skyrocketing property values. The bill would forgive any taxes above a 300 percent — or three times — the current value of their property, for homeowners that have lived in their homes for a decade or more.
So, for example, a home that is now assessed at $100,000, but would rise to $400,000 under the new assessments, would only be taxed on a $300,000 value.
Members hope the tax break will shield longtime property owners in a manner similar to the tax abatement for new homes.