The “food fight” over Mayor Michael Nutter’s Actual Value Initiative intensified Thursday with the mayor and state Sen. Anthony Williams firing back at opponents of the initiative, which appears stuck in City Council.
“Our message is pretty straight forward and pretty simple. At this point, we have a property assessment system that has been broken for … generations,” Nutter said. “Many Philadelphians … because of a flawed system have been paying much more than they should be in taxes. At the same time many individuals have been paying a lot less than they should, essentially being subsidized by the poorest individuals in the city. In the end, all taxpayers are losers.”
AVI would change the way the city assesses real estate, moving from assessments based on a fraction of property value to the full market value.
“No more fractions. No more complications. You should not need a math degree to be able to figure out what your taxes are,” said the mayor.
Williams was a little more outspoken in his defense of the plan, chastising members of the city’s delegation in Harrisburg for breaking ranks in Harrisburg.
“I’ve watched some public officials tear to shreds the validity of AVI, so I found it very important to go public,” he said, accusing opponents of “fear mongering” and adding that the divisions among local lawmakers could ultimately dissuade the state legislature and governor from taking action on several state bills needed to implement AVI.
“Harrisburg is watching us. Those bills were moving through the state legislature quite effectively, the governor was prepared to sign them until Philadelphia decided to have its own food fight,” he said.
Williams declined to call out legislative colleagues for their opposition.
But, two weeks ago a group of state legislators — joined by Councilmen Bill Green and Mark Squilla — announced their opposition to AVI, calling on the administration to delay implementation for another year. At that time, state Sen. Larry Farnese announced that he was introducing legislation in Harrisburg that would give Council the option to wait another year.
Waiting is not an option, Nutter said this week.
“Once the new values are in, we have to use them,” Nutter said, adding that not to was “asking for litigation.”
Critics cite three reasons for their opposition. First is the fact that new assessment figures will not be available until July, after City Council is expected to vote on a budget based on Nutter’s AVI figures. Second, because Nutter’s proposal includes an additional $94 million in revenue for the school district, critics charge the mayor with trying to push through a tax hike by another name. And, finally, many worry that AVI will mean higher taxes for their constituents.
Nutter countered all three arguments at his press conference.
Implementing property tax reform this year is needed, the mayor said, because the system has been “broken” for generations. The additional revenue is not a tax increase, he argued, simply a way to “capture” the increase in property values since the last reassessment in 2004. And, while admitting that taxes will go up for some, they will come down for others.
Ultimately, the fate of AVI lies in the hands of City Council, which has been debating the issue for months. Members are now looking at 14 budget related proposals.
Council leaders have been reluctant to discuss what direction those talks have taken.
“I never say what a majority of members are interested in until they do it,” Council President Darrell Clarke told reporters after this week’s Council session.
He did say that Council seems committed to providing some added funding for the school district, but would not say if it would meet the district’s request for $94 million.
“The biggest question centers on where that money is going and how it’s going to be spent and what levels of accountability can be put into place,” he said.
A proposal by Clarke would provide about $85 million. Several council members have said they would like Council to have more input on how district money is spent.
“Whatever process is established in this particular funding cycle for the school district, we would like to see a little more dialogue.”
Majority Leader Curtis Jones compared Council’s approach to that of a pilot preparing his plane for takeoff. Members are looking at several options and will decide which one to take on after factoring in a variety of conditions.
“We are a plane that has to have several runways — and we’re running out of time to take off,” he said.
Jones would not be drawn into a discussion of which of options might be gaining traction, calling all of the proposals as “alternate Plan A’s.”
“We want to be prepared for any eventuality,” he said.
Council seems prepared to put its muscle where its mouth is, this week approving a resolution urging the School Reform Commission to go back to the negotiating table with SEIU 32BJ in an effort to avoid the layoff of 2,700 union employees in a district effort to balance its budget, which is includes a $218 million deficit.
Much of Council’s negotiations are now going on behind the scenes.
This week members met in small groups — to avoid violating the state’s Sunshine Law — in private meetings to discuss their options.
“Our process, particularly at this point, is a process that requires significant conversations within the body,” Clarke said. “Trying to do that in an extremely public way is probably not conducive to us getting a budget.”
A public hearing has been scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday and Council will meet for its regularly scheduled meeting Thursday.
Technically the deadline for budget approval is June 1. But, Council has often recessed, rather than adjourned, its last meeting in May allowing a vote beyond the deadline.
Clarke said Council would have a budget passed by July 1, the start of the city’s fiscal year. He noted that many of the proposals before Council also require some action by the state legislature, which would need to approve, for example, a homestead exemption.
In other news, Council unanimously agreed to change the name of the Criminal Justice Center to the Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice. A chorus of civic leaders urged Council to rename the court building in Stout’s honor. A long serving municipal court judge, she was the nation’s first female Black judge and the state and nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice.
Finally, Councilman Brian O’Neill introduced a bill that would give grandchildren of firefighters and police officers at 10-point advantage on the exams required to secure departmental jobs. A similar break is already given to children of both.
Pennsylvania’s newly signed voter identification law is an attempt to disenfranchise minority, poor and older voters; and block President Barack Obama’s re-election bid, contend a number of local officials.
Conversely, the local tea party applauded the measure.
Gov. Tom Corbett signed H.B. 934 Wednesday evening, just after the state House approved it, making the commonwealth the sixteenth state to pass such legislation.
“This is nothing more than an attempt by Republican leadership to keep seniors, minorities and low-income citizens from their constitutional right to vote,” said Rep. Ron Waters, head of the Legislative Black Caucus, who voted against the law. “Pennsylvania will have the distinction of moving backwards with this discriminatory bill. It is a waste of taxpayer dollars, and it will eventually be overturned at taxpayer expense.”
The bill, which passed in the Senate last week, was approved by the House in a 104-88 vote, dividing members along partisan lines.
It will not affect voting in the April 24 primary, but thereafter all Pennsylvanians to show photo identification before voting.
Corbett said the legislation is meant to prevent voter fraud.
“I am signing this bill because it protects a sacred principle, one shared by every citizen of this nation,” Corbett said in a statement. “That principle is: one person, one vote. It sets a simple and clear standard to protect the integrity of our elections.”
State Rep. Rosita Youngblood scoffed at that notion.
“Give us proof of recent instance of voter fraud,” she said, predicting “chaos” at the polls. “To me the whole crux of this is this — this is a format to stop Barack Obama. Look at the states that have passed this draconian measure, either the legislature is Republican controlled or the governor is Republican.”
“They want to make sure that Barack Obama is a one-term president,” he said. “This measure violates not only the Constitution, but our own state constitution that says elections must be free and clear and without government interference. This is the same as instituting a poll tax or requiring literacy tests, and will have a detrimental impact on voters.”
Not everyone opposed the law.
“Voter fraud … is a big problem in our state — especially in urban areas like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia,” said Teri Adams, president of the Independence Tea Party Association. “We can no longer tolerate imposters voting for dead people, or fraudulent votes being cast by individuals claiming to live in non-existent residences,” said Adams.
Already the law faces the threat of legal action.
State Sen. Anthony H. Williams was among those who voted against the bill when it went to the Senate last week, and said the fight against the new law is not over. Opponents may take their fight to the courts. In Wisconsin, a judge issued an injunction against a similar law in that state; and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder moved to block voter ID bills in Texas and South Carolina.
“While I’m disappointed that the state House has continued this march toward voter disenfranchisement, the battle is not over. The Constitutional right to vote is too important to institute disingenuous hurdles at the ballot box, period,” said Williams. “States that already have gone down this road have seen the error of their ways, as injunctions in Wisconsin and Texas demonstrate. There will be a lawsuit filed on behalf of those voters, who, though today eligible, tomorrow would not have their vote counted once HB 934 is enacted.”
Acceptable forms of identification include a Pennsylvania driver’s license or non-driver license photo ID, a military ID, valid U.S. passport, county or municipal employee identification, college ID or personal care home ID.
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said the organization is planning legal action against the law.
Some citizens will lose the vote if this becomes law,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “But those who want to block the vote should not be fooled into thinking that this is over once the governor signs it. The next stop for this bad idea is in a court of law, and we are prepared to challenge it vigorously. Our legal team is currently mapping a strategy for overturning this voter suppression bill. In the week since the Senate passed the bill, the phone calls and emails from citizens who are concerned they or a loved one will lose the vote have increased dramatically. We are confident that we can show how this bill will disenfranchise citizens.”
Implementing the new law is expected to cost about $4 million, money that would be better spent elsewhere, said Waters.
“It astounds me that there is no money for public education, colleges, universities, the disabled or poor — but there is money for a non-existent voter fraud problem,” he said.
According to Corbett’s office, studies show that 99 percent of Pennsylvania’s eligible voters already have acceptable photo IDs. They also said a recent poll determined that 87 percent of Pennsylvania voters favor a law requiring identification at the polls.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes, who also voted against the legislation, called it a “Voter Suppression Bill” and said that even on the national level, based on a study conducted by the United States Department of Justice during the presidency of George Bush, only 86 cases of voter fraud were committed between 2002 and 2007 out of 300 million votes. Hughes also said that in Pennsylvania during the 2008 election, there were only four cases of voter fraud reported.
“We will not allow the voice of so many voters to be silenced because this legislation has been signed into law. We will continue to voice our opposition and fight to see that this erroneous law is stopped, just like in Texas and Wisconsin,” Hughes said.
In city council Thursday morning, members blasted the law with a resolution condemning the state Senate for its approval last week. The resolution passed 15-2, with two Republicans voting against it.
Members Brian O’Neill and David Oh voted against, saying they too disapproved of the law, but that the word “condemn” was too strong.
“It’s too strong for me, and I think it’s unwise,” O’Neill said.
Others had no problem with the language.
“There is no question that this was done during a presidential election year in an attempt to suppress votes,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass. “It’s just a terrible piece of legislation. It’s been a waste of our legislators time.”
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said voters should use an absentee ballot.
“This whole issue is just unfortunate and unfair,” she said. “I hope people will consider absentee ballot applications, which certainly is our right.”
The Committee of Seventy is planning a massive public education campaign to counter the possible effects of the law and to make sure people know their rights and what types of identification will be acceptable when they go to the polls.
This enormous undertaking must start right now and continue every day until the Nov. 6 general election.” said Zack Stalberg, President and CEO of the Committee of Seventy. “Every possible resource will be tapped — from convenience stores to banks to media outlets to libraries — to let voters know which IDs will be accepted at the polls and where to go if they don’t have one. “If necessary, we’ll drive voters to PennDOT offices to get ID.”
J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Pennsylvania NAACP has joined with the coalition forming with the ACLU to oppose the new law. In the meantime, registered voters should show up at the nearest PennDOT center on Wednesday, March 21, to receive the free photo identification cards. Normally they cost $13.
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.
Bill Rubin hesitates to use the word “reform,” when describing why he’s chosen to run for City Council, saying simply that he hopes to change the political culture in City Hall.
“When I watched the dominoes and saw how many people weren’t going to be there, I thought it was a great opportunity to get five, six, seven possibly eight new people in there,” he said. “I think that’s when you can exact change.”
Five council members are leaving and all of the at-large seats are up for grabs, giving voters a historic chance to restructure the entire legislative body.
Rubin, 44, a Democrat, is running against long-time incumbent Brian O’Neill, a Republican, who has represented the Tenth District— which has the city’s highest concentration of Republicans — since 1979.
Odds usually favor the incumbent, but in this largely Democratic city, and with demographics in the Tenth District shifting, Rubin feels sure he can defeat O’Neill.
Reform, in Rubin’s mind, conjures up grand schemes that may or may not be implemented. Change is something that can be accomplished in smaller increments — but is no less crucial.
Rubin is familiar with the inner workings of City Hall. Since 1987, he’s worked in the city commissioners’ office. In addition, he served on the pension board since 2004 and has held various positions in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 33.
He said voters in the Tenth are angry when they look at City Hall.
“There are a lot of people saying ‘I’ve had enough,’” said Rubin.
He said if elected he would not take a council car, and would work to change legislation that automatically gives council members raises. He supports term limits at 12 years and would not enroll in the controversial Deferred Retirement Option Program.
By setting an example, and with the cooperation of other new council members without the vested interests of the old guard, Rubin said he could create change.
“If you want to make the city better, than you’ve got to be able to make these moves,” he said. “If you put out enough pressure you’d be surprised at how fast they come around.”
Perhaps the biggest issue facing the Tenth, he said, was property tax reassessment as the city moves to full valuation.
To ease the burden of increases expected under full valuation, which some anticipate could hit 20 percent, Rubin said he supported a tax abeyance program for seniors that would allow taxes to be collected when an estate is settled.
“The majority of the people that I talk to don’t mind paying their taxes,” he said. “They don’t have a problem paying a little bit more than some of the other areas so that everybody benefits. What they have a problem with is, when you tell me that I’m going to close the rec centers and the pools because I don’t have enough money, and I’m going to raise your taxes at the same time — and City Council is getting a raise — that they have a problem with.”
The Tenth is made up of Northeast Philadelphia, Fox Chase, Somerton, Bustleton, Torresdale, Parkwood and Pennypack Woods.
West and Southwest Philadelphia residents have seen the growth of community gardens in recent years.
However, some fear that a bill introduced by Councilman Brian J. O’Neill of Northeast Philadelphia could change that.
Bill Number 120917 would place new restrictions on who can own these gardens, where they can be located and would drastically change procedures for applying for urban gardens.
“In November, Councilman O’Neill introduced an amendment to existing zoning laws,” said Amy Laura Cahn of the Public Interest Law Center. “Originally the bill prohibited community market plots and gardens outright and the impact would be felt greatly.”
Cahn said community and market farming have existed for quite sometime in Philadelphia and O’Neill’s bill has been revised to require special exemptions for some gardens and farms.
These restrictions are believed by some to produce serious financial burdens and other obstacles to those desiring to acquire such gardens.
“Special exemptions mean that you could go to License and Inspections to apply for a ‘use registration permit’ and, instead of just getting a permit over the counter, you would actually have to go back to the Zoning Board of Adjustments,” Cahn said.
Then there’s the $250 fee that would be required, applicants would need a letter of support from the Registered Community Organization (RGO) in their neighborhood, have to post a public notice and, incorporated non-profit groups would be required to retain legal counsel to represent them before the Zoning Board.
“It’s a lot of bureaucracy,” Cahn said.
Cahn believes such regulations are unnecessary impediments since current zoning laws already contain safeguards which requires community gardeners to be good neighbors and which governs the use and maintenance of urban gardens.
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said she was unaware of any plans that would have the have the effect of possibly eradicating community gardens as some residents fear this bill would do.
“I am sure that community gardens will always exist in one form or another,” Blackwell said. “Community gardens are important, especially now when we talk about the environment, the ozone layer and the importance of community.”
Blackwell also said that community gardens not only beautify the neighborhoods but also increase the property value of the homes, which exist within those neighborhoods making community gardens an asset.
“The move across the nation is to become more green and for us to think that we would close community gardens don’t make sense,” Blackwell said.
“I think it is undeniable that it [O’Neill’s bill] would have a negative impact,” said Jon McGoran, of Weavers Lake Coop, whose community gardens and farms in not only provide local produce for residents of the area, but feed the homeless residents of a local shelter and educate neighbors about farming and nutrition.
“Creating a community is a great thing,” McGoran said. “It is a real benefit to the community and it is a real benefit to the people who do it; it brings healthy food at very low costs to the neighborhood and provide a way for neighbors to work together as well as transform vacant lots into something beautiful.”
Community gardening is hard work, according to McGoran, and the people who do it should be applauded.
“The last thing you would want to do is to put up obstacles to it and that’s exactly what this bill would do,” McGoran said.
Cahn and McGoran said concerned residents should call their local and at-large council persons to express their opinions about the bill.
O’Neill’s office has not responded to interview requests on the subject.
Off-street parking would be required for some properties
A change to the city’s new zoning ordinance, one that would require developers near Temple University to provide parking for some residential and mixed-use properties, will be up for city Council approval on Thursday, Dec. 6.
“We’re requiring that above a certain level, that those developers provide off-street parking, to not continue the existing problem as it relates to availability of parking for local residents,” Council President Darrell Clarke, told reporters in remarks published Monday.
His office did not return Tribune phone calls to discuss the issue.
However, Clarke has long been trying to ease tensions between students at Temple and residents. A proposal last year to create a special services district around the university failed to move in Council, but Clarke has said he would revive the idea.
This proposal would link the number of units in any given development to a specific number of parking spots.
“With a significant increase in student housing – and yes, students do bring cars – we know that there are very difficult times for residents who live in that area with their inability to find parking,” Clarke said.
In the proposal before Council this week, he hopes to change the zoning code to require developers building in the area between Ninth Street, Girard Avenue, 20th Street and Lehigh Avenue.
This proposal has come under criticism from some developers but, according to Eva Goldstein, deputy director of the Planning Commission, since Clarke agreed to limit the scope of his proposal to the neighborhoods around Temple, planners’ concerns have receded.
“The bill was amended … the fact that it’s been restricted is, I think, a positive,” she said. “Limited to that section of North Central Philadelphia, there has been an awareness for a while that there are concerns about the impact of student housing in the community.”
Goldstein pointed out that the Planning Commission did not object to the bill after it was amended.
Larger concerns remain about other Council attempts to tinker with the new zoning code.
Council approved the code less than a year ago – in December 2011 – and it went into effect on Aug. 22.
The new code, which took five years to put together, was praised at its adoption because it was put together by a specially created Zoning Commission – removing the city’s ancient tradition of political meddling from the process.
While Clarke’s bill is not ideal, in Goldstein’s view, it is less objectionable than proposals by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and Councilman Brian O’Neill. Blackwell’s would change the zoning process laid out in the new code, which puts decisions before a community organization and provides a timeline for public input. O’Neill’s would change rules in density and parking in commercial corridors.
Both would change the code citywide.
That, Gladstein said, is the real cause for concern.
“There has been a general worry about trying to amend the new zoning code without having enough experience with what the concerns or problems might be,” she said.
Jim Kenney: Company breaking promise to serve low-income areas
Concerned that telecom giant Verizon is overlooking the city’s poor neighborhoods as it rolls out FiOS, its fiber optic cable network, Philadelphia City Council on Thursday authorized hearings on the company’s franchise.
The unanimous vote came over the objection of Doug Smith, a Verizon vice president who said the hearings were unnecessary.
“Table it. Table it,” Smith said repeatedly during the public comment section of the meeting, referring to a resolution, sponsored by Councilman Jim Kenney, to authorize hearings.
But Kenney refused to back down.
“To quote Shakespeare, I think he doth protest too much,” said the councilman. “When a large, national corporation tells us that there’s no need for hearings, that’s generally a pretty good reason why we should have them.”
Smith worried that hearings would compel the corporation to divulge proprietary information in a public setting. Kenney dismissed the notion.
“This is a public contract,” Kenney said. “It should be discussed in public. They have proprietary concerns. I understand that, but we awarded this franchise in a public way, and this is the public’s business.
The city granted Verizon the right to roll out FiOS in 2009. At the time, the agreement was heralded because when installation of the fiber optic network was complete — in 2013 — residents would have an alternative to Comcast, which currently has a monopoly on cable in much of the city.
“Your constituents are benefiting from the price and competition,” Smith said. “In response to the millions of dollars of investment and the flow through benefits of that investment in a very difficult economic environment, Verizon is rewarded with this resolution calling for hearings based on unreliable sources that are simply wrong.”
Kenney said he had become concerned after hearing that the corporation was not rolling out its program in low-income neighborhoods.
Earlier this month, Kenney told reporters that someone who worked for Verizon told him the company was not complying with its franchise agreement, which requires that it provide service citywide.
“We’ve had information coming from inside the company that says they may not be following what they committed to do when we granted the franchise,” Kenney told reporters last week. “We were happy to have competition with our current major cable provider, Comcast. But we want to make sure that every neighborhood in the city is getting built out with the FiOS, and not just neighborhoods that can afford to pay the fees,” he said.
Smith said the information was incorrect.
“We don’t do business like that,” he told council members on Thursday. “We are building in low-income neighborhoods. It’s a contractual obligation that we take very seriously.”
He added that he was concerned that Kenney had based his call for hearings on information from an unnamed source.
Kenney held his ground.
“The more and more agitation I sense from Verizon, the more I suspect we should have the hearings,” he said.
In other news, Council approved a resolution urging the state legislature to repeal its expansion of the “castle doctrine,” which gives Pennsylvanians the right to stand and use deadly force when confronted with a situation that they feel threatens their life.
The resolution passed 16-0 with Republican Brian O’Neill the only member to vote against the measure.
Council failed to move on a motion made two weeks ago by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell that would authorize hearings on Mayor Michael Nutter’s ban on feeding the homeless in public parks. It was the second week in a row that the item was on Council’s calendar but failed to move.
Nevertheless, the fact that it was on the calendar allowed the public to speak on the matter and so Niko Rayes, with Food Not Bombs, took the opportunity to chastise Nutter for his stance.
“We stand without shame with those have fallen on the hardest of times and who Mayor Nutter clearly has no understanding of,” she said.
Nutter has formed a task force to study the options for groups who serve meals outdoors and named Blackwell as one of its members.
Just in time to keep its paychecks coming, City Council adopted a redistricting plan Thursday that relieves some of the worst cases of gerrymandering across the city.
The new plan passed 15-2 with two Republicans — Council members Brian O’Neill and Jack Kelly — voting against it.
Approval came after weeks of public hearings and closed-door meetings, at which Council members hashed out details. The plan finally approved was one proposed two weeks ago by Councilmen Frank DiCicco and Jim Kenney. Members voted for the plan over another proposal from a group of five Council members, including Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, which differed largely in how the 56th Ward in Northeast Philadelphia would be divided.
Under the plan approved this week, the 56th Ward, controlled by Democratic Ward Leader John Sabatina, will shift into O’Neill’s Tenth District. The current map splits the ward into three districts.
“It was done to me, not for me,” O’Neill joked. “It went from being pushed out the fourth floor window to being pushed out the first floor window.”
DiCicco said he expected Mayor Michael Nutter to sign the plan, which would allow Council members to receive their paychecks on time Friday.
“I’m assuming that because I didn’t hear from him, he has no real objection,” DiCicco said.
There were a couple of objections to the new plan from residents of the city’s Hawthorne section. The neighborhood will move from the First District to the Second.
“This plan clearly was not made with the interests of the residents of Hawthorne in mind,” said Patricia Bollard. “We are concerned deals have been made without reference to the concerns of the citizens.”
DiCicco, who represents the First District but is not running for re-election, said he was aware of the concerns and he would discuss possible solutions with his successor in City Council.
“It was my map and if you remember, I said early on I wasn’t totally satisfied with it either,” he said, noting that the new Council could amend the plan. “I’m going to see if we can resolve that issue.”
Council was primarily concerned with trying to create more compact districts as it redrew the political map, based on new census numbers.
In particular, officials wanted to give the Latino community a greater voice in city government by consolidating the Seventh District, represented by Sanchez.
“On behalf of the residents of the Seventh Councilmanic District, who have felt disenfranchised for many years — thank you,” Sanchez said.
In general, the districts in the western portion of the city bled east because the city’s population in the eastern portion of the city grew. Redrawing of district boundaries happens just once every 10 years, after the release of census data. The most recent census data put the city’s population at 1.5 million people, meaning each district will be redrawn to hold a population of about 150,000 residents. Variations between districts should not be more than 10 percent — about 15,000 people. The latest maps available show variations in population as high as 14,754 people.
The vote Thursday means Council members will get paid Friday without missing a paycheck, though they technically missed the Sept. 9 deadline set by the Home Rule Charter. Because of the way the pay periods fell, no checks were missed.
Two tax bills — one that would change the way city properties are assessed and another that would raise the city’s use and occupancy tax — were given preliminary approval Thursday night by City Council after a long day of negotiating.
But, in a move that leaves the issue of tax reform cloudy, council also left itself an out, moving a third bill out of committee that would give it the option of delaying the overhaul for the property tax system another year.
Council leaders, even after voting was done, cautioned that nothing was final.
“There is never a deal until it’s done,” Council President Darrell Clarke told reporters Thursday afternoon and again repeatedly throughout the day. “I learned that a long time ago.”
All three bills were voted out of committee Thursday shortly after 8 p.m. Council members were still deadlocked at Tribune press time Thursday but emerged in the early evening to vote. In addition to moving the bills out of committee, Council is giving them a first reading, which means final passage could come as early as June 14.
Of the three bills, the Actual Value Initiative, the property tax reform bill, was the most controversial. It passed with an 11-6 vote, with members Mark Squilla, Jannie Blackwell, Bobby Henon, Kenyatta Johnson, Dennis O’Brien, and Brian O’Neill voting against it.
That solid majority indicated to Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. that it will ultimately pass, probably in vote next week.
“The votes for AVI were there for several weeks,” Goode said. “But, we were deciding how to amend the bill and how to present it in its best form. It may be amended further.”
As approved this week, it includes a $30,000 homestead exemption, up from the administration’s proposed $15,000 and a number of technical amendments, including one that would set a minimum property tax of $100.
It would raise about $40 million for the school district, less than half of the $94 million raised under the administration’s proposal.
According to Goode, the passage of the bill to delay implementing AVI, sponsored by Squilla, was done merely as a way to gain votes for the use and occupancy tax bill.
“The Squilla bill does not have the support of a majority of Council,” Goode said. “There was a decision to report the bill out of committee in an effort to gain more votes for the use and occupancy tax.”
Goode had no doubt AVI would pass.
“AVI will move forward,” he said. “The question is whether the votes for the u-and-o tax will remain.”
But, Squilla noted that his bill passed by a larger margin 13-4 – with only Goode, Blondell Reynolds Brown, Marian B. Tasco and Maria Quiñones Sánchez voting against – than the AVI bill did.
He admitted that he only has four or five solid votes for his bill, but added, “There are still people that voted for (AVI) that are on the fence.”
Squilla said he didn’t expect a final vote until June 21, and hoped to have marshaled the votes needed to delay AVI.
“I’m just opposed to doing this without the proper values,” he said.
The administration has asked council to approve AVI without knowing several key values, including the total value of all of Philadelphia’s real estate, which is needed to set the city’s millage — and without having new assessments completed.
“Until we actually have all the information, I’m not sure we can put the proper safeguards in place to protect the residents that are going to get hurt the most,” said Squilla.
The use and occupancy tax bill also passed 11-6. Less controversial and linked to AVI, it would increase the city’s use and occupancy tax, and equalize the tax burden on residential and business property owners.
If ultimately passed, it would raise about $45 million on top of the $40 million raised by AVI.
The approvals came after weeks of behind-the-scenes talks that culminated Thursday in a marathon session for Council members, as they worked to end the impasse before June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
What Council didn’t do Thursday was actually approve a budget. All measures passed this week were potential revenue measures. Council has yet to deal with spending. So, budget hearings continue at 11 a.m. Monday. Council meets again at its regularly scheduled meeting on June 14. Goode said he expected a full budget to pass then.
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.”