J.P. Miranda seeks state rep seat in 197th district, where he was born and raised
The 197th state House District is up for grabs in an upcoming special election — a state Representative seat that was left vacant when Jewell Williams resigned and was elected to become Sheriff of Philadelphia.
There are several candidates who would like to hold that position, among them Jewel Williams, daughter of Philadelphia’s new sheriff, and the venerable T. Milton Street. But J.P. Miranda, a young Democrat who was born, raised and resides in the district, thinks he has what it takes to represent this densely populated and poor section of the city.
“I started at a young age, at 19; City Council President Darrell Clarke brought me onto his staff and he showed me the ropes. He put me to work and allowed me to be creative on some things I wanted to do and get out in the community,” Miranda said. “From there I made the transition to state Senator Shirley Kitchen’s staff. She was another mentor and supporter and taught me very valuable lessons — among them she showed me tough love when I needed it. She guided me and without her influence I don’t think I’d be in this position right now. For the last four to five years I’ve just been doing different events. I think you have to show that you can be a valuable resource to the community before you even consider yourself worthy to run for any elected office. I started with free hair cut events and free book bags. We did holiday food giveaways.”
Miranda served in Clarke’s office as lead community liaison. Under state Senator Shirley Kitchen, he served as community liaison specializing in economic development and education.
At age 26, Miranda is already something of a role model. He’s never been arrested and has never been to prison, although his father was absent from his life. He was born and raised in the North Philadelphia area he wants to represent in Harrisburg. He was raised by a single mother who had six other children and yet didn’t turn down a path of self-destruction that so many other young Black men his age have chosen.
“I don’t think any other candidate who wants this seat has the governmental experience I’ve had, or the mentorship that I’ve been blessed with. I’ve been a resource for the community. Recently I did another Day of Respect. It’s an event of police and community interaction day when we shut down Erie Avenue — I don’t know of any other candidate who’s done something like that. We all know that in some of our communities there’s a lot of tension between the younger residents and the police. This was an opportunity for residents of the neighborhoods in the District to build relationships. We shut down Erie Avenue and put a stage out there with free food. And the police weren’t there to just stand guard, no — they had to interact with the people. It’s the 4th year the event has been going on, and even if we’re able to just get kids to be cordial to police officers, it helps because it gets rid of that tension. That’s what I try to be about, changing mentalities. You have to start at the basic level.”
Miranda credits after school programs with helping to keep him off the streets. He attended William Penn High School and furthered his education at West Chester University, where he majored in political science.
“We need after school programs, and right now because of state budget cuts, many of them will disappear. Mentoring does have an impact; I’m proof of that, and after school programs keep young people from getting involved in criminal activity — and I’m proof of that,” he said. “They continue to cut funding for needed programs, but increase funding for prisons — which makes no sense to me. I was able to see that there are options, and a lot of our young men and women don’t think they have options. Now yes, many of them aren’t going to listen, but a good many of them will. It can make a tremendous difference.”
The special elections will be held along with the state’s April 24 primary election. Democrat Jewell Williams gave up his seat in the 197th House District to become Philadelphia Sheriff, and Democrat Kenyatta Johnson and Republican Dennis O’Brien also stepped down from their 186th and 169th District seats to serve on City Council. Miranda said he hopes he’ll be given the chance to fill the void left by Williams.
“This is my community. I need to help make a change. Some of these young people need mentorship and leadership to make them understand that running to the streets isn’t the answer. Holding a gun in your hand makes someone feel powerful. We need to change that and help them redirect that energy. Going to school beats going to prison any day, and that’s what I preach to my peers,” he said.
For more information about Jose Miranda’s views and political platform, visit www.josemiranda2012.com.
Though he’s new to his office, Councilman Dennis O’Brien is the elder statesman of Philadelphia’s City Council — an unbridled optimist who takes a long view of the city’s problems and prospects.
“Resolution to some of the biggest problems can take three, five or seven years,” he said, adding that he’s very enthusiastic about a chance to put his energies to helping the city. “Philly’s demographics are always going to be challenging, but we have great opportunity.”
Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 2007 to 2008, O’Brien was once the third most powerful politician in the state. Now one of six new freshmen on City Council, with a career of 35 years as a state legislator, he is hardly a novice.
That said, O’Brien admits he’s still trying to find his niche on Council.
“I’m trying to find my voice, as I did in Harrisburg, and I’m trying to find my voice around issues, as I did in Harrisburg,” he said.
As a Councilman-at-large, O’Brien is now free to focus on the entire city rather than on a specific district, as he did for most of his career in the statehouse, or during his tenure as speaker, on statewide issues.
“As an individual legislator, you’re limited,” he said. “What I’m hoping to do is take the relationships I had in Harrisburg and bring them back down here. I just have to re-engineer it.”
His perspective gives him a long view of city politics. In his first several months, he’s introduced little legislation - but said that’s simply his style.
“It’s about quality not quantity,” he said.
It’s difficult to rein in a conversation with O’Brien – an enthusiastic talker with an obvious interest in people – he couches all of his conversation in terms of the things he’s done to help his constituents, often using medical terms, evidence of his long history as an advocate for those with autism.
He’s known across the state for that advocacy. His private office walls are filled with photos, notes and drawings from friends he’s helped during his 35 year career in politics.
“These are my friends,” he said as he explains the significance of each memento.
Summing himself up as an optimist, O’Brien is a rarity in Philadelphia’s political scene – a Republican.
But, his political philosophy does not mirror that of the larger party.
He believes that government plays a vital role in society – largely to act as a facilitator to make sure that everyone – including the poor and disabled – have a voice.
O’Brien was not the party darling when he sought his Council seat. He ran without the blessing of either the committee power brokers or their opponents, a group known locally as the Insurgents. Nevertheless, he won.
His anger at his party’s most powerful state officeholder – Gov. Tom Corbett - is palpable.
“Gridlock has risen to a level that is unrecognizable,” he said. “The partisanship just sucks the wind out of you. Chaos happens when you start limiting yourself to pointing fingers.”
O’Brien points to across the board cuts in the state’s welfare spending. He doesn’t agree with across the board budgeting. While agreeing that some cuts are needed, O’Brien said he’d rather see targeted cuts.
“You can’t just say we’re going to do more with less,” O’Brien said. “It’s always when you need the money is when the economy is the slowest. What we have to do is make sure the programs we have are integrated.”
One of his goals is to redesign the way counties deal with Community Block grants from the state. Under Corbett, the state has decided to cut the grants, and issue them in lump sums to the county, and then let counties decide where to make actual program cuts.
“It’s fatally flawed,” O’Brien said. “It’s all about money - it’s not about serving people.”
He wants to bring service providers together and let them decide where the money should go.
“Everybody that pays or collects the money has to be part of the conversation,” he said. “If you deny people access, their chronic or acute situation is going to get worse, then the costs are going to go up.”
O’Brien also plans to scrutinize spending at nonprofit service providers.
“There are people receiving exorbitant salaries, and that’s my direct care dollars,” he said.
Beyond those two items, he’s still surveying the lay of the land. But, he’s sure that by working together and including everyone in the city, Philadelphia can move forward.
“It’s how you harness that energy, and how you look at problems in a new and innovative way,” he said.
As Philadelphia’s murder rate soars, officials are grappling with ways to contain the violence, which has claimed more than 300 lives this year.
“How come as a city we are not in an outrage?” asked Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who this week held a roundtable to discuss ways to end the problem. “We have to get to a level of activism that we take back the city.”
The event, held Wednesday at city hall, drew participants from local universities and hospitals who couched talk of the epidemic of violence in terms of public health. In addition to Johnson, council members Curtis Jones and Dennis O’Brien also attended.
This year, 316 people have been murdered, putting the city on track to break previous records. Murder is only one measure of violence. According to Ralph Taylor, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, for every one murder, there are 94 other incidents of violence, a fact that pushes violence in Philadelphia to epidemic levels.
The vast majority of those incidents involve African Americans.
“If you take it in context, all of the African Americans killed by other African Americans - it is more than all of the lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan in the history of the organization,” said Jones.
Experts gathered around the table agreed that the solution to the problem lies in the community.
Violence begets violence, creating a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself.
“Exposure to violence and stress and trauma has an effect,” said John Rich, chair of health management and policy at Drexel University’s School of Public Health.
People who are repeatedly exposed to violence often exhibit symptoms similar to those of soldiers in war. In reaction, they get jittery, often begin self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, and they arm themselves because they don’t feel safe.
“They develop many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Rich said.
The cycle will only continue as long as children are exposed to violence.
“Philadelphians will not be safe until their children are safe,” he said.
While lauding Johnson for hosting the event, Charles Williams, a psychologist from Drexel, said the problem cannot be legislated or policed away.
The epidemic will end only when the community steps up, children realize they have a future, and the city’s leaders get serious about solving the problem.
“Politicians need to say ‘We can’t do this alone. It’s 50/50. You have to meet us half way,” said Williams. “What we have to do is be honest with the community.”
That is often politically unpleasant.
Williams pointed to the fact that Philadelphia has more Black leaders than most other cities in the country, yet deep rooted problems in the African-American community persist.
“We have the highest dropout rate, the highest crime rate, one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates, one of the highest teen pregnancy rates,” he said.
This week’s roundtable was part of a larger effort spearheaded by Johnson that includes monthly gatherings where he, other council members and people from the community can exchange ideas.
Mayor’s proposal would generate additional $94M for education
School commissioners this week asked City Council members to go along with Mayor Michael Nutter’s plan to implement the Actual Value Initiative this year so the district would receive an additional $94 million.
Without it, said School Reform Commission Chair Pedro Ramos, the district would face a $312 million budget deficit rather than the $218 million shortfall that is anticipated at the moment.
“Without those funds, our gap next year would grow to over $300 million, which … is unthinkable,” Ramos told Council members Tuesday during Council hearings on the district’s budget. “We believe [we have] a realistic path back to structural financial balance.” Commissioners and district officials gave each Council member a large binder that broke down district $2.6 billion budget by school and included line items of things that are likely to be cut without the added funding. In addition, to a fiscal budget for 2013, the district also brought to Council its restructuring plans, which include the scheduled closure of 40 schools this year, a five-year plan that included a projected $1.1 billion deficit over that period and 24 more school closures.
Much of Council’s concern stems from the mayor’s plan to move the basis of property taxes from traditional assessed values based on millage to full market value — AVI. The shift is expected to increase property taxes for many Philadelphians, which makes many Council members even more uncertain about extra money for schools.
Council members are cautiously weighing all their options as they look at the district’s spending plan and warned school commissioners that they intended to give unusual scrutiny to the district’s figures.
“We have a school district that is all but broken,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chair of Council’s education committee. “We have been misled for years … every year the district returns with open hands. We need change.”
Last year, under the leadership of former school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the district coaxed $53 million in additional funding from Council. But, many Council members felt she tricked them when it became clear after the fact that despite Ackerman’s statements to the contrary during the budget process, the district did have money to pay for full-day kindergarten. Ackerman used the threat of eliminating full-day kindergarten as her primary bargaining chip in budget talks with Council.
The additional funds came from a property tax increase — the third consecutive year that real estate taxes went up. The experience has left Council gun shy.
“Where is this extra $94 million going?” asked Council President Darrell Clarke about this year’s additional monies, adding: “I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t think you need more dollars.”
Ramos said the district was simply providing Council with a snapshot of its finances.
“This is the reality of the state of district,” he said. “It doesn’t go away regardless of who is in this seat or your seat. The fundamentals don’t change. We’re showing in practical terms where things are today.”
Ramos emphasized that the SRC is examining its budget options and that the numbers discussed this week were “far from final.”
Though Council members asked many questions — including questions about the search for a new superintendent — transparency and accountability was a re-occurring theme.
“I want to make sure that whatever we do this year it includes long-term accountability, said Maria Quinones Sanchez, in statements echoed by several of her colleagues.
Traditionally, Council has little oversight of the SRC.
Councilman Dennis O’Brien, a former state representative, said the real responsibility rested not with Council but with the mayor and Gov. Tom Corbett, because they appoint SRC members.
“We have a dysfunctional conversation here,” he said. “We have an SRC presenting assumptions that only the mayor and governor can respond to. We are here as window dressing. There are two people who can change the conversation and that is the governor and the mayor.”
Ramos said the SRC has pressed the governor for his support.
“We’ve asked the governor for support in every way we can,” Ramos said. “We are asking the governor to work with the SRC on fiscal sustainability, but this can’t be done in quick sound bites.”
Council is conducting its budget hearings as a committee of the whole, and the education budget hearings drew every member of Council with the exception of Councilman Brian O’Neill.
Councilman Oh praises superintendent’s handling of case
Two city council members weighed in on the Samantha Pawlucy controversy Thursday — the day after Mitt Romney called the Philadelphia 16 year-old who has attracted national attention for her support of his candidacy.
Councilman David Oh lauded school Superintendent William Hite for his handling of the incident while taking a jab at Hite’s predecessor — Arlene Ackerman.
“I find it very reassuring that the school district is taking action on it,” Oh said. “I think in contrast to the prior school district, in terms of their failing in dealing with an incident in which Chinese students were taken out of a classroom and then beaten, and then the principal excused that behavior and action was not taken for many months, this is reassuring to the parents in Philadelphia.”
Pawlucy was reportedly mocked by her geometry teacher at Charles Carroll High School for wearing a Romney T-shirt in class on Sept. 28. The incident made her feel so uncomfortable, she told school officials, that she is now transferring to another school.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that Romney called Pawlucy at home. Though officials with the Romney campaign confirmed the call they declined to provide details. The family would not comment.
Councilman Dennis O’Brien, an advocate for kids with disabilities, said the incident highlighted the issue of bullying — this time by a teacher.
“My kids — kids with disabilities — are often victimized in numerous settings and with little response,” he said. “This offers us all the opportunity to look at bullying. The fact that we tolerate this is the beginning and the root of all this bullying.”
The girl briefly returned to Charles Carroll High School in the city's Port Richmond section Tuesday. But her father says she never actually made it to class because she felt uncomfortable.
In other news, Council President Darrell Clarke decided not to introduce a proposal, put forth by the mayor’s office, that would create a new hybrid pension plan for new city employees.
“We want to know what the potential implications are,” Clarke said. “We anticipate introducing this bill in the future, but I want to understand what is we’re putting in the hopper.”
Last month Mayor Michael Nutter announced a new pay and benefits package for about 5,500 employees that would include changes to their pensions. But, in order to create the less expensive plan, the administration needs council’s approval.
Unanimous resolution opposes deadline on homeowner protection
City Council this week called on court officials to preserve the city’s Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program, rather than enact a proposed change that would cut the time frame residents and banks have to hammer out alternatives to foreclosure.
“We really believe it’s going to cost a lot of people their homes,” said John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, who urged council to approve the measure, which council unanimously did.
The program, which gives banks and homeowners a chance to reach a deal before foreclosure proceeds, has been heralded as a national model.
First Judicial District Administrative Judge John W. Herron wants to cut the time for mediation to 150 days. According to Dodds, the change could go into effect as soon as May.
Under current rules, there is no time limit — and Dodds worried that a time limit favors banks who can simply do nothing until the limit is reached and then foreclose.
“The problem is that banks do not have their act together at all,” Dodds said. “All the bank has to do is do nothing — then the family goes right out the door.”
More than 5,000 Philadelphia families have saved their homes through the diversion program since its inception.
Council members said it should remain untouched.
“It is not time to end the mortgage diversion program,” said Councilwoman Marian Tasco. “It is a national model. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Herron could not be reached for comment.
The move comes as the Philadelphia metropolitan area faces a significant increase in foreclosures.
Two weeks ago, a report by RealTrac found that the number of foreclosures jumped to a total of 2,940 in February, a 47.2 percent increase over the same period last year.
Council also approved a resolution urging the state legislature to move on a package of bills that would change the statute of limitations for sexual abuse in civil cases.
State Rep. Louise Bishop and former House Speaker, now Councilman Dennis O’Brien introduced the proposal last year in Harrisburg at the height of the Penn State sex scandal. The bills have languished in committee ever since.
“Every time we’ve introduced legislation it has laid in committee,” Bishop told members of council.
She stood during council’s session to urge members to approve the resolution, and to tell, in very frank terms, the story of her own sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather.
“I was young. I didn’t really know what was happening to me, didn’t understand it,” she said. “But every time my stepfather had an opportunity to caress me, feel me, bother me, he did.”
It didn’t stop there.
“I woke up one night to find him in bed with me,” said Bishop. “Not only was he in bed with me, he was in me. It was a very, very, horrifying and difficult for experience for me. But, because I knew that my grandfather, who lived with me, would kill him if he knew, and because I knew it would break my mother’s heart … there was absolutely nothing I could do but hold it within.”
It is not the first time Bishop has gone public with the story of her abuse. She decided to reveal her secret last November as she advocated for the laws.
“I could not hold it any longer,” she said.
The reform bills would give victims of child abuse and child sexual abuse until they are 50 years old to press a civil suit. Under current law, victims have until they are 50 to press criminal charges, but only until they are 30 years old for civil suits.
In addition, the proposal would also create a two-year window to revive cases in which the statute of limitations has expired.
Similar reforms were adopted in Delaware in 2007.
In other news, council will vote at its next meeting on a resolution by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown “calling for justice and standing in solidarity” in the Trayvon Martin case.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Brown, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King.
She said many Black parents are required to have a talk with their sons similar to the “birds and bees” talk — but known as the “existing while Black” talk.
Finally, Councilman Jim Kenney introduced a bill that would change the Home Rule Charter to require individuals running who hold public office to resign before running for another office. The bill was referred to committee.
During his first months as a member of City Council, Kenyatta Johnson continued much of the work he started in the state House of Representatives.
Chief among his priorities has been a continued interest in curbing gun violence. During a year poised to break Philadelphia records for murder, Johnson was part of a group of Council members who sat down recently to discuss new ways to end the epidemic of violence.
“In order for us to move forward as a city, we have to have a safe city,” Johnson said recently. “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.”
Johnson, like his colleague Councilman Dennis O’Brien, is new to City Council — but hardly new to politics. He served one and a half terms in the state House representing the 186th District, an area that overlaps much of his councilmanic district.
In previous interviews, he said he preferred a council seat because he thought it would give him the greatest opportunity to affect change in his community.
“Municipal government is where you can really make a difference,” he said. “It’s where the rubber meets the road. I’ve loved serving my constituents in the legislature, but I know I can do even more for them as a member of City Council.”
The transition was not without its politicking. Johnson narrowly won a primary battle against South Philadelphia realtor Barbara Capozzi — winning the party nomination with a margin of just 46 votes. And even then, only after a third competitor, Damon Roberts, withdrew. Johnson and Roberts reportedly reached a deal earlier, in which Johnson agreed to back Roberts for the state legislature after Roberts dropped out of a contest against Johnson for City Council. Roberts never received the backing. During the special election to fill the remainder of Johnson’s House term, Johnson remained silent on Roberts and the seat went to its former occupant, Harold James, who will serve the remainder of Johnson’s term.
Since arriving at City Hall, Johnson has pursued an agenda similar to the one he followed in the state capitol.
Largely quiet during this year’s contentious budget process, Johnson has been active in his district working to help keep E.M. Stanton Elementary School open by spearheading a public private partnership to raise $80,000 for the school’s continued operation after the School Reform Commission slated it for closure.
“We have to engage the business community in doing these partnerships,” Johnson told the Tribune at the time. “And I am glad the SRC put the kid’s educational value first in keeping Stanton open, and giving the school a second chance and allow the community’s residents and parents an opportunity to answer [the SRC’s] concerns.”
His other landmark initiative was the formation of the Peace Not Guns Task Force.
The task force combines the resources of the Department of Human Services, the District Attorney’s Office, Family Court, CeaseFire Philadelphia, the Philadelphia School District’s new Public Safety Advocate and more than 20 community leaders in an effort to combat gun violence.
“We will work to get a handle on gun and youth violence,” said Johnson.
Johnson was the only one of the six freshman Council members unable to sit down with the Tribune to discuss his first six months in office. Through his spokesman Zack Burgess, who is also a part-time Tribune contributor, Johnson said he simply didn’t have time. After one scheduled meeting was canceled, he declined to be interviewed over the course of several weeks in late July and early August.
Alleged cop slayer freed 10 days before shooting
Taking a look at the state Board of Probation and Parole, City Council will hold hearings on the board’s practices and procedures, in a move approved this week by Council.
“I fear for the public safety of our city,” Councilman Dennis O’Brien who proposed the hearings, citing the murder of police officer Moses Walker Jr., who was shot and killed on Aug. 18. “We should look at all of the board’s policies and unwritten rules of practice.”
Walker’s alleged killer, Rafael Jones, had been released from prison just 10 days before the murder. He was apparently freed on “special probation.”
A state investigation into the matter led to the firing of three employees late last month. A board spokesperson said at the time that the investigation has resulted in changes to board procedures.
O’Brien remained unconvinced.
Walker’s “alleged killer should have been an wearing electronic monitoring device, but was never fitted for one. The alleged killer should have been arrested after failing a court ordered drug test, but remained free on the streets,” O’Brien said.
The councilman worried that board officials were more concerned with lowering the recidivism numbers and coping with prison overcrowding than with public safety.
“I fear the numbers are driving this issue … dictating policy,” he said.
Prodding the U.S. lawmakers to take action to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” Council approved a resolution introduced by W. Wilson Goode Jr., urging Congress and the president to end the Bush tax cuts, preserve Social Security and Medicare and boost education and infrastructure spending.
“This is a national issue that demands a local voice,” Goode said. “Because, it will have local consequences.”
Members voted on a number of measures as they prepared for their winter recess. The last meeting of the fall session is Dec. 13.
Council also unanimously agreed to hold hearings looking into a school district plan to close 46 schools. The education committee, led by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell will hold the hearings, which have not yet been scheduled.
Hearings will also be held to look into the possibility of a city partnership with a nonprofit in operating a casino. Councilman Kenyatta Johnson called the hearings to examine the “feasibility and legality” of the idea, which he called an “extraordinary opportunity.”
The Nutter administration contends the idea is illegal.
In a preview of next week’s meeting, Blackwell and Councilman David Oh got into a squabble over his proposal that would penalize skateboarders and bikers for intentionally damaging public monuments, memorials or works of art.
Though Council is not expected to vote on the bill until next week, Oh proposed an amendment that would lower the fine he first proposed two months ago.
Oh introduced the administration bill in October, but it was tabled after Blackwell objected. In its original form, it would have imposed a $75 fine or arrest for anyone vandalizing or destroying public or private memorials or artwork. It also gave judges the authority to impose fines up to $2,000 and 90 days in jail for repeat offenders. In the amendment that sparked this week’s debate, Oh suggested lowering the maximum fine to $1,000.
The move did not sway Blackwell.
Finally, Council backed a resolution urging the administration to delay implementation of a controversial plan to put firefighters on five-year rotations to companies across the city. Councilman Jim Kenney drafted the resolution which was backed by the entire council.
Kenney recently convened hearings on the re-deployment, which is wildly unpopular with the city’s firefighters’ union. At Thursday’s meeting, he said the idea “needs further conversation.”
Administration officials plan to begin re-deployments on Jan. 1.
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.”