POWER — Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild — is determined to be plugged in to the $6 billion expansion project at Philadelphia International Airport.
And after the second of four meetings in June — with the third one scheduled for 6:45 p.m. Monday, June 18 at St. Raymond’s Catholic Church, 1350 W. Vernon Road — it’s equally apparent that elected officials are coming on board in support of POWER’s push.
POWER’s concern is that qualified minority workers will be overlooked when the more than 100,000 temporary and permanent positions open up in construction and orbiting services. The multi-billion dollar project is estimated to inject millions into the local economy over the next several decades; the expansion project itself could take 15 years to complete.
Despite opposition from United Airways and a handful of residents in Tinicum Township, Pennsylvania, the expansion project is well underway, as the city has selected the firms that will manage the logistics of the project. So there’s no time better than now to ramp up support from the community and local elected officials, POWER organizers say.
Arch Street United Methodist’s Reverend Robin Hynicka, long at the forefront of POWER’s push, said minority and economically-challenged qualified workers haven’t benefited from the array of construction jobs that have popped up downtown, saying that while these companies were able to take advantage of tax breaks, the community didn’t benefit from the jobs these work sites created.
“We must change this,” said Hynicka during a recent rally and information session at Congregation Rodeph Shalom. “As people of faith — as a city — we can no longer subsidize projects that don’t put our neighbors back to work.”
Philadelphia City Councilmen Kenyatta Johnson and Curtis Jones have supported POWER since the beginning; fellow Councilmen William Green and Mark Squilla also voiced their support for POWER’s agenda, saying they would commit publicly to working with the coalition.
POWER laid out its set of economic justice principles at its latest meeting, which include first-source hiring so that the city’s unemployed have a fair shot at landing a job; providing resources for creating an enhanced training and recruitment model; and an increase in minority participation in trade apprenticeship programs.
“The Philadelphia Airport is our biggest economic engine,” said POWER organizer and Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir/Heart of The City Rabbi Julie Greenberg. “Using that engine to address city poverty and unemployment only makes sense. Local hiring requirements at the airport can serve as a model for other large, subsidized projects in our city.”
POWER seems to be partly motivated by a similar campaign in Los Angeles. There, community organizers were able to broker the Community Benefits Agreement between the Los Angeles faith-based coalition and the city’s airport and municipal leadership. The community, City of Los Angeles and LAX agreement came in 2004, when all parties entered a legally binding agreement that addressed the $11 billion airport renovation plan there. The community coalition was granted several conditions due to the agreement, including $15 million for airport job training, establishing a firm to oversee local hiring, soundproofing area schools and residences and increasing opportunities for minority and women in the actual modernization of LAX.
“The win-win of public support for the Los Angeles Airport — in exchange for meaningful local hiring and training systems, and living wage provisions — is a model for Philadelphia,” said Reverend Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church.
Its first meeting resulted in Philadelphia City Councilmen Kenyatta Johnson and Curtis Jones both supporting its platform.
Now, POWER — Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild — hopes to make further inroads with its second “Economic Justice Forum” to be held Tuesday, June 12 at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 615 N. Broad St. That meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.
The topic du jour is the planned $6-billion expansion of the Philadelphia International Airport, a project that is slated to create thousands of temporary and permanent jobs. The expansion could take 15 years to complete.
POWER’s officials want to make sure that an equal portion of the jobs created by the project go to qualified minority workers.
Longtime Arch Street United Methodist Church Reverend Robin Hynicka said he has seen the damages wrought by economic inequality, and has prayed that a project like this would come along and revitalize the economy — and certainly the qualified workers among his flock.
“For over 30 years, I have prayed with unemployed and underemployed folks who live in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty. While some of my prayers were answered and individuals found work, far too many others in the neighborhood never did. I am still praying but the prayer is bigger, bolder and in unison with clergy and laity from over 36 congregations,” Hynicka said. “Our collaborative prayer includes the vision for 10,000 new jobs for unemployed Philadelphians, the creation of training programs and support systems that provide preparation for these jobs and the passing of legislation that creates a practical pathway to these jobs.
“In particular, this prayer includes support for City Council to enact legislation that will provide opportunity for Philadelphia residents to work at the temporary and permanent jobs that will be created by the Philadelphia International Airport Expansion Project,” he added.
This is the second of four such meetings POWER has established at community locations throughout the city. Council members Johnson and Jones attended the last meeting, and Council members Bill Green, David Oh and Mark Squilla have confirmed their attendance for Tuesday’s meeting, POWER officials said.
The timing is crucial. Earlier this month, the city took a huge step forward in the planning of the expansion, hiring three firms to manage the logistics of the project. Minority firms Delon Hampton & Associates and CMTS Inc. will join CH2M Hill, the lead planning company for the expansion.
The project has met some opposition, particularly from residents of Tinicum Township, several of whom may be dislocated by the expansion. US Airways — one the airport’s biggest users — has also filed a federal lawsuit to block the expansion.
City Council’s unease with the Actual Value Initiative — the shift from property taxes based on partial values to one based on full market values — was apparent this week during budget hearings.
A number of members are concerned that the shift, which was supposed to be revenue neutral, is actually a tax increase.
“You need to address the outstanding questions as relates to the math of this on the issue of whether or not we are asking the public for a tax increase,” said Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. on Wednesday morning as he summed up concerns about AVI.
Jones was just one member of Council who peppered Finance Director Rob Dubow and Budget Director Rebecca Rhynhart with questions and comments over several days this week as Council dug into Mayor Michael Nutter’s $3.6 billion budget proposal.
The administration’s budget numbers show that the move to AVI would provide an additional $90 million in funding for the school district this year, for a total of $673 million. The city, which splits property tax revenue with the district, would collect $458 million, roughly the same amount it collected last year.
Administration officials have avoided calling that extra revenue a tax increase, and instead say it represents the amount captured by increasing property values, which have risen since the city froze assessments in 2010.
But council members, who now appear to be fielding more questions from angry constituents, are nervous.
“This AVI issue is probably going to be the most difficult and angry issue that we’re facing — maybe since I came into council in ’92,” said Councilman Jim Kenney. “I can’t yet find a justification for explaining to people that I represent, citywide, why the additional $90 million makes sense.”
Kenney, like many of his colleagues, voted for property tax increases in several recent budget cycles, and said this week he supports funding for public schools. But, noting that in testimony Monday School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos said previous school administrations were guilty of “bad fiscal policy,” Kenney added that he wanted a better idea of how the district would spend the additional money.
His questions and comments suggested that council might feel more comfortable if revenue figures were changed to eliminate the added $90 million for the district.
“Would you agree with me, subjectively, that with the $90 million off the table it would be difficult for people to argue that this is fact a tax increase?” he asked Dubow, who declined to “get into whether it’s a tax increase.”
Dubow then added that he was sure the district was aware that it would need to justify the added money.
Last year council approved a 3.9 percent property tax increase after school officials, led by former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, said if it didn’t the district would be forced to get rid of full-day kindergarten and yellow buses.
“We were spun,” said Jones, agreeing with Kenney that he would need to know where any additional money was being spent.
Council members are also concerned about how the administration plans to roll out AVI.
The mayor wants to see it done this year. Under the administration’s plan, residents will receive their new assessments in October, and bills based on the new numbers in December.
That concerns council members who are being asked to make decisions based on budget numbers that could change as residents challenge tax bills through city appeals and maybe even court challenges.
“If we for some reason go forward and find out what we’re doing here, the formulation, the method is not legal … and all those appeals are granted we’d collect less revenue, correct?” asked Councilman Mark Squilla.
Dubow said the city had factored greater appeals, losses and lower collections when drawing up the budget.
“We’re assuming that goes up substantially,” he said.
At last week’s city council meeting, Squilla emerged as one of the prime opponents of AVI after he introduced legislation that would freeze property tax millage rates and assessments at current levels.
Squilla also raised concerns about a portion of the city’s AVI plan that would create a $15,000 exemption for residents’ primary residence. That portion of the plan needs approval by the state legislature before it can be enacted.
“We’re still at a point where we cannot give the public real information because we don’t know everything that is going to happen,” said Squilla.
Six new council members took their seats Thursday under the leadership of a new president and immediately began weighing several meaty issues, including: a plan to extend bar hours to 3 a.m., creation of a new Economic Opportunity Review Committee, and a proposal to require certain projects funded by the city to hire Philadelphians exclusively.
“To my new colleagues: Guys, you are in for one heck of a ride,” said Council President Darrell Clarke as he opened the meeting welcoming new members: Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass, Sixth District representative Bobby Henon, Second District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, First District Councilman Mark Squilla and At-Large Councilmen Denny O’Brien and David Oh.
The change in leadership style was evident immediately, as Clarke, now wielding the gavel, made it clear that public comment would be limited to the three minutes required by law — but no longer.
“I intend to hold faithfully to the three minute limit,” Clarke said, adding that after three minutes the microphone would be disconnected. He added, “I reserve the right to limit repetitious comment on some matters.”
It was the first meeting where Clarke presided in the historic council chamber. He replaced Anna C. Verna on Jan. 2. Verna was often lenient with public speakers, allowing them to speak beyond the three minutes required by law.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting Clarke said he hoped he could fill Verna’s shoes.
“Standing up at the big chair … there’s actually a little more going on than I anticipated,” he said.
Several important pieces of legislation were introduced this week.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced a proposal to extend bar hours from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. in an effort to raise money for the city’s schools. She estimated the move would generate $5 million in new tax revenue that she said would spent on education.
Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. introduced a bill he hopes will beef up minority participation in city contracts.
Goode’s proposal would set up a committee – the Economic Opportunity Review Committee – to review contracts from all city departments to ensure they are complying with efforts to hit the city’s minority participation goals. The five-member committee would draw its members from labor and business, with the proviso that not more than two can be businessmen.
It would also meet quarterly in public to hear concerns about the process, something that is not being done. Goode hopes the hearing will provide a place for the public to help council keep an eye on how contracts are being handled.
“This is not about ‘no snitching.” This is about ‘go snitch,’” Goode said.
The city has a 25 percent overall participation goal, but departmental goals vary. That fact can be used to manipulate the overall participation rate, he said.
As an example, Goode pointed to the Department of Public Health, which had a 2012 goal of 3 percent. In 2011 they achieved a goal of 53 percent.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said, adding that an in-depth look at the departmental goals showed only 16 of 42 city departments actually achieved their minority participation goals.
Last year, the city hit its 25 percent goal.
Goode would like to see it increased.
“I actually believe the goal should, and can be, higher,” he said. “The goal should be pushed to about 30 percent.”
The committee would also formally create a structure that could allow council to oversee minority participation. At the moment, the administration has that function, but Goode said the fact that goals are set and administered by executive order leaves the process vulnerable with each change of administration.
Goode also introduced a tax credit bill that would set up a $5,000 tax credit against the city’s business taxes for businesses that create new jobs for tax years 2012 and 2013.
In another piece of legislation intended to make sure Philadelphian have access to jobs, Councilman Bill Green introduced a proposal that would require certain public works and non-professional service jobs to be given to Philadelphians.
Under the plan, all jobs stemming from competitive, city-funded contracts over $150,000 would have to go to Philadelphia residents. Beneficiaries of certain subsidies would have to give first consideration to Philadelphians for all new jobs, and Philadelphia firms would be given a 5 percent preference in the allocating of bids.
“Philadelphia sorely needs to create jobs,” Green said, noting that the city’s unemployment rate stood at 10.9 percent.. “It … makes sense to expand residency requirements when we ask contractors to perform work on our behalf.”
Finally, council adopted Clarke’s new rules, which limit public comment to items on its second and final passage calendar. In addition, new rules prohibit public comment on privileged resolutions, since they are not legally binding.
“It’s just a small change,” Clarke said, predicting it would streamline council meetings.
Councilman Mark Squilla has emerged as one of the more influential of the six new members of City Council — a critical voice during the recent budget battle, and one that helped convince Council to delay the Actual Value Initiative — a controversial property tax reform measure.
“It was a good learning experience,” said the freshman councilman, who represents the city’s 1st Councilmanic District. “We learned how to compromise and come up with different solutions from maybe something the administration thought would work.”
Squilla is a member of what council members jokingly call the “serious six.” The six members who took their seats in January and were immediately swept up in an epic budget battle, the perfect storm of tax reform, education crisis and politics.
Looking back — nearly everyone agrees that the new members rose to the task.
“They’ve earned their title,” said Majority Leader Curtis Jones, at the end of Council’s spring session. “They were here to stand up for their core convictions.”
According to Squilla, the group has been energized by a common desire to change the status quo.
“Everybody is really serious about making a difference,” he said. “That energizes some of the other council members that have been there for a long time. We have the willingness to make tough decisions.”
None were as visible at Squilla during the debate, though he downplays his role.
“I didn’t think we were getting all the information that was necessary,” he said. “Once some of the other members started seeing that, they also started saying ‘wait a second.’”
His colleague Councilman David Oh put it this way: “What he did, in an effort, I think, to get more information faster was say, ‘hey look if you don’t get it to us, this is what is going to happen — we’re going to delay it.’”
While Squilla stood squarely in opposition to the mayor’s proposal, and frequently said he thought the move to AVI was premature, comparing it to diving into a pool when you couldn’t see the bottom. His criticism of the administration, Mayor Michael Nutter, in particular was muted — unlike that of some other council members.
“I know that people tried to get a fight between Council and the administration, but even though we disagreed on a lot of things [Council] was still able to work with the administration,” Squilla said, crediting Council President Darrell Clarke with his deft handling of the tensions.
“We’ve always been able to be straightforward with each other,” Nutter said. “He seems to be a guy that wants to get things done. He’s not looking to do something else or anything. He seems like he has principles and things that he cares about.”
Ultimately, Squilla was so persuasive that Council voted to delay AVI for another year.
His philosophy, Squilla said, is one of making things happen.
“My philosophy as a whole is to get things done. I hate when people tell me things can’t be done,” he said. The goal of Council should be ‘let’s get it done.’”
Surprisingly that even applies to AVI — provided it’s done right.
“Let’s get it done,” he said, his voice rising. “We can help the mayor do something that nobody else was able to do, but it speaks well for Council. Let’s get it done. It’s a hard thing to do. Let’s not pass it off because it’s going to make some people mad.”
Squilla, who replaced long-serving Councilman Frank DiCicco, has no prior experience in holding elected office but was, since 2008, president of the Whitman Council, and boasts of two decades of community service on his résumé. When DiCicco announced that he would not be seeking re-election he endorsed Squilla. He also collected Nutter’s endorsement during his bid for Council.
Though AVI is likely to dominate Council’s agenda well into 2013, Squilla hopes to get some things done in his district and to tackle other issues faced by the city — jobs and crime. He doesn’t have all the answers, but is open to suggestions.
“Let’s try some new things, even if they don’t work, we’re trying,” he said.
Squilla also hopes that Council exerts a greater influence over the school district by keeping a firm grip on the purse strings.
“Without education, our city is going to fail. We have to make sure that they’re accountable and the only way we can do that is withhold money,” he said. “We have no other say.”
A graduate of St John Neumann High School and La Salle University, Squilla has been married for 22 years to Brigid, a nurse anesthetist. The councilman’s three daughters and son currently attend high school and college in the Philadelphia area.
He’s optimistic about the city’s future.
“I think we have the potential to really move forward,” he said. “The changes we need to make over the next three or four years are very, very important because if we cannot make positive changes — improve our schools, decrease crime — the people who have given the City of Philadelphia a chance will move. This is our time to make it work.”
Public testimony continued Thursday in City Council over Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposed actual value initiative, or AVI, a plan to radically overhaul property tax values in Philadelphia.
None of those who spoke during the hearing expressed total opposition to the plan; in fact they acknowledged that the current property tax assessment system is unbalanced and extremely flawed. The greatest concern was the fear that Council could vote on the issue before all of the property reassessments are completed — which won’t be until 2013.
“We’re not against AVI,” said James Foster, publisher of the Germantown Chronicle. “But we are concerned about how its passage will impact the economy of the city. I call this an awakening to the reality of neglect in the city. We have one of the best transit systems in the country and I would ask that Council members take a ride on a train, get a window seat going just outside the city and a window seat going back in. All of these trains go right through the hearts of your districts. You will see what’s left of the economic base that made Philadelphia great. Dilapidated buildings, abandoned houses, impromptu junkyards, and of course, empty blocks where buildings once stood. What do all of these properties have in common? They are paying no real estate taxes. They are paying no business taxes and are employing no residents of Philadelphia. Bad decisions drove people out before — and if this passes you will once again see another several hundred thousand leave in short order.”
Foster also said that Council and the Nutter administration should put more emphasis on collections of tax delinquent properties.
Last week, City Council approved to the new property tax system, but the final vote is pending. The proposal, which if passed along with the Use and Occupancy tax, would bring more than $85 million more for the financially limping school district. But public support for the new measures is shaky and residents are concerned that council is being pushed to pass the bills before all of the property assessments are in. The vocal residents who testified on Thursday, along with some members of Council are asking for a one-year delay in AVI, a proposal offered by City Councilman Mark Squilla.
“Our primary concern is the long term impact that raising the tax bills will have,” said Jeff Carpineta, president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association. “Some residents could find their tax bills going up from $800 dollars to $2,500 or $3,500 dollars. These residents could wind up making late payments on mortgages or in some cases even face foreclosures, decreasing the values of the communities and dumping more properties on the market. We’ll see more residents dislocated. If we don’t have a year to work this out, it could be a disaster.”
Residents stated their agreement that the current tax assessment system needs to be fixed. Mayor Nutter wants to fix Philadelphia’s broken property-tax system by reassessing all homes and businesses, and in the process, raise millions for the school district. Revamping the property-tax system will give city residents the most accurate assessments in years.
AVI would change the way the city assesses real estate, moving from assessments based on a fraction of property value to the full market value.
“No more fractions. No more complications. You should not need a math degree to be able to figure out what your taxes are,” said the mayor in a previous interview. “Once the new values are in, we have to use them.”
Councilmen Bill Green and Mark Squilla have announced their opposition to the proposal, calling on the administration to delay implementation for another year. And state Sen. Larry Farnese has also come on board, saying he was introducing legislation in Harrisburg that would give Council that option. Opponents say they’re being asked to vote on something before all of the information is available and assessment figures will not be available until July.
Over and over during Thursday’s hearing, residents and business people alike implored Council to delay the process for one year.
“Really, I’m very pessimistic about Philadelphia’s prospects for the future,” said real estate developer Richard Snowden. “The notion that this Council is even considering a property tax increase, coming on the heels of other recent large tax increases and a jump in virtually every fee the city imposes on businesses indicates a blatant disregard for the people of this city. Due to the unreasonable scale and lack of phasing of this policy I have alerted our employees, tenants and members for 2013 includes enormous rent increases which many simply cannot afford to pay. We’ll see layoffs and curtailments in restoration and rehabilitation of buildings — all so the city can get its thirty pieces of silver. Many small Mom and Pop businesses will simply close their doors.”
Proposal calls for $2000 fine, vehicles destroyed
Of all the bills and resolutions passed during this week’s Council sessions, the one which spells out the criminality and enforcement of all-terrain vehicles on city streets may have the most immediate impact on residents’ quality of life.
The bill, introduced by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown on behalf of the Nutter Administration, restricts riders from operating, stopping, parking or idling on public pathways and parks.
The bill also authorizes Philadelphia Police to confiscate the vehicles, and assess its driver a whopping fine of $2,000. Once confiscated, the illegal vehicles will either be destroyed or otherwise disposed of, and the bill will make it virtually impossible for these vehicles to return to Philadelphia streets.
“The bill is in response to what many of my colleagues will tell you is the number one complaint from constituents — the illegal riding of ATVs throughout the streets and neighborhoods of Philadelphia. My office has spent the summer speaking with a host of stakeholders — including the police, the Nutter Administration, community leaders and ordinary citizens who have been impacted from all angles on the issue,” Brown said. “There is no silver bullet answer that will alleviate the concerns of those who seek to ride ATVs and those who are put in harm’s way by the activity.
“This is step one, the first in a series of proposals that must occur in order for us to get a handle on this complicated and multi-layered issue.”
Brown cited data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which found that 521 ATV-related deaths occurred between 1982 and 2010. Of those, 105 were juveniles under the age of 16.
Philadelphia Deputy Mayor for Environmental and Community Resources Michael DiBerardinis voiced his pleasure with the bill in a statement released in conjunction with the legislation.
“ATVs are a public safety threat that cause significant damage to our city’s parks and recreation centers. These illegal vehicles prohibit the majority of children, youth and families from enjoying these spaces in the manner for which they were intended,” DiBerardinis said. “This legislation is another viable tool to help us protect our city’s treasured public spaces.”
While perhaps not as urgent as Brown’s legislation, Councilman James Kenney has altered one of his bills.
Kenney previously introduced a measure that would require the police to ticket an illegally parked car before a private towing company could remove it. Sensing that his legislation would add additional stress to an already overworked police department, Kenney’s legislation now calls for tow-truck operators to first take a picture of the illegally parked vehicle before towing. The idea is that a picture will go a long way toward vindicating either the tow truck company or the individual driver, should the owner of the towed car contest the matter in court.
City Council also passed several other resolutions, including an ordinance to amend The Philadelphia Code, which allows for increased transparency and for other pertinent information to be included in the Finance Director’s annual report, along with a Councilman Kenyatta Johnson-authored resolution that calls for Governor Tom Corbett to immediately address the state’s transportation needs by fast-tracking the implementation of several cost-saving measures included in Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Report of 2011.
The only withdrawn resolution was the Councilman Mark Squilla-sponsored ordinance that would amend a portion of The Philadelphia Code, which would provide a new tax and establish a tax rate on real estate. Squilla’s plan would also allow the School District of Philadelphia to impose its own tax on real estate within the city.
Unanimous resolution calls on mayor to resolve three-year dispute
Increasing the pressure on Mayor Michael Nutter, City Council on Thursday, March 22, unanimously passed a resolution urging the mayor to end a three-year standoff with the city’s municipal workers and “negotiate a fair contract.”
“City workers deserve a fair contract,” said Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr., the resolution’s sponsor. “Our workers have sacrificed — and that should be acknowledged.”
The vote was met with the enthusiastic foot stomping and yelling of several hundred members of the city’s two municipal worker unions — American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, district councils 33 and 47 — who jammed chambers for the second time in less than a month.
Non-uniformed city workers have been working without a new contract since 2009.
Disagreements on wages, work rules, healthcare and pension benefits have stymied negotiations.
In the most recent round of talks, administration officials proposed increasing healthcare costs by a percentage based on the city’s increased costs. The city also proposed a 2.5 percent wage increase for fiscal years 2013 and 2014. In terms of pension benefits, the city wants to set up a dual pension plan; one for senior employees and another for employees hired after a certain date.
The unions have rejected them all.
Goode, when he introduced the resolution on March 8, declined to say whether his union support extended to budgeting for raises, or where he stood on the benefits package.
“This resolution is in support of a fair contract,” he said. “I think there should be a negotiated contract. The resolution does not deal with raises or benefits specifically.”
Negotiations are conducted by the administration, outside Council’s authority. Goode said this week that his resolution was needed because talks have stalled.
“When asked. ‘Why would City Council inject itself into contract negotiations?’ I ask, “What negotiations?” Goode said.
Over the last several weeks, union officials — through television advertisements and speaking at Council — have been pressing Nutter to reach an agreement.
Pete Matthews, president of District Council 33 and Catherine Scott, president of District Council 47, both blasted Nutter this week in City Council.
Both ran down a list of numbers that they contend represent the savings unions have provided to the city — a figure they estimate amounts to $415 million.
“We all know the mayor wants to be a dictator,” Matthews said. “But, we are tired of being taken for granted. Let the mayor hear this loud and clear: We will not make concessions.”
The mayor has repeatedly said he’s ready to sign a “fair contract” — a point that his spokesman, Mark McDonald, made again Thursday.
“We are in the midst of negotiations,” said McDonald, noting several things, including the fact that a resolution is non-binding and that District Council 33 is in the midst of an election. “[Matthews’] comments should be filtered or looked at in terms of some of these other factors.”
As for the number union officials contend they’ve saved, McDonald said they were difficult to believe.
“It’s hard to give any of it any credence whatsoever,” he said. “They’re saying that they saved the city money … they didn’t do it. It was their intransigence in matters related to essential reforms that the administration is pursuing. It is their unwillingness to think to the future that has prevented the signing of a contract.”
The administration seems to be gaining some momentum in its stance with the unions after an arbitration ruling, handed down Wednesday, forced the union that represents prison guards within District Council 33 to accept changes in their benefits packages.
The ruling, which covers 2,000 prison guards, gives them a 2.5 percent raise this year and next year along with a bonus. But, it also requires new hires to enter a hybrid pension plan along the lines of a 401k, as opposed to the city’s traditional defined benefit plan.
“The arbitrators clearly understand the dire fiscal circumstances the city has been facing for some time,” said Nutter Wednesday.
In other news, Councilman Mark Squilla introduced legislation that would freeze property tax millage rates and assessments at current levels. The city is in the process of moving to property tax bills based on market values, but Squilla said Council, which sets the millage rates, does not have the information it needs to move ahead with plans this year.
“My mother always told me ‘never dive into water when you can’t see the bottom’ and you know what this is what we’re doing,” he said.
Administration officials realize the transition is going to be difficult, McDonald said.
The city will have all the information it needs by October, he said, when new assessments should go out to residents, and that if it does not proceed the city could face litigation.
“Whatever year it was going to happen we would face this kind of problem,” McDonald said, then quoting Nutter he added. “It’s time to bite the bullet.”
Finally, Council passed two resolutions introduced by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown. The first asked the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority to stop using stickers on transpasses that note the gender of the user.
Brown contends, along with many members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, that doing so can prove embarrassing for transgender people using public transit.
SEPTA officials defend the use of stickers as way to cut down on fraud.
In the second resolution, Council urged the state legislature to pass a bill creating a state hotline for victims of human trafficking. If approved, the law would require signs in truck stops, massage parlors, strip clubs, hotels, motels and agricultural facilities that provide victims with a 1-800 number where they can seek help.
Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers was feeling the heat this week as City Council’s Committee on Labor and Civil Service took him to task for a new plan to deploy firefighters in five-year rotations — a plan loudly opposed by the union.
“You will hear from many people today about why we shouldn’t do this,” said Ayers in his testimony. “I remind you that there are many more you won’t hear from today, but I certainly hear from them and they have been looking for this opportunity.”
Several members of Council — all of whom expressed their displeasure with the new plan from Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration — grilled Ayers for well over an hour Tuesday morning.
Administration officials announced the plan on Nov. 1 and it immediately caused an outcry from firefighters. Scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, it re-deploys 293 senior firefighters — those with 10 or more years of service — putting them into a five-year rotation, forcing them to work at firehouses across the city rather than the ones where they’ve spent the majority of their careers.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Bill Gault, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 22, told reporters at recent press conference. He did not testify Tuesday.
Gault has called the plan “vindictive” and said it would lead to unnecessary deaths. “Firefighting is a team game. Don’t break up the team. It’s a recipe for disaster. People will die. Fireman will die.”
A couple hundred firefighters packed the chamber Tuesday, punctuating the proceedings with shouted commentary and occasionally interrupting Ayers’ testimony. The commissioner refused to speak over the commotion, sitting stony faced until committee Chair Jim Kenney either waited out the noise, or brought the crowd back to order.
But the fiercest opposition came from members of the committee, who pressed Ayers relentlessly about the re-deployment plan.
“None of this makes any sense,” Kenney told Ayers.
Each member of council who spoke disapproved of the plan – largely echoing union objections. One also questioned the administration’s motives in implementing the re-deployment plan. Some have suggested that the plan is part of an administration effort to weaken the union.
“It’s being put into place to break that down,” said Councilman Mark Squilla.
Department commanders contend the plan is needed to increase the experience of firefighters by exposing them to a variety of settings and neighborhoods. Ayers acknowledged the union’s objections, but accused members of fear mongering to get their way.
“Change brings angst, but sometimes people need to know what to let go of,” he said. “The union has tried to scare the city of Philadelphia, our residents, into thinking that they are less safe.”
Local 22 has been feuding with the Nutter administration since 2008.
Twice an arbitrator has granted firefighters a contract, and twice the administration has appealed it. Last week a Common Pleas Court threw out the latest appeal by the administration, but insiders suggest that another appeal is likely.
Kenney blasted the mayor for the standoff over a contract.
“This is not necessarily directed at you,” Kenney said to Ayers. “But, some of the things people do in frustration – when over a five year period they are treated totally disrespectfully in every aspect of the employer/employee relationship. When what we have in this state is binding arbitration for uniformed employees who cannot strike and it,s appealed, and appealed, and appealed and appealed and going to probably be appealed again. You expect people to want to come to work in a cheerful manner when they’re treated so disrespectfully?”
He noted that contract negotiations with police have not been the same.
“This has been a tooth pull from the beginning,” Kenney said.
Ultimately, Council has little real authority in the matter, though members’ opposition to the plan does ratchet up the political pressure on the mayor.
A coalition of state legislators, two city council members and several community activists have launched their own tax revolt, urging Mayor Michael Nutter to halt his administration’s plans to move ahead with its Actual Value Initiative.
“We need to reform our property tax system, but we need to do it right,” said Sen. Larry Farnese, calling Nutter’s plan a “back door tax increase.” He added, “We don’t want this.”
Under the administration’s plan, the city would change the basis of real estate taxes from its traditional method using a fraction of the property value, to one based on the market value. Just how the change would affect most property owners is unclear – administration officials admit taxes for many would go up, but contend that for others, it would go down.
A group of 11 people – members of the state House and Senate, city council and two community groups – gathered at Farnese’s South Philadelphia office Friday morning to brief reporters on their united stand against the move to AVI.
“It’s time to wake up,” said Councilman Bill Green, who has been very vocal in his opposition to the mayor’s plan. “Or, you’re going to wake up in October with a tax bill that is an outrage.”
Green and Councilman Mark Squilla have led a charge in City Council against AVI.
Opposition hinges on two main factors.
First, council is expected to pass a budget by June 1, but administration officials have told members that full reassessment numbers will not be available until July at the earliest. That concerns council members who worry that they are being asked to approve a budget based on incomplete numbers.
“We don’t have all the information,” Squilla said this week.
In order to set the tax rate, Squilla and Green argued, council needs to know the aggregate value of all of Philadelphia’s real estate. Assessors are wrapping up their valuation of the city’s residential properties, but have not started reassessing commercial or industrial properties yet.
“We need to be able to have all the values in place before we tell the people what their taxes are going to be,” he said. “There is no way to know what millage we need to come up with.”
Nutter’s spokesman, Mark McDonald, said the change is already underway, and that when the new numbers have been generated the city will be obliged to go ahead.
“We are in the process of implementing AVI, which is for the first time in generations going to provide fair and accurate property assessments to all property holders,” he said. “Those numbers will be available later this year, and it would not be right to not use them.”
The lack of numbers from the administration is not the only reason opponents object.
Green also cautioned that the move to AVI involves a shift that places more of the financial burden on residential property owners. On Monday he introduced a bill that would increase the city’s use and occupancy tax, a move he said would equalize the tax burden on residential and business property owners.
Green is also among those who object to AVI on the grounds that it’s not revenue neutral.
The shift to the new system would generate an additional $94 million, earmarked for the school district. That concerned many of the people gathered at Farnese’s office, who agreed the move was a tax increase by another name. State rules generally force any municipality making a similar shift to collect the same total revenue before and after the change, something officials said is needed to maintain confidence in the system.
Nutter’s plan does not do that, they said.
“[Nutter] is already cooking the books,” said state Rep. Brendan Boyle. “And the people of Philadelphia have had enough.”
Noting that property taxes have gone up each year for the last three years, he added, “We cannot have a third property tax increase.”
Green has proposed an amendment to Nutter’s plan to keep it revenue neutral.
State Rep. Mike O’Brien said he was introducing legislation in Harrisburg that would force the city to freeze its wage tax, rather than reduce it as planned, and give the difference – roughly $86.3 million – to the school district.
They also contend that school district officials were wrong who cautioned that without the additional $94 million provided in Nutter’s budget, schools would not open the fall.
“Contrary to what the school district will tell you, the schools must open in September,” Green said.
Green urged residents to oppose Nutter’s plan by calling the mayor’s office and their council person or state legislator.
“Let your representatives know you want to wait a year,” he said.