Eric is a general assignment reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune
Warren White is a budding entrepreneur – he hasn’t quite honed his aspirations into a concrete plan, but he’s determined to be successful – and with some help from a new city program, hopes to do it sooner than he might have alone.
“I’d like to start a business,” said White. “A day care or restaurant, something that caters to the community.”
A graduate of University City High School, White is one of 130 young adults, up to 24 years old, taking part in the Philly Future Track program, a new city program administered by the Streets Department. It gives young adults jobs and job training for six months. Participants divide their time between their jobs – cleaning streets and alleyways – and the classroom, three days outside, two days in the classroom.
White hoped to build and enhance his resume and bolster his real-world job experience.
“I was working as a barber but I decided to go to the trade life,” he said. “I think this will make my resume better.”
Hoping to turn a trade into a steady job, White ultimately wanted to raise the money to strike out on his own.
College never seemed like an option for White, who grew up near 11th and Norris, one of four siblings raised by a single parent.
It’s his second time in a similar work program. He was working at the Philadelphia Housing Authority in a six-month vocational program learning electrical work.
Though he’s avoided the traps that ensnare many of his peers, finding a job has been hard.
White is hardly alone.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, youth unemployment nationally was more than double that of adults. The overall unemployment rate has hovered near 7.8 percent since September. For African Americans it has been around 14 percent for that same period.
The latest national figures on youth unemployment showed unemployment for people between the ages of 16-24 at 17.1 percent. The rate was higher for men than for women, roughly 17.9 percent of men were unemployed compared to 16.2 percent for women.
In Philadelphia the overall youth unemployment rate was 16.2 percent.
For Black youth the statistics were even more grim.
Nationally, the unemployment rate for Black youth was 28.6 percent compared to 14.9 percent for whites. There was no break down by ethnic background for Philadelphia.
Though the statistics seemed stacked against him, it’s difficult to imagine White, 23, without a smile. Even standing outside in the sharp chill of early March he appeared upbeat. Trash was blowing around the neighborhood, a section of North Philadelphia near the intersection of Broad and York streets. The block, just west of Broad, was dotted with boarded up houses and vacant lots.
A biting wind and pellets of rain blew in from the southeast. Forecasters were calling for snow. But White and a crew of 11 other determined young adults were clearing debris out of an alleyway choked with refuse. The majority were men – in White’s crew there are 10 men and two women. They kept at it, ignoring the weather.
In fact, they seemed to enjoy it.
Several slogged through the drizzle, dragging chunks of a downed tree to the curb. At the front of the group, several adventurers attacked the mess head on, joking and yelling for hard hats. Others shoveled up the dirt that had accumulated in the nooks and crannies of the alleyway. Still others bagged the small bits of debris.
They’d arrived at 9 a.m. and by about 10 a.m. had cleared about half the alley. Program officials said about 500 alleys have been cleared since January. The goal is revitalize about 5,000 in neighborhoods across the city by June.
“See that light,” said White, pointing to a pole light where the alley bent to run behind the houses on the block. “It probably doesn’t work. Once we clear this out they’ll put in an LED light that will last 11 years.”
His pride in the work is evident.
“They’re learning a lot, about the civic part of this, how it’s not just a job,” said supervisor Deion Morrison, who works for Community Marketing Concepts and the Streets Department. “It’s helping the neighborhood and it helps their self-esteem. They’re like ‘wow, I’m helping the neighborhood.’”
“Every once in a while an older person will come and really thank you and say ‘I really appreciate what you’re doing.’ You just feel good,” said White.
Participants are also working on other skills.
“You’re heightening your writing skills and your math skills,” said White, noting that classes lasted six hours, two days a week. It’s also a time when they learn about other support programs or career options, including the military.
“Everybody has a different story but we’re getting direction,” he said.
As an example, White said he was excited to learn about a city finance program that helps people get small business loans. His plan had always been get a good job, build credit then use a bank loan to start a business.
“Going here I was informed that you don’t necessarily have to go through a bank,” he said. “You don’t have to pay so much interest.”
He was still weighing his options.
“I’ll get there,” he said smiling confidently.
At the moment, there is a waiting list of 700 people hoping to join the next class of Philly Future Tracks. Administration officials said they hoped the city can continue the $1.46 million program.
Morrison said he hoped so too.
“It’s beautiful,” Morrison said, as he turned to urge his crew back to work.
Leaked audit is character assassination, Rep. Evans’ supporters say
With Councilwoman Marian Tasco leading the charge, several council members rose in council chambers on Thursday to defend state Rep. Dwight Evans and blast Gov. Tom Corbett, his administration and the media for an uncirculated report, leaked to the press, which seems to indicate financial improprieties by two local non-profits and by implication Evans.
“If there is a real smoking gun, where are the charges?” asked Tasco at Thursday’s city council meeting. “Or, is it the true aim to kill off these effective organizations by rumors, allegations and legal fees? Death by a thousand cuts.”
Several members spoke in support of Evans and against the administration and local news outlets. Tasco was the most vocal in her disapproval, her voice at times quivering with anger, as she spoke for nearly 10 minutes on what she said was a campaign against Black Philadelphians.
She was speaking about a report by the state inspector general’s office probing alleged financial irregularities at the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. and the Urban Affairs Coalition.
“The administration refused to share [the report] with the organizations named in the report,” said Tasco. “Why wouldn’t the Corbett administration share the audit and work to correct irregularities?”
The Tribune was unable to obtain a copy despite repeated requests.
Tasco said her office had not seen the report either, nor have OARC officials, nor has Evans, whose name has been linked to the report in press accounts.
“Nope,” replied Jack Kitchen, president and CEO of the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. He then referred the Tribune to a letter from an attorney representing OARC to the governor’s chief counsel, Christopher C. Houston.
“OARC is being tried in the press without prior notice of the claims against it,” wrote attorney S. David Fineman from the Center City firm of Fineman, Krekstein & Harris. Fineman said the Inquirer declined to provide a copy of the report. Fineman went on to call the newspaper story a “one-sided media assault.”
Few people have seen the actual report that served as the basis for the media reports.
Evans said he had not tried to get a copy of the report, adding that he prefers to focus on his legislative agenda rather than get involved in mudslinging.
Tasco, too, said she had made no effort to get the report, but felt it should be made public. Bill Miller, a media spokesman for the Urban Affairs Coalition, did not respond to questions about the report on Thursday. In the past he has said that no one at the coalition has seen the report.
The governor’s office referred reporters to the inspector general’s office, which responded with a statement.
“The Office of Inspector General reviews all complaints received and does not target or single out any agency, vendor or grant recipient,” said Inspector General Kenya Mann Faulkner, in the statement. “Complaints come from a variety of sources, including private citizens, private businesses, state employees and other government entities. Once completed, investigative reports are provided to the involved state agencies and, when appropriate, could be referred to law enforcement authorities or the State Ethics Commission.”
The office again declined to release the report.
It was leaked to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has run several stories based on the document that has not been made public. It was part of a campaign to “demonize those who craft solutions,” Tasco said, that was “deliberately misleading” and “full of inferences and innuendo.”
The councilwoman said she detected a deliberate campaign against Blacks by the Inquirer and one against Evans, a prominent Democrat who for years was head of the House appropriations committee, by the Republican administration.
She said that Evans had made powerful enemies during his tenure because of his dedication to the Black community.
“At the core of these battles is his dogged determination to improve the lives of the disadvantaged … through fair access to government resources, resources that heretofore have been denied to minority communities,” she said. “He learned that holding the purse can affect public policy decisions.”
The entire community benefitted, she said.
“Philadelphians, Black, white, Latinos and others … are still today benefitting from appropriations decisions made by Rep. Evans,” Tasco said, ticking off a list of projects that included the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Barnes Collection, Jewish museum and Please Touch Museum.
In Philadelphia, there is the belief that Blacks are unfit to lead, she added.
“There is a notion that the African-American community is not entitled to participate in decisions on allocating revenue of government resources, that we need to somehow be more closely monitored, that government in our hands is somehow more corrupt,” Tasco said. “The press perpetuates this myth.”
The story would have been different if the politicians had been white, she said.
“If he were a white legislator and this were a white neighborhood the Inquirer’s headline would read, ‘Committed State Legislator Turns Neighborhood Around After 30 Years of Hard Work.’”
The reports also angered council members Cindy Bass and Maria Quinones Sanchez.
“He [Evans] has supported the Latino community,” Sanchez said. “Not because we could vote for him, not because he could gain from it politically but because it was the right thing to do, supporting impoverished communities.”
According to published details of the report, the state was looking into irregularities since 1999, OARC has received $28 million in state grants and UAC has gotten about $24 million.
OARC, a non-profit dedicated to education, economic development and housing in West Oak Lane, was founded in 1983 by Evans.
The Urban Affairs Coalition manages between $20 and $50 million annually and has administered $390 million in state funds since 1999.
State investigators were reportedly trying to figure out if the coalition ignored grant rules, failed to keep track of grant monies and intentionally went around bidding regulations in its handling for a $400,000 grant for the North Philadelphia East Falls Neighborhood Initiative. State officials said coalition officials doled out the money in increments, cutting checks for $10,000, the maximum exemption for bidding rules.
In the period being investigated by state officials, a total of $1.5 million have been called into question.
As the Actual Value Initiative inches closer to reality, city council continues to wrestle with the implications of potentially large property tax increases for many of their constituents.
Mayor Michael Nutter is expected to deliver his budget to city council at 10 a.m. March 14. No tax increases are expected, but with the city’s shift to AVI – a move to assessments based on the full value of a property rather than the traditional assessments based on fractional value – this year means the budget process is likely to occupy headlines for months.
Several budget related proposes were floated in council this week.
In the first, and a move that appears minor but looms large in the debate over AVI, Councilman Jim Kenney introduced a bill that would set a 1 percent tax rate for real estate and school taxes. That is lower than the expected rate, which administration and council officials have said could range from 1.25 percent to 1.4 percent.
Under the new tax system, the assessed value of a property is multiplied by the tax rate to determine taxes due.
Kenney’s proposal would require cuts in spending until the city could enact a 1 percent rate. It was referred to committee. Council will ultimately approve a tax rate as part of a package of budget bills. A budget must be approved by July 1.
Also in AVI news, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson has asked the administration to extend by 45 days the period for first reviews of new property tax assessments.
At the moment, the date to submit assessment appeals to the Office of Property Assessment is March 31. Johnson, concerned about new assessments, has suggested pushing that to May 15.
“Many of my constituents are feeling the shock of their property taxes going up,” Johnson said. “I have seen a large number of seemingly inaccurate assessments, and I expect that a very large number of residents will file for a first-level review.”
Taxes are expected to fall for some properties under the new assessments, but for many more taxes are likely to rise, in some cases several hundred percent.
Finally, Councilman David Oh introduced two budget related items. In the first, Oh urged the administration to begin paying contract awards to the city’s firefighters. The administration and firefighters have been at odds for years, as the city appeals several court rulings that gave raises to firefighters. Oh, as a budget precaution, wants the city to pay $66 million from previous awards “immediately.” He also wanted the administration to set aside more as a hedge against future awards.
“The problem is that this is now in court and the city has lost in two binding arbitrations and lost appeals of those arbitrations and is now appealing and may well appeal to Supreme Court,” he said. “At the end of the day it appears less likely than likely that the city is going to win.”
In the second measure, he wants voters to approve a change to the Home Rule Charter that would establish a city budget office, similar to the Congressional Budget Office, an independent office that would provide budget analyses to city officials.
In other news, council approved a resolution urging the School Reform Commission to rename Parent University in honor of the late Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. The measure was unanimously approved.
“Even if you disagree with her methodologies, or her strategies … Dr. Ackerman was a passionate career educator whose fierce dedication to the welfare and well-being of the children in her charge was unquestionable.”
Bill would add three seats to five-member commission
As the School Reform Commission moves to close more than two dozen city schools, a freshman state legislator has proposed changes to the makeup of commission, expanding it from five to eight members.
“The purpose of this legislation is to ensure that parental voice and involvement is a permanent voting fixture on the School Reform Commission, and that we have a formal student voice on the commission,” said Rep. Jordan Harris, in a statement released Tuesday. “We can no longer depend on an informal voice from parents and students with regard to the education of their children and themselves.”
The board has come under fire as commissioners weigh closing 27 schools as part of a plan to save money and deal with shrinking enrollment. The five members of the board are appointed by the governor and the mayor. The governor appoints two members, the mayor three. Appointees tend to be politically well connected.
Under Harris’s proposal, which he introduced this week and is now in committee, a parent representative from a charter school would be appointed to the board by the governor. The mayor would appoint a parent from a public school and the president of the Student Government Association would also automatically be included on the board with full voting powers.
The proposal would have to be approved by the state legislature which oversees the SRC as part of the 10-year-old state takeover.
The battle over paid sick leave is shaping up to be one of the major debates of City Council’s spring session with both sides digging in as Council considers a bill that would require most companies in Philadelphia to give employees paid sick days.
“This government-knows-best, heavy-handed mandate is a significant burden,” Patrick Conway, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, told members of City Council on Tuesday during Health Committee hearings on the issue.
His argument was countered by a waitress who said she’s often worked sick because she can’t afford to take a day off, unpaid.
“Everyone who waitresses works while they’re sick because they don’t have sick time and they need the money,” said Rosemary Devine.
Their arguments represented the larger debate on the issue which broke down along health and social justice lines and economic considerations. Both sides said they represent the best interests of employees and the city. The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce is against the bill as is the African-American Chamber of Commerce. Labor advocates are for it.
Under a proposal from Councilman Bill Greenlee most employers in Philadelphia to give workers earned, paid sick days.
The bill has been amended while in committee – in its current guise it would require employers to provide one hour of sick time off for every 40 hours worked. For large firms, those with 20 employees or more would be required to give seven sick days a year. Small employers, those with between 5 and 20 employees, would give four paid sick days. Organizations with fewer than 5 employees are exempted.
The issue has divided council and the administration and business and labor advocates for more than a year. A previous bill was narrowly approved by council in 2011. It was vetoed by Mayor Michael Nutter, who cited economic concerns as the reason for his opposition.
Greenlee re-introduced a similar proposal earlier this year.
This week he sensed an administration grudge against his persistence.
The hearings were held by the Health Committee – yet the administration sent the head of the Commerce Department, Alan Greenberger, to answer questions. Greenlee wanted Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz to testify.
Schwarz did not appear and Greenlee blasted Nutter.
“I think Schwarz is an honorable man,” the councilman said, saving his anger for the mayor. “To not have the health commissioner come to a hearing is the most disrespectful thing this administration has ever done.”
Greenberger called the bill “commendable” but said the administration would prefer to see a statewide bill which would level the field between Philadelphia and the surrounding counties.
“It is the goal of this administration to make it easier to do business in the City of Philadelphia in “order to increase our competiveness vis-à-vis the suburbs and other cities,” Greenberger said. These employers told us they might have to reduce the pay of their employees or reduce jobs. It might lead to increased costs for their customers.”
With other options, Greenberg worried many businesses will simply avoid Philadelphia.
“Businesses will be scared off from coming here when they have choices,” he said. “Had this been a different economic climate our point of view might be different.”
The arguments were one sided, Greenlee said: “You just talked about businesses.”
When one opponent said businesses could no longer afford “unfunded mandates” from the city, Greenlee got riled up.
“Minimum wage laws were unfunded mandates. Child labor laws were unfunded mandates,” he said, dismissing the entire point of view. “It is a matter of whether it’s right or not.”
At one point he grew so exasperated he blurted out: “I feel like I’m dealing with the Tea Party or something.”
More than 40 people were scheduled to testify at the hearings with several more, including U.S. Rep. Bob Brady who supported paid sick leave, submitting written testimony. The audience, which booed occasionally, waved signs with slogans like: “fired for being sick,” “paid sick time now” and “no germs in my pasta.”
It was too early to predict what might happen to the bill during a council vote, Greenlee said. Support seems fall largely along party lines with Democrats, who make up a majority, supporting and Republicans opposing – though several Democrats have voted against the measure.
Councilman David Oh, a Republican, summed up his concerns.
“Philadelphia is on track to lose about 75,000 jobs over the next five or six years,” he said. “I suspect we’re not losing high paid, high skilled jobs…the challenge that we will all address is how we bring more jobs into the neighborhoods of Philadelphia.”
Former Health Commissioner Walter Tsou said the bill provides health and business benefits: “in the long run [an employee] will be more productive if they can get their illness treated or controlled,” he said.