Eric is a general assignment reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune
Hoping to finally end its haggling with Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration, the firefighter’s union, this week, asked the courts to force the mayor to abide by the city’s latest contract with firefighters.
“We will not wait any more,” said Bill Gault, president of Philadelphia Fire Fighters’ Union, Local 22. “For the past four years, firefighters and paramedics have worked without a raise, risking our lives every day to protect the citizens of Philadelphia.”
Firefighters were awarded a contract on July 2 by a panel of three arbitrators. It granted union members a 9 percent pay raise and protected them from furlough days, while at the same time forcing changes in members’ pension and health care plans.
Under the terms of the agreement, backdated to July 1, 2009, and very similar to a previous agreement, the city would contribute more to member’s health care and benefits, but new hires would be forced into a 401(k) type retirement plan.
Though that ruling was recent, the city and the union have been battling over a contract since 2010, when arbitrators awarded a contract that was also appealed by the city. That award was set aside by the Court of Common Pleas after a judge ordered both sides to return to arbitration.
“They’re going to keep on appealing until they get what they want?” asked attorney Ralph J. Teti, who is representing the union in the case, filed Tuesday in Common Pleas Court. “I don’t think there is any statute … that reads that way. If they want [the law] to read that way, they ought to go visit the legislature. They had their shot at it, now it’s time to enforce the award.”
Nutter declined to comment on the suit, saying that the city’s attorneys were reviewing the court action.
“I don’t know what instigated that, but anybody can file a suit about whatever they want,” he said.
Contracts between the city, police and firefighters are governed by a state law called Act 111. It forbids police and firefighters from striking, and provides arbitration as a way for both sides to reach an agreement.
“We cannot strike,” Gault said. “Instead, we are given the opportunity to turn our issues over to an impartial third party for final and binding arbitration. Then, we live with the results.”
The mayor and firefighters have been at odds almost since the mayor took office in 2008. Members of the police union also received an award from arbitration. It included a provision that allowed the city to furlough police officers for up to 30 days a year. When asked why the administration has fought a settlement with firefighters, Gault said he thought furloughs were the reason.
Because the recent agreement was backdated and ends July 1, 2013, Local 22, which has about 4,000 active and retired members, is due to begin the negotiating process all over again in about six weeks, Gault said.
Though City Council is recessed for the summer, Councilwoman Cindy Bass was hard at work this week, squeezing meetings with reporters in between sit-downs with Parks Commissioner Susan Slawson and a line of others gathered at the door of her fifth floor office.
“We have a lot to do,” she said. “But, I’m excited about it. I just think that there is a lot more that our city could be.”
Bass replaced former 8th District Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller after Miller’s retirement in January. She was one of six freshmen who have helped radically remake a body that was notoriously similar year after year. Bass is only woman in the “serious six,” as the group of six freshmen has been nicknamed by Majority Leader Curtis Jones. The nickname started as kind of joke but after the spring session — marked by strenuous budget talks — it’s not a joke anymore, he said.
“They’ve earned their title,” Jones said. “They were here to stand up for their core convictions.”
There is a definite bond among the freshman, and a feeling that change is needed.
“The six new freshman have added some energy and life into [council],” Bass said. “We do lunch on a regular basis. We do operate closely together, and I think that goes a long way in getting things done.”
All six were baptized by fire during this year’s budget talks, which was dominated by debate over the city’s eventual move to AVI — Mayor Michael Nutter’s Actual Value Initiative — that will base property taxes on market value rather than the traditional fractional value.
Bass supports the move to AVI.
“It’s something that’s time has come,” she said. “For too long in Philadelphia … who you knew downtown determined whether or not you got a favorable tax rate. It’s been unfair for a long time.”
Debate over the issue splintered Council for months, as members worked to come up with an approach that could garner the nine votes needed to move legislation. Ultimately, AVI was delayed by Council because members were worried that the administration could not provide the data they needed to make a prudent decision.
Council President Darrell Clarke noted at Council’s last session that it was the most difficult budget season he’d seen in his 12 years on Council and quipped that after six months in the trenches, new members could no longer call themselves freshmen.
“You’ll learn that after your first six months you’re no longer a freshman,” he said, going on to praise the group for their contribution to Council’s work, and adding that Council has a whole deserved to be praised. “I just want to say thank you. You guys were awesome.”
Council’s delay of AVI means the issue is not going away any time soon.
But, with a bit of room to breathe, Bass hopes to begin moving forward with plans for her district. Her staff is putting together a report on the district that Bass hopes to use to guide her strategy as she moves forward.
“Our strategy so far has just been to stop the bleeding,” she said. “We do need to have a more strategic approach — so we’re sort of taking a step back now and thinking about things strategically.”
One of her first priorities is to change a perception that shrouded the 8th District under Miller — that its Council representative was inaccessible.
It was a charge that prompted Bass to start a weekly “Coffee with the Councilwoman” meeting that allows her constituents to meet her face to face.
“I hear about everything from drug sales in the neighborhood, a lot of people needing work, and then there are the bigger issues, policy issues from downtown,” she said.
Bass hoped to open a district office — something critics have pointed out she said she’d do but hasn’t — but said her office doesn’t have the money at the moment.
“We don’t have the budget for one and won’t for some time,” she said.
Bass also plans to work on some of the issues she campaigned on — improving business corridors and putting together an educational task force, working to cut crime and bringing jobs to her district.
“There is no shortage of things to be done,” she said.
Mayor: Most residents will see no change for this year’s filing
With the administration’s Actual Value Initiative plan delayed for a year, Mayor Michael Nutter on Thursday rolled out a new timeline for implementation of his plan.
“There are number of significant steps and actions that must be taken,” Nutter said. “Some issues and significant dates that we must address in order to fully implement the Actual Value Initiative shortly.”
The delay means that — unless Council again hesitates — residents can expect their property tax assessments for fiscal year 2014, which starts in July 2013, to be based on the full market value of their property. At the moment, taxes are based on a fractional value of full market value — about 32 percent of full value multiplied by a millage rate set by the city.
For a first step, Nutter encouraged all residents to apply for the city’s homestead exemption, which stands at $30,000 for each taxpayer’s primary residence. The state legislature recently gave the go-ahead to the exemption, and the city will be mailing out enrollment forms on
Sept. 1. Administration officials are asking that residents return them by Nov. 15, so that when new AVI assessments are mailed out on Feb. 15, 2013, they will include the exemption.
However, Nutter noted that residents actually have until July 31, 2013, to apply for the exemption, which could be increased by City Council during next year’s budget process.
Until the city actually puts AVI in place, property taxes will be based on 2011 assessments, which means that assessments for most property owners will remain the same next year.
“Most Philadelphians should not see any change in their assessed value,” Nutter said.
But, taxes for every property owner will go up because City Council approved a 3.6 property tax increase this year.
For about 25,000 residents, the city expects to do new assessments because of changes property owners made to their homes. Notice will be sent to those residents by Sept. 17, Nutter said, and appeals on all assessments must be filed by Oct. 17.
“If you don’t receive a notice of change then your old assessment remains in place,” said the mayor.
Property tax bills for fiscal 2013 will be mailed by Dec. 10 and are due by March 31, 2013.
Then, in preparation for new property tax assessments, 2014 assessments will be mailed on Feb. 15, 2013. Those mailers will reflect only new assessments. They will lack the millage rate set by Council that allows people to calculate their new taxes.
“We don’t want folks who are getting ready to pay their tax year 2013 bills to look at the new assessment, they will have just received, and multiply that by the new millage rate. That number would probably be through the roof and it will be completely wrong,” he said. “The new assessments have nothing to do with the 2013 tax bills.”
The mayor said he expected the move to AVI to proceed, despite the fact that Council delayed it last month — and he hoped the series of dates he outlined this week would help minimize confusion among residents.
“Unfortunately, some may get slightly confused,” he said. “It is unfortunately an unintended consequence of making the transition from one system to another.”
Though the city initially said new AVI numbers would be ready this month, Nutter said the delay forced the city to go back and deal with the 25,000 properties that will have new assessments and stalled the release of final AVI numbers. He added that he hoped by releasing new assessments in February 2013, residents could avoid confusion as to their current tax obligation.
“We’re going to do our best to educate all Philadelphians,” said the mayor.
A temporary injunction blocking the city from enforcing Mayor Michael Nutter’s ban on feeding the homeless outdoors is disappointing, Nutter told reporters Thursday, after a federal judge said homeless advocates could keep serving outdoor meals while the court studied the matter.
“Certainly, we are disappointed,” Nutter told reporters at a press conference in the corridor outside his office, adding that the injunction was a “preliminary, preliminary” ruling and that in the end, he hoped the judge would side with the administration.
U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn issued the injunction Thursday, saying it would stay in place until he issued a final ruling.
The injunction came after Yohn heard two days of testimony, some from Nutter himself — as homeless advocates tried to get the court to permanently set aside Nutter’s ban.
Asked if the city would appeal any judicial ruling against enforcement, the mayor deferred to City Solicitor Shelley Smith, who said it was far too early to discuss that possibility.
“We’re not there yet,” Smith said.
The mayor issued the ban on outdoor serving in March, and the city started enforcing it on June 1. It provoked four groups — Chosen 300 Ministries, the Welcome Church, the King’s Jubilee and Philly Restart — to sue.
The mayor has characterized the ban as a way to draw the homeless to indoor facilities and places where, he said, they can receive more comprehensive assistance.
“We are not deterred at all in our efforts to meet the many challenges that people face when they are homeless,” the mayor said.
Opponents have characterized it as a way for the administration to keep the homeless away from the museum district at a time when the new Barnes Foundation was opening along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway — and as an infringement on religious freedom.
According to the Rev. Brian Jenkins, pastor of Chosen 300 Ministries, the policy was a violation of civil rights.
“Separate but equal was abolished in 1954,” he told Council members in April as he pressed members to stand against the ban.
Nutter said his concerns are primarily for the health and welfare of the homeless, but that he felt large scale feeding along the parkway was inappropriate — and he stuck to that position this week.
“Because of the amount of trash and debris and often leftover food, unfortunately, sometimes public defecation and urination … that causes almost the inability of the many other people who wish to use that space of utilizing it,” he said.
Yohn made it clear this week that he planned to block the ban for at least a year in order to give the city and advocates a chance to work out a solution without the court.
When first confronted with opposition to his ban, Nutter appointed a task force on feeding the homeless. Hopes are that the task force will develop a plan to encourage those who are hungry and current outdoor servers to move indoors.
Nutter said this week that he expected the group’s report within the 30 to 60 days and that it would be used as a “basis on how we move forward.”
As attorneys from several community advocacy groups prepare to challenge the state’s new voter ID law in court later this month, others are gearing up to get voters registered and equipped with proper identification so they can vote on Nov. 6.
“Our vote is the most powerful tool we have in a democracy,” said Sharon Williams Losier, an attorney who is helping state Sen. Shirley Kitchen organize a city-wide campaign to educate Philadelphians about the new law, and help them get the ID they will need to cast a ballot.
Attorneys from the NAACP, the ACLU and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia have filed suit in an attempt to block the law. The case is scheduled to begin July 25 in Commonwealth Court.
But, residents shouldn’t be counting on a win in court to preserve their rights, said one attorney in the case.
“We can’t bank on this lawsuit,” said Ben Geffen, a staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Center.
Like Losier, he urged Philadelphians to get the ID they will need without delay.
“This isn’t something you can deal with the day before the election,” Geffen said. “Folks need to be aware of this right now and get the ball rolling.”
Kitchen’s office held the public meeting with attorneys and voter advocates Wednesday in North Philadelphia to solicit community input as to how they can spread the word about the new law and get people motivated.
The state Department of State, which oversees elections, recently estimated that 18 percent of Philadelphians — or 186,830 of the city’s registered voters — do not have a photo ID that meets the state’s requirement to cast a ballot in November.
The numbers, part of a report released last week, found that about 758,000 voters across the state lacked the necessary ID. That translated to 9.2 percent of all registered voters. Losier noted that President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 with a 10 percent edge — an edge that would be removed if the new law succeeds in keeping people away from the polls.
A more detailed look at who state officials expect to be affected by the new law is expected this week. It will take a more detailed look at the demographics of exactly who will be most affected by the new law. Critics have said since the debate on the law started that it would keep the poor, minorities, the elderly and youth from the polls.
“Older adults give up their cars and driver’s licenses but still vote,” said Jim Palmquist, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the AARP, adding that others were born at a time when birth certificates were not always issued. “It’s very difficult to get their birth certificates.”
Geffen said he expected another segment of the population to be hard hit — women. The Pennsylvania law requires that name on a state ID match that on other documents, which means that women who are married may have a more difficult time obtaining proper identification.
“All documents need to show the same first and last name,” he said.
The City Commissioners’ Office has launched a citywide effort to get people registered and make sure they have the ID required.
“We want to make sure that everyone who is registered gets out and votes,” said Gregory Irving, the acting voter registration administrator with the commissioners’ office.
The state’s new law has long been controversial with critics. Supporters said the law was needed to stop voter fraud.
Critics, however, were given ammunition in their argument when Republican state house leader Rep. Mike Turzai said the law will “allow” Mitt Romney to win the state in November, according to a report.
“(The) Voter ID … is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” Turzai told a group of Republicans in late June.
For more information on the state’s new ID requirements, visit www.votespa.com.