Eric is a general assignment reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune
Council working with mayor on compromise to outdoor feeding rule
City Council members are expected to authorize hearings this week on Mayor Michael Nutter’s policy on feeding the homeless outside in city parks and other public areas.
Nutter banned outside feeding in city parks last month.
The ban faced immediate opposition from Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who hopes she can work out a compromise with the administration that lets people continue to help the homeless without the threat of city sanctions.
“My goal is for us to try and find a middle road,” she said on Monday April 9. “To hopefully find a compromise and work these issues out.”
Blackwell wants the Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless to hold hearings on the impact of outdoor feeding. What steps she might take after that depends on the findings.
A well-known advocate for the homeless, Blackwell noted that Council cannot compel the mayor to rescind his policy — adding that that’s why she felt hearings were important.
“It’s to keep the issue in the forefront of everybody’s mind,” she said.
Ultimately, she hoped to satisfy the administration and homeless advocates.
“If we get an upgraded process that everybody can agree with, we’ll be alright,” she said.
In Blackwell’s eyes “upgraded” would mean a policy that meets the mayor’s standards, but allows people to continue to feed the homeless where they find them.
“Some way that the mayor and health commissioner and the park system feel that it’s healthy and cleaner,” she said.
Nutter cited health and safety concerns when he announced in mid-March that he had instructed the parks commissioner to begin enforcing a ban on feeding in public parks within the next 30 days, as part of a new administration policy. At the time, he also said the administration would come up with a new long-term approach to feeding the hungry within 90 days.
The mayor pitched the policy as centered on public health and safety concerns — and as a way to assist people needing food and shelter.
“Aside from the dignity provided by sitting down at a given time in a given place for a nutritious meal, an indoor location enables the city and its partners to offer health, mental health, housing, a place to receive mail and other needed services to this very vulnerable population,” Nutter said at the time.
The mayor added that until the many groups that feed the homeless outside and those that have indoor facilities can coordinate their activities, the outdoor groups can feed people on the apron at City Hall.
They “will be required to sign up with the Department of Public Property and reserve the days and times for their activity,” said Nutter. “Those who wish to provide safe food will be welcome to do so, and we will try to coordinate their feeding to assure a more balanced, predictable schedule for the hungry.”
Large scale feeding, which used to happen in Love Park and on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Family Court building have been moved to the apron.
Some of the mayor’s concerns were legitimate, Blackwell said, noting that she too had health and safety concerns.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying let’s check and see what kind of food they’re having. Is there enough balance? Is it all carbohydrates? That’s a legitimate discussion,” she said. “But they just keep saying ‘outlaw it.’”
Blackwell was also concerned about the administration’s plan to fine people who violated the policy. Nutter said the city would fine violators up to $150 after two warnings.
“That’s utterly ridiculous. You can’t enforce that stuff,” said Blackwell. “We have too many other things to do. It’s insulting, I think.”
Between 35,000 and 45,000 property assessment appeals – up from 2,000 – are expected next fall if the city proceeds with plans to move to a full valuation property tax system, said an official with the Board of Revision of Taxes, on Monday.
“The number of appeals will increase,” said Judge Alan Silberstein, chairman of the BRT board. We’re anticipating anywhere from 35,000 to 45,000 appeals if everyone is assessed.”
Silberstein and the agency’s executive director Carla Pagan outlined the agency’s budget during council hearings, breaking down projected expenses for council members as they go through Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposed budget line by line.
Agency officials have requested $1.04 million for the 2013 fiscal year.
The bulk of those funds would cover salaries and benefits, which totaled $672,000. But, in her itemization of expenses, Pagan included nearly $400,000 in contingency expenses. Those funds would be needed in the event the city presses forward with its move to full valuation.
The money would cover the hiring of up to four new staffers, new supplies and equipment.
“If the city-wide initiative is completed for tax year 2013, the department will need an infusion into the budget for 2-4 temporary support staff and an increase.”
At the moment, the BRT has a staff of five.
The BRT, which was gutted of much of its power two years ago after the eruption of a patronage and corruption scandal, now handles tax appeals and eminent domain appeals. Assessments are handled by the Office of Property Assessment, which is part of the city’s finance department.
No one is quite sure what to expect next year, but Silberstein said BRT projections were based on data from other municipalities who made the same change to full valuation.
“We won’t know until we see what the Office of Property Assessment does, and how many appeals that will trigger,” Silberstein said. “That’s why these contingencies included in the budget are merely contingencies. We really don’t know what will happen. We may very well have to come back before council … and ask for additional funds.”
Over the last three years, the BRT has not handled more than 2,400 appeals.
In 2009, when 15,218 properties received revised assessments, the agency heard 2,376 appeals. With 20,483 new assessments in 2010, the agency heard 2,322 appeals. With assessments frozen in 2011, the agency heard just 1,785 appeals.
With such an enormous burst of new appeals the board could have to hire more clerks, possibly more hearing masters and start holding morning, afternoon and evening hearings.
Council has been grappling with the administration’s plan to move to full valuation as it studies Nutter’s budget, which includes revenue projects based on the change.
Though almost everyone agrees the move must happen, few, if any, members of council show any enthusiasm for the change.
In fact, during Monday’s hearing, Majority Leader Curtis Jones and Councilwoman Cindy Bass seemed to endorse the creation of a council subcommittee to make sure council has more advice on the matter before it takes action.
“I think I’ll ask the president [Darrell Clarke] to create a sub-committee, and at least get your experience and share that knowledge base,” Jones said, speaking to Silberstein.
Council members also took note when Silberstein said he thought the shift to full valuation should include a $25,000 homestead exemption. The administration’s plan does include a $15,000 exemption, contingent on approval by the state legislature, but Silberstein said many other states have higher exemptions.
Council members, who now appear to be fielding more questions from angry constituents, are nervous about the move to actual value.
“This … 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 during a recent hearing.
The red spatters glistening on the sidewalk in front of Damon K. Roberts’ campaign headquarters looked like blood. In fact, that’s what Kellie Imaduddin thought it was when she discovered it Tuesday morning.
“I got here at 9:02,” Imaduddin, who works for Roberts’ campaign as a paralegal, said. “I noticed what looked like blood.”
It turned out to be red paint dripping from the campaign banner hung above the door of the office at the corner of Dickinson and South Broad streets.
“It was still wet when I got here,” she said.
But the most chilling discovery was yet to come.
Pressed into the window gate lock, just below the vandalized banner, was an ominous note with the words, “We out for blood nigga!!!” scrawled across it.
The latest incident, which happened Thursday morning, seems unrelated. A man tried to break into the office. Imaduddin was there alone when she noticed a man trying to force in the front door.
“I could tell that he looked high,” she said.
When he failed, he moved to cars parked along Dickinson Street, and police arrested him shortly after 9 a.m.
The incident, coming on the heels of the vandalism, has campaign staffers on alert — and on edge.
Roberts said there has been a series of events at his office intended to intimidate him.
He is running for the state House of Representatives in the 186th District. The seat was held by city Councilman Kenyatta Johnson until January, when he stepped down to take his seat on council. The two men have a history. Roberts wanted the council seat and ran against Johnson last year but eventually dropped out. Though both men denied it, insiders said there was a deal between the two that ultimately soured.
In the race for the 186th, there are several other candidates vying for the seat, but a protégé of Johnson’s, former Youth Commissioner Jordan Harris, is widely considered to be the front runner and has Johnson’s endorsement.
No one yet knows who threw the paint, who left the malicious note — or exactly what they meant.
“I can’t say with 100 percent certainty exactly what’s going on,” Roberts said, adding that the vandalism and the note are just the latest incidents in what looks to him like a campaign of intimidation. “All I can say is that we have received two threats at the office in the past.”
According to Roberts, in early March, two men, on separate occasions, dropped in on him at the campaign headquarters, telling him that he needed to stay out of Harris’s campaign office.
Roberts said he dropped in at Harris’s office in an effort to meet his opponent. It was something he made a habit of doing, Roberts said, trying to meet opponents, as part of running a friendly campaign.
The idea apparently didn’t sit well with Harris’ supporters, Roberts said, adding that he wasn’t saying that Harris authorized the visits.
“A guy came into our office saying, ‘Look, I’m cousins with Jordan and Kenyatta … I’m not into this politics thing, but I’m from the street — and don’t be going back in that campaign office ‘cause… you know,’” Roberts said. “Two days later the same thing happened, at night.”
Roberts called police.
A police department spokeswoman verified that Roberts filed a complaint on March 6 for an incident that took place on March 1. Police classified the incident as a disturbance. No one has been arrested.
“We put in a complaint just to be sure,” Roberts said. “But, we said ‘It’s not big deal. They’re trying to intimidate us and make us lose focus.’”
After the first visit, Roberts said he called Harris.
“I gave Jordan a call and said, ‘Listen man, let’s squash this thing,’” said Roberts.
He thought that would be the end of it.
Harris said he was unaware that anyone had attempted to intimidate Roberts.
“I’m not sure of this whole allegation,” Harris said, when asked if the two spoke over the phone about the issue, Harris responded, “No. I’m not sure what he’s speaking of.”
“This is an unfortunate incident,” he continued. “If I had been made aware of this, I would have been the first one down there to help him out, because these kinds of things do not need to happen and should not happen in our community.”
Johnson, through his spokesman Zack Burgess, said he had no knowledge of the incidents.
“I have no idea what Damon Roberts is talking about and furthermore I am not a candidate in this race,” Burgess said, quoting Johnson. “I don’t condone this kind of behavior or campaign tactics, and I’ve never been associated with unfair tactics, so I’m disappointed.”
Roberts said the splash of red on the sign was not a complete surprise.
“We’d heard that there was a bounty out on the sign,” he said.
But, he assumed it was for the smaller signs taped to the office windows. They cover graffiti that was there when Roberts moved in and they have been ripped down almost every day for more than a week.
Roberts said he’s not going to be sidelined by the incidents.
“There are polls out right now … that say we are neck and neck,” Roberts said. “Since this has happened, people have been extremely supportive. What was meant for evil, God turned around for good,” he said.
They’re back – members of Occupy Philadelphia returned to Center City on Thursday afternoon with a whimsical theatrical sketch intended to again draw attention to the cost of financial deals between Wells Fargo Bank and a number of Philadelphia institutions.
Titled “The Fat Cat in the Hat, a Wells Fargo Unfairy Tale” a number of protestors appeared in a “Suessical” protest in front of the bank branch at 17th and Market street. Fourteen protestors were arrested at the site on Nov. 18.
They are all slated for trial on April 12.
“We staged a citizen’s foreclosure on Wells Fargo because this bank has failed to pay its debt to our city,” said organizer Aaron Troisi. “Wells Fargo made record profits last year by taking from our neighborhoods and city agencies. We are drawing attention to that injustice.”
Last fall, Occupy Philadelphia staged demonstrations in front of several branches of the bank, including its Philadelphia headquarters on South Broad Street. Among the chief reasons Occupiers are angry is that the school district had to pay $63 million in prepayment penalties to the bank as it sought to unload souring investments. Overall, Occupy estimates that deals with Wells Fargo cost the city $330 million.
“We ask, who are the real criminals?” said Troisi, the moderator of the skit which told the story of fat cat banker who arrived on the scene in a mock-up of Wells Fargo’s iconic stagecoach and ruthlessly foreclosed on homeowners — and took money from the school district.
Troisi said the Occupy movement was using the pending trial of the 14 members arrested last fall as a chance to put Wells Fargo on trial.
“We’re putting Wells Fargo on trial,” he said.
Bank officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The show did not impress everyone who stopped by to watch.
“It makes me want to go into Wells Fargo and open an account,” said one woman who stopped to watch. She declined to give her name, but said that Wells Fargo’s actions were “just business.”
The bank has been singled out by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in a 2010 suit that alleged discrimination in its loan policies. Among the allegations in the suit, was the charge that the bank’s predatory loans resulted in “disproportionately high foreclosure rates in Philadelphia’s African-American community.”
Bank officials said at the time that was not the case. The suit remains unsettled but in July 2011 the banking giant was fined $85 million by the Federal Reserve for discriminatory lending practices.
Thursday’s action by Occupy Philadelphia was first for the year.
Occupy Philadelphia was evicted from Dilworth Plaza, the area west of City Hall, on Nov. 30. The group had been encamped there since Oct. 6. They demonstrated at several locations downtown, including Wells Fargo headquarters on South Broad, and the branch at 17th and Market streets.
Autumn Adkins Graves, the outgoing president of Girard College, has a bit of advice for her successor.
“Make sure you spend time with the kids, because that is what gets you through the difficult moments,” she said. “They’re amazing.”
Graves, 39, will leave the post she’s held for three years on June 30. She plans to return to New York City, where her husband recently got a promotion, making his four-hour commute to Philadelphia unsustainable.
Nevertheless, Graves will continue to be a presence in Philadelphia.
“I will continue to have connections here,” she said, noting that her parents and two siblings live in the city, and that she’s taking part in an executive doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania. “I love Girard and what it represents in terms of changing the lives of children in our city. Once Girard becomes a part of your life, you never really leave, and Girard will always be a part of me.”
The college, once closed to Black students, was a key battleground in the city and nation’s civil rights movement. It was integrated in 1968 when the first Black student was admitted. Female students would gain entry in 1984.
Now, minority students make up the majority of the student body.
Graves, who was appointed in May 2009, was the institution’s first Black and first woman president.
“That was not a new experience for me,” she said, running down a short list of other schools where she had been the first African American or first woman in a leadership role. “But, here at Girard College, it was amplified in very different way because of the history of the school — and because of that I received a number of different supports. A lot of women in Philadelphia reached out and were incredibly kind and supportive of me. I’ve enjoyed a lot of hugs and prayers from freedom fighters.”
Still, when she stops to reflect on her tenure as president inspires a note of gratitude.
“My grandmother was a domestic. She was the help. She didn’t go past seventh grade,” Graves said. “So there is a lot of significance to this role because of where I’ve come from. My other grandmother was college educated, but her mother was a slave. So, I find that my story, my history here, is another thread in the fabric of the American story.”
The school has faced financial problems recently as a result of the recession. Enrollment has been pushed down from over a high of more than 600 students to 465.
Graves said she hopes school officials find a way to reverse the trend.
“I wish that Girard had the capacity to have more students here,” she said. “Girard has made progress, but the financial and programmatic challenges it faces today will force us into a period of change, and Girard requires a leader who can devote all of his or her energies to that challenge, to see it through from start to finish so that Girard can grow and thrive in the years ahead.”
The school’s trustees are planning to appoint an interim president then launch a national search for a permanent replacement for Graves, who said she would work with the board to ensure a smooth transition.
Trustees lauded Graves for her work.
“It is with enormous respect that we have accepted Autumn’s decision to step down,” said Bernard Smalley, the head of the Board of City Trusts’ Girard College Committee, in a statement. “Autumn has spearheaded the effort to make Girard one of the pre-eminent urban boarding schools in America, and she has performed her duties with skill and devotion. All of us in the Girard family — students, faculty and staff, parents and leadership — owe her a debt of gratitude, and we look forward to continuing to work with her in the future.”