A strange, complicated, battle played out in City hall today.
On the one hand, it seemed to pit a group of residents fighting for their neighborhood against the cold, machinery of city politics; on the other, it showed residents fighting for a cause so particular and so hard to understand that it wasn't clear what, exactly, the real conflict was over in the first place.
For days, I've been getting emails from a number of Chestnut Hill residents knows as the Chestnut Hill Residents Association regarding an apparently-controversial dialysis center to be built on a currently-vacant property near Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill.
The strange thing is that the center isn't really controversial: its hours are and only by nine hours.
In a nutshell (summary thanks to a detailed article in the Mt. Airy Independent): Major international dialysis operator Fresenius Medical bought the vacant building with the intention of developing it into a dialysis center. Neighbors raised concerns over the hours of operation, particularly night hours, requesting that the center operator put in writing that the center would operate only from 6 am to 6 pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
Eventually the Zoning Board of Adjustments granted a needed zoning variance with the restricted hours in writing as part of the deal. But then the developer hired power attorney Carl Primavera, who somehow managed to get the ZBA to reverse its decision about the hours without another hearing. According to the Mt. Airy Independent, his missive to the ZBA contained letters of approval from Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller and other city officials.
The residents sued, but, before they could have their day in court, Councilwoman Miller then a bill that would allow spot zoning for the property, to be heard in Committee today, well in advance of any court dates.
Now the residents are mad as hell: they feel betrayed both by the developer and by the city, which they say let a powerful player rig the game in favor of his client, and at the expense of regular residents who fought fair and square.
Which brings us to today's Council hearing. Members of the Residents Association and Primavera showed up to make their case. Primavera said his client shouldn't have to promise not to keep night hours. Residents say the democratic process has been hijacked.
But (and here's where it gets even more complicated)The main question on the minds of Council members why the hours made a difference anyway didn't seem to have a clear answer.
It isn't hard to understand why neighbors would be angry over having their local victory trumped by power and politics, but it is more difficult to understand why the thing they're fighting over in the first place an extra 9 hours of business per week matters.
"Our greatest concern is that they lied to us originally about hours of operation and have since put on a full course political press with expensive legal/lobbyist support to win what seems a minor point," wrote resident Peter Burke to me in an email, "so what else are they keeping secret?"
Fair enough: but one comment from a resident in today's hearing made CP wonder if there aren't other, unstated issues here. Referring to a neaby ironworks, the resident noted that "They stop working at 5 pm and go home." As to another nearby business, he noted that its workers "don't stay here at night."
Clearly, this battle has symbolic value to the neighborhood residents waging it. But is it possible there's a NIMBY dread of outsiders especially coming into the neighborhood, at night at play as well?
Let's face it: dialysis centers in this city attract a crowd that skews ... not toward the gentry. And the idea of night hours isn't a light one for patients: dialysis takes hours, and patients with day jobs will rely on night hours to keep their jobs.
Not surprisingly, meanwhile, (on neighborhood issues, Council members almost always defer to the judgment of the Councilperson whose district it is) the zoning variance passed out of committee.
Chestnut Hill residents, mayb you can fill us in: why the big deal over night hours?
"Should there be winners and losers?"
Less a question than a zen koan, such was the riddle Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. put to witness after witness in the marathon hearing that stretched from Tuesday to Wednesday on a proposal to change the way Philadelphia taxes businesses.
Councilmembers Bill Green and Maria Quinones-Sanchez want to shift the tax burden from the net income (profit) portion of the tax which only applies to businesses inside Philadelphia to "gross receipts" (sales), which applies to all business transacted in the city.
The idea is to get at large, out-of-state corporations Wal-Mart, for example, doesn't have to pay an income tax here, but a bodega owner does while letting small businesses of the hook. To that end, the bill would exempt the first $100,000 of sales, immediately exempting more than 30,000 local businesses from that portion of the tax altogether.
There's plenty of opposition to the bill, though many of the actual businesses testifying against it were large corporations based out of the state (Marriott, large construction firms based in Jersey).
Most of the testimony favoring the change came from small, Philly-based businesses (bodegas and small groceries, car dealerships, the Kensington & Allegheny Business Association).
But no one opposed the bill as vociferously as Goode, who used his time to question the witnesses largely for delivering a series of rhetorical riddles "Should there be winners and losers?" being his clear favorite.
Here's a snippet from the hearing, in which Goode interviews Anthony Tigano, a car dealer who favors the bill (read more in this week's A Million Stories):
Goode: Should there be winners and losers? In terms of business taxation?
Tigano: That's a very good question â I believe the way the system is set up is currently unfair. I think firms set outside the city â¦
Goode: My question is should there winners or losers?
Tigano: I'm answering your question: the present system is unfair â
Goode: I have a second question as well.
Tigano: Ok â¦ I was just trying to answer your first question.
Goode: I'm going to ask you my second question. Do you support the land value tax?
Tigano: Um, I'm not familiar with that question. . . I'm trying to answer a question on the [business privilege tax].
Goode: When we consider tax structure we do not do it in isolation.
Of course, as the testimony made quite clear, there are already winners and losers. Currently, big out-of-state corporations are the winners in the current tax structure, which lets them avoid one part of the tax that local businesses must pay.
And there's obviously room for healthy debate: Councilmembers Green and Quinones-Sanchez don't dispute that their bill will benefit some businesses more than others: They simply argue that the change is more fair than the current practice. The city, represented yesterday by Finance director Rob Dubow, disagrees. Economic consultant and former city finance director Stephen P. Mullin, on the other hand, thinks the bill's a good idea.
But of all the questions worth asking, "Should there be winners and losers?" seems a little ... existential.
Straight out of the inbox, direct from Councilman Goode's office, and passed along without comment:
Philly will benefit from more than 60 GOODE Laws
Youngest At-Large Councilmember has proven track record
(PHILADELPHIA, October 28, 2010) City Councilman W. Wilson Goode, Jr. has introduced sixty-three bills that have been approved by Philadelphia City Council since taking office in January 2000. The last three bills which were introduced this fall, concerning fair lending and community reinvestment, will soon be signed into law. Goode's background as an economic development administrator from 1992-99 has given him a policy edge in City Council on economic issues. The 45 year-old Chairman of Council's Commerce and Economic Development Committee formerly served as Vice President of Philadelphia Commercial Development Corporation and as Economic Development Administrator for the Philadelphia Department of Commerce.
In eleven years on City Council, Goode has introduced over sixty ordinances with measurable impact: employment tax credits to create thousands of new jobs; job preferences for local residents for civil service positions and City projects; the local minimum wage standard raised from $5.15 per hour to $10.88 per hour; business diversity goals for City contracting improved from less than 5 percent to 25 percent; small business lending in working class neighborhoods increased from 40 percent to 55 percent; fair lending and community reinvestment goals required for City depository banks; and $30 million in tax credit partnerships for neighborhood economic development.
After receiving a National Achievement Award from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, Councilman Goode continues to craft landmark economic opportunity legislation.
It seems so long ago seasons when you consider the current chill that Phillys independent promoters, party throwers and house concert presenters were rocked by Bill No. 100267. Like the numerical sequence from Lost, mystery surrounded Councilmen Darrell Clarke and Bill Greenlees promoter bill and its proposed ideas for controlling not only the renegade promoters responsible for over-crowded/under-policed events, but also those that were conscious and law abiding.
Having to announce each date to the Philadelphia police and the possibility of having your event denied a permit within a mere 10 day window of the event without warning or reason sent promoters in to a tailspin. Yet thanks to several weeks of meetings between promoters (namely Patrick Rodgers of Dancing Ferret, the most ardent of collaborators) and Greenlees office, a happier and more agreeable set of amendments will be introduced on Wed., June 9, before the License & Inspection Committee.
After the first major set of time and date stamped changes made by Greenlee that we revealed exclusively, under this amended version of the bill, special assembly occupancies will be responsible for notifying police two weeks in advance only when and if an event occurs beyond a venues regular and recurring business operations whereby an 'outside operator' will take 'operational control' of the special assembly occupancy meaning, maintaining legal occupancy capacity and deployment and supervision of security detail if any exists.
While promoters will now be required to register with the City and have a current business privilege license, the amendments also offer police the tools to redeploy manpower if necessary to accommodate for promoted events beyond a venues regular and recurring business operations. It will also allow police to contact promoters if necessary when a crime occurs.
For now, Rodgers seems satisfied. I am feeling VERY good now, says Rodgers via his Blackberry. Looks like my work here is done.
PREVIOUSLY >> "In the words of one promoter, 'It's chilling'."
PREVIOUSLY >> The Promoter Bill: No longer as insane
Ive been reporting about City Councilmen Darrell Clarke and Bill Greenlee's Bill No. 100267 since it was lobbed at promoters on April 22. You know the one where promoters would have to apply for a permit from the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) 30 days before every single event (52 permit applications per year if you run a weekly event) that would cut last-minute shows or pickup parties to say nothing of house party gigs at places like Carriage House and Danger Danger Gallery. Applications would have to include detailed security plans, the promoter's business-privilege-license number, the venue's capacity and the expected crowd. The bill would hold promoters liable for the actions of the crowds at the events they promote, would requires that every permit application include the contract between the venue and the promoter making rental prices and rates for each individual promoter public record . Plus the PPD could deny a permit for any reason and without explanation up to 10 days before the event no one wins. City promoters lose cred.
Its already started.
I spoke to one food catering operator and two independent sound organizations that rent equipment. Theyre afraid to take jobs that could canceled with 10 days notice if the bill passes as is. Another promoter told me that the union workers were talking about sound and light men possibly being cut from gigs with 10 days notice. Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Marketing peeps are rumored to have expressed concerns over the bill.
Enter Patrick Rodgers he of Draculas Ball and Dancing Ferret booking and management fame. He offered to help Councilman Greenlee's staff work on specific language for a bill that would address the concerns of the police department without crippling the city's music and entertainment industries. They accepted the offer and scheduled a meeting for Wednesday to try hashing out some preliminary language.
My hope is that we wind up with essentially a new bill, Rodgers says. The first good news was that initial hearing for the bill has been moved. The June 1 L&I Committee meeting was canceled due to scheduling conflict, and, Rodgers says, No new hearing date has been set, but they have to have a meeting so I'm sure it will be soon-ish.
Even better, as of last night, Rodgers meeting with Greenlees people led officially to the 30-day permit rule and the 10-day cancellation rule being taken off the table.
It's dead, no longer part of the legislation, says Rodgers. We are making significant progress on other areas of concern. I go back tomorrow to work at it some more. I am optimistic that we will wind up with a bill that empowers police to go after unsafe events while not disturbing the commerce or culture of legitimate events. Anything can happen in politics, of course, but for right now, I feel that our concerns are being heard and addressed.
In a marathon session, City Council moved ahead on a 9.9 percent property tax hike, a tax on smokeless tobacco and cigars, and withheld a bill that would impose the mayor's baby: the sweetened beverage tax.
It seemed earlier in the day like that tax was going to pass but Council leadership was unable, apparently, to muster the nine votes needed. The administration, however, hasn't given up on the soda tax by a long shot.
Councilman Frank DiCicco, who proposed the first property tax hike as an alternative to a flat $300 trash fee, voted "no" on the 9.9 percent hike today, favoring a 12.1 percent property tax hike that would have made up most of the difference.
Council also approved a spending bill with about $17 million in cuts, disappointing Councilman Bill Green, who has proposed more than $40 in cuts himself, mostly by not filling unfilled positions.
Right now, Council will have to find about $18 million more in revenue or in cuts.
These bills have just passed first reading they'll need to pass again next week to become law.
This morning, the regular meeting of City Council was suspended in order to hear speakers on various revenue proposals being floated by Council and the administration, including a property tax hike between 9.9 percent and 12 percent, a sugar-sweetened beverage tax (between, apparently, half a cent and two cents), and a tax on smokeless tobacco products and cigars.
The plan seems to be this:
After this hearing, Council leadership will meet with the administration and try to hammer out a deal. Council needs nine votes to pass it, but the final votes on this stuff aren't usually quite that close: leadership would like to get 11.
Assuming it happens, Council will reconvene its regular meeting, amend the bills that constitute the mayor's initial budget proposal, and allow the revised budget a first reading and initial vote which will let them vote it in finally next week.
So what's the deal going to be? Not totally clear yet. A new proposal of a 12 percent increase to the property tax seems to be gaining some traction. It would close most of the current budget gap and likely obviate the need for other taxes. Councilman Frank DiCicco, about an hour ago, seemed to voice support for it, saying:
"We're going to take a political hit no matter what we do ... I say take the 12.10 [property tax hike] and not worry about the other taxes because we can't get the nine votes anyway."
However, it seems to be up in the air still whether Mayor Nutter is willing to drop his sugary beverage tax or not he's staked some political capital on it, and has received national attention for the proposal.
A couple of days ago, I got a rather chipper email from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the region's largest bicycle advocacy group.
In it, Executive Director Alex Doty wrote the following (emphasis added):
Yesterday morning, there was a copy of a letter from Councilman Kenney on my desk asking the head of the Parking Authority for stepped up enforcement of vehicles blocking bike lanes. How did we get from November's legislation to this?
See below for details of a very productive meeting we had with Councilmen Kenney and DiCicco hosted by Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler. What I took from that meeting was that the Councilmen are fed up with sidewalk riding. While I understand why some people do it, I am also fed up with sidewalk riding. But the Councilmen, like us, are also fed up with cars -- and even pedestrians not following the rules of the road. Fed up enough to follow up one of our concerns with a letter to the Parking Authority. Thank You, Councilman Kenney!
Councilmembers Kenney and DiCicco are, of course, the very same lawmakers who sought a little while back to impose hefty OK, more like hysterically insane fines on bicyclists for riding with headphones, riding on the sidewalk, or riding fixed-gear bike unequipped with a brake (I actually agreed with them wholeheartedly on that one).
Though the laws were harsh, the tone taken by DiCicco and Kenney was always reasonable, and they spoke of equal and equitable enforcement. This little bit of news shows that they meant it, and that they're willing to respond to public input: Democracy with a D, if you ask me.
Which makes, by the way, whoever invented the "Frank DiCicco sucks: equal rights for bikes" T-shirt look even more dense than they did when said shirt appeared in a Philadelphia Weekly article about the laws.
Who sucks now, T-shirt? Hm?
It's been a long 24 hours of bike news in Philly.
Yesterday morning, Councilmembers Jim Kenney and Frank DiCicco co-sponsored and introduced laws aimed at greater enforcement and regulation of bicycles. One would would raise the penalties by jaw-dropping factors (a hundredfold, in one case) for bicycle infractions and require bicycles to register and carry license plates in the city.
To the latter, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia which has been a consistent voice in calling for bicycles to obey traffic laws offered on its blog a very interesting case study in what's happened when other cities tried to introduce similar laws. Spoiler alert: They repealed them because they didn't work.
But the former bill, the penalty-raising one, has some interesting quirks, as well. For one thing, it may effectively outlaw many fixed-gear bikes.
You see, Philadelphia's and Pennsylvania's bicycle regulations differ slightly. One difference: the definition of "brakes."
The two bills introduced by Councilman Kenney have new penalties for riding without brakes (one fines you a thousand dollars; the other has your bike confiscated).
But what is a brake?
If you know about fixies, skip this paragraph. Most bikes as we know them in the USofA have brakes either hand brakes or pedal brakes. Fixed-gear bikes may or may not have hand brakes, but don't require them (although it's a good backup plan) because the rear wheel is inextricably tied to the crank. In other words, you pedal backwards and the rear wheel actually goes backwards or, if you've got some momentum going, it slows down. You brake by resisting the forward momentum of your legs. Read more about it on Wikipedia.
Which begs the question: What constitutes a brake? In a Daily News article, Councilman Kenney spoke about the brake issue and mentioned "delivery" workers. I'm guessing he's talking about bike messengers, who often ride fixed-gear bikes:
"The trend with some of our delivery-service people and messengers, for whatever reason, is to remove the brakes," Kenney said. "It's a state law that bicycles [must] have brakes."
Is it possible and not to knock the guy, it is kind of an arcane subject in most circles that he doesn't realize that these bikes have alternate braking mechanisms?
But Kenney's bill only raises the penalties for an offense already on the books. To see what constitutes a "brake" we have to look at the laws.
Pennsylvania's law â closer, I'm told by the Coalition, to widely-adopted bicycle regulations, has this to say about brakes.
Every pedalcycle shall be equipped with a braking system which will stop the pedalcycle in 15 feet from an initial speed of 15 miles per hour on a dry, level and clean pavement.
But Philadelphia's code says this:
Every bicycle shall be equipped with a brake which will enable the operator to make the braked wheel skid on a dry, level, clean pavement.
Pennsylvania, in other words, only requires a "braking system," which fixed-gear bikes have.
Philadelphia, though, requires "a brake" â which could mean a hand brake, which a fixed-gear might or might not have (again: this is because fixed-gear bikes can be braked with the legs alone). In an interview yesterday, Councilman Kenney legislative aide Sarah Sachdev, who helped with the bill, did not know what a fixed-gear bike was, let alone whether the Councilman's $1000 fine/confiscation penalty would apply to one.f
Bicyclists, take heed: The Philadelphia Police announced today that officers will be launching the slightly-terrifyingly-named "Central Bicycle Enforcement Initiative" at Rittenhouse Square.
What, if anything, the timing has to do with today's proposal by Councilmembers Jim Kenney and Frank DiCicco for rather draconian bike enforcement laws, I don't know. But there it is.
I received two press releases about the "initiative." One came from the police. It read:
Tomorrow Friday, November 19, 2009, the Central Bicycle Enforcement Initiative will begin at 1:00PM at Rittenhouse Square. Members of the Bicycle Coalition will be on hand to help with the education on bike laws, rules and safety. Hand-out material will be provided.
The other came from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. It was a little more involved.
While the police make the event out to be a friendly get-together between the two groups, the Bicycle Coalition's press release suggests that the Coalition got involved only after 9th District Police Captain Dennis Wilson informed them that he was already planning a crackdown.
(You may remember Captain Wilson, by the way, from just over a year ago, when the City Paper reported that his officers had somewhat inexplicably raided a houseful of activists and detained them. Charges were never pressed.)
Here's the slightly-abbreviated dilly, according to the Bike Coalition (read the full press release, including bicycle violations and how much they cost, here):
The Bicycle Coalition's Education Department sat down with Captain Wilson from the Philadelphia Police 9th District today (November 19, 2009). This meeting confirmed that Police intend to begin an enforcement and education campaign beginning tomorrow, November 20, 2009. The campaign will focus on egregious actions of motorists and cyclists in the Center City area.
Bicycle police officers from the 9th, 6th and Center City Districts will be on the streets enforcing the rules of the road in Center City. In addition to other violations, the Police will be stopping bicyclists riding on the sidewalk, not stopping at red lights or stop signs and riding the wrong way in the road. The Police Department will also have vehicle units out on Spruce and Pine Streets ticketing motorists who are driving in, or illegally double parking in the bike lane or driving aggressively.
. . .
In response to this enforcement campaign, the Bicycle Coalition will have Bicycle Ambassadors out on the streets helping to educate bicyclists who may not know the rules of the road and provide tips for riding in traffic.
. . .
Please be advised that this is not a warning period and tickets will be issued. Safety education coupled with enforcement, applied equitably to all road users, is the first step to improve safety for all.
. . .
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