(Follow Isaiah Thompson on twitter, where he's confined to a mere 140 characters).
For readers with (deservedly) short attention spans: you'll find a summary of the following at the bottom of this post.
The weekly Thursday meetings of Philadelphia's City Council can often be theatrical affairs, heavy on pomp and low on substantive debate. Most of the time, votes have been arranged beforehand, and move through Council with the ease of a slice of bacon.
But every now and then, maybe once or twice a year, it doesn't work like that. Once and a while, the Council floor becomes the scene of an actual political showdown.
Such was the case on Thursday, when – after an eleven-hour marathon – Philadelphia's City Council passed three bills representing three different alternatives for dealing with an issue that might turn out to be one of the most significant they've had to vote on in years: how to collect the city's real estate tax.
Council President Darrell Clarke, after the meetings, described Council as having come together to pass a variety of options. But behind the three (rather confusing) votes, say Council sources, is anything but unity. Council is, as one source put it, “A zoo. There's no consensus on anything.”
At least two factions are now competing to get the votes of Council members who are on the fence over a tangled knot of tricky questions. And the questions really are, to be fair, quite tricky.
The Nutter administration is asking the city's legislative body to pass its Actual Value Initiative (AVI), which would base property taxes on a city-wide reassessment that is supposed to fix years of screwy property values across the city. Many residents would wind up with a lower property tax bill, but many – including longtime residents of more affluent neighborhoods – will pay more, in some cases much more.
But the administration wants AVI to pass Council before it has been able to finish the citywide re-assessment, which means no one knows exactly how AVI will affect which residents, or even – as grilling by Council over the past weeks has revealed – what the new property tax would be. Over the last few weeks, the administration has quietly lowered and lowered its own estimate of what the total value will turn out to be – which means, since the tax will be targeted to a fixed figure, that the likely tax rate is getting higher and higher.
That fact alone has been enough to turn some, including Councilman James Kenney, who is often an ally of Mayor Nutter, from a tentative supporter of the transition to a no vote. After learning the anticipated tax rate had climbed from an initial 1.2% to 1.8%, Kenny told reporters on the floor of Council Thursday night that he was "out."
Complicating matters significantly more is the fact that AVI, as the mayor has proposed it, effectively maintains a two-year “temporary” tax increase, includes a new real estate revenue increase, and seeks to generate an additional $94 million for the ailing School District.
And further complicating that mess are a number of proposals generated by Council members to alleviate the impact of AVI on residents, especially longtime homeowners (and not, pointedly, renters, who will bear a disproportionate burden).
Nutter's inclusion of school funding in AVI has been criticized, within and outside of Council, as a political move — there's no particular reason the two should be connected, and the politics behind his doing so are obvious: by tying school funding to AVI, Nutter can more easily secure the votes of a number of Council members for whom extra school funding — coupled with new leverage for Council in the form of "accountability agreements" — is a winner.
But maybe the biggest incentive for Council members to pass AVI now is simply a general sense of inevitability. It's either this year or next year, they figure — and waiting an extra year only gives more time for those opposed to the switch to raise a ruckous.
Three options came out of Council on Thursday: One, an amended version of the mayor's proposal, would implement AVI, but raise only $45 million for schools; another would simply increase the city's “Use and Occupancy” tax on commercial properties to raise $40 million for schools. A third, proposed by Councilman Mark Squilla, would delay the implementation of AVI for a year.
But virtually no one on Council is satisfied with any these proposals as they stand, and it's not totally clear what will become of any of them. Council may resolve these options by this Thursday — but, should negotiations go awry, could postpone a vote until the following Thursday as well.
And don't judge who's where by last week's vote: as Councilman Bill Green put it Thursday night, “Don't think that tonight's votes reflect where Council members are.”
Instead, Council members traded votes for bills they don't support in order to keep their own favorite alive – including votes for Squilla's bill to delay AVI, which most Council sources say has a slim chance of passing.
Pushing for AVI and school funding is a block made of up Council members Cindy Bass, Blondell Reynolds-Brown, Wilson Goode Jr., Bill Greenlee, Curtis Jones, Jr., Maria Quinones,-Sanchez, Marian Tasco, and Council President Darrell Clarke.
That's eight votes – one short of the nine needed to pass AVI. Republican At-Large Councilman David Oh is one likely 9th vote – he told CP on Thursday that he was willing to vote for AVI with $45 million for schools, but not for an increased tax on Use and Occupancy, which he says will hurt small businesses.
On the other side, opposing the AVI vote, are Council members Jannie Blackwell, Bill Green, Bobby Henon, James Kenney, Kenyatta Johnson, Mark Squilla, Dennis O'Brien, and Brian O'Neil.
But their side of the equation is a little more complicated: while that group opposes the AVI vote, they don't all support the U&O tax, which will hit businesses, including small ones. In fact, there's probably more support for the U&O tax on the other side, which wants to raise as much money for the schools as possible.
“There is support for AVI,” says Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez. “The question is how much money we can get for education.”
Sanchez and Brown are drafting an “accountability agreement” with the District that would allow Council to be able to impose restrictions on how the increased revenue is spent.
But in order to get more than the $45 million included in the AVI bill, that faction will either have to support the Use & Occupancy tax or attempt to amend more revenue directly into the AVI bill.
It's not clear the pro-AVI faction has the votes to do that (Oh has expressed reluctance to turn more money over to the School District, joining several Council members critical of the District's asking the city for money when its deficit was caused in large part by state cuts).
That could put Councilman James Kenney in the spotlight. On Thursday, he traded votes in order to get voted out a gentrification protection bill he's been pushing. The bill, supported by the Council president, would do much to ease the burden of a sudden property tax hike in neighborhoods that have seen rapid gentrification – but it's also expensive, say some Council sources, and the burden of that expense would fall on neighborhoods that haven't gentrified.
The upshot: Take the Council members whose constituents won't take a major hit from AVI, throw in the general desire among many in Council to be seen trying to help schools and to excercise more control over the District, and add to that a disinclination among many Council members to have to defend AVI for another full year — and you've probably got the 9 votes needed pass AVI, despite the fact that an almost equal number of Council members aren't willing to pass it right now.
Although there's a small chance it won't pass, the odds are that AVI is about to become a reality. The question now is under what terms, with what political fallout, and what all of that is going to mean a year from now if or when AVI, for better or worse, has landed on Philly.
After weeks of budget hearings, hours of complex testimony by administration officials and often-frustrated questioning by City Council members, a single figure has emerged at the center of the political showdown coming to a head in Council today: $94 million.
That's the amount of extra money the mayor wants the School District to have this year, as a result of the city's anticipated switch to the Actual Value Initiative (AVI) — and there appears to be unanimous consent within Council that the schools should indeed get more money.
But why $94 million? There are two answers. One is the administration's: that $94 million simply represents extra money that the city hadn't captured over the past few years, while reassessments were frozen.
The other answer, offered up by critics of the mayor (including Councilman and possible mayoral contender Bill Green) is that $94 simply represents the number the mayor had to come up with to make it look like he's not raising property taxes -- which, they say, is exactly what he's doing.
According to the Nutter administration, the $94 million — which represents about a 25 percent extra from what the city gave the School District last year — reflects a 25 percent increase in property values citywide since the last reasessments. The switch to AVI would "capture" that newly created value.
A Hall Monitor salute to our budding City Council archivers (and a quiet rebuke of the city for the fact that we need them to)
Follow Hall Monitor Isaiah Thompson on Twitter.
You know what we need more of in this city? Data. Info. Stuff anybody can access and that lets us write better stories, investigate more efficiently, and get to know our city better. That's true for professional journalists, amateur bloggers, engaged citizens, and also robots that spy on us – but spying robots is just the price we pay for freedom.
With that in mind, CP salutes two individuals who've stepped up to provide better public information.
City Council Matters (@citycouncilblog), a blog started by local man (and Temple Law School grad) Timothy R. Holwick, has been doing yoeman's work covering City Council meetings and hearings (including sitting through hours of budget hearings - which are fascinating, but only to a distinctly geeky subset of the general population).
Currently, the only way to check up on a Council meeting you might have missed is to pull the transcript, which isn't available until at least a week, and usually longer, after the meeting itself. You can watch the meetings on-line via a live feed, a service overseen by the city's Office of Technology, but that service is sorely lacking: the site offers no archive of past meetings and no way to watch this taxpayer-paid-for footage on demand.
No way, that is, until City Council Matters began archiving audio of City Council meetings. This is an immense service to all of us.
Also getting a half-salute (a full one to come pending results) is Councilman Bobby Henon who, just weeks after embarrassing the city by developing a 311 app in a fraction of the time it's taken the city not to develop said app, has embarked on a brave mission to archive *video* of City Council meetings .
This initiative originated, by way of disclosure, via a tweet by yours truly, which read:
@BobbyHenon live-streaming Channel64 on his own website. Councilman, make it *even cooler* by archiving for public? Hm?
To which the Councilman responded:
Loved your idea of online archive of Council meetings. My staff's working on it. Stay tuned for launch. Keep ideas coming.
Welcome as these efforts are, they beg the question of why the city's Office of Information Technology hasn't done more itself to innovate. To be fair, we've never asked the city to archive videos of Council hearings or make them available on demand; still, maybe we shouldn't have to.
Follow Isaiah Thompson on twitter
CP has learned that the Philadelphia law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg LLP, known for its litigation over "Stop and Frisk" policies and other civil rights cases, is considering filing a lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia for the ban on serving free meals in city parks, announced by Mayor Michael Nutter about two months ago.
Attorney Paul Messing would not comment other than to confirm to CP that his firm is investigating the matter, and litigation is under consideration.
Mark McDonald, a spokesman for the mayor, told CP that the city has "received notice of intent to sue," but had no other comment on the matter.
Brian Jenkins, the executive director of Chosen 300 Ministries, which serves meals both indoors and outside, and who has been a leading critic of the ban, also declined to comment on any potential lawsuit other than to make the general statement that he would view a lawsuit as a "last step" and hopes the city is open to compromise on the issue.
Jenkins has frequently called the ban "unconstitutional," saying it violates the religious freedom of those who feel "called by God" to serve meals outdoors.
In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union won a lawsuit against the city Orlando for a similar ban.
At-Large Democratic Councilman Wilson Goode made yesterday what sure sounded like a ringing endorsement for the mayor's plan to fund the school district through a citywide reassessment.
Mayor Nutter has proposed $94 million in funding for the district, to come from anticipated revenue from the Actual Value Initiative, which would reassess properties citywide. His administration has said the reassessment will "catch" an overall increase in the city's property values.
So far, the idea has received mixed support on Council. Those who do support the plan couch their support more in terms of the School District's dire need than in their enthusiasm for raising extra revenue via AVI (Councilman Bill Green has pointed out once or twice that Council could always choose not to collect extra from the move — by, for example, paying back anything extra in tax reductions).
But Councilman Goode today offered what sure seemed like a defense of the mayor's logic.
The School District is entitled by law to a certain portion of Philly's real estate taxes. because our properties were under-valued.
The schools, Goode said in Council today were "losing that share for those years," and the District is now "simply asking us to do what we were supposed to do," by requesting that Philly hand over much of the revenue generated by the reassessment.
Goode says he's prepared to vote for more funding for the schools, and mentioned tweaking the current balance from the city's receiving 42% of the property tax and the District 58% to a 40/60 split instead — on one condition: the School District can't ask for any more. And if it does, Goode said, "We move back to local control."
At-Large Dem. Councilman Bill Green, who at one point seemed to be trading speeches with Goode and has adamantly opposed the linking of AVI to school funding, describes Goode's remark as "a rationale for why the mayor's proposal is reasonable."
Green (who, we should point out, is probably going to run for mayor) counters that Council has been deciding on a yearly basis how much to give the schools anyway — and points out that the moratorium on reassessments was put in place by ... Mayor Nutter.
O'Brien's outburst: Former speaker wants to know "What the hell is up" with Harrisburg plan for five years of no increase for schools.
What the hell is up with Harrisburg?
At-Large Republican Councilman Dennis O'Brien might know better than anyone else on Philadelphia's City Council — and he offered his own opinion on Tuesday.
During hearings Tuesday on a request by the School Reform Commission for more than $90 million in support from the city to help plug a $300 million budget gap, O'Brien — former Speaker of the House — veritably erupted, delivering to the three-person panel before him (which included SRC chairman Pedro Ramos) the following Jeremiad, in which he roasted Mayor Nutter and Governor Corbett for asking City Council to come up with the extra money while delivering a five-year plan for the District that shows no increased revenue from the state.
Say you wanted to find out information about a scheduled sheriff's sale — say, the one held Wednesday.Where would you look?
Not, we hope, on the "Internet."
Should you attempt it, you might be fooled into clicking a link titled "Sheriff's Sale Schedule" on www.phillysheriff.com — on which the most recent sheriff's sale listed is five months old, and which contains exactly zilch (0) when it comes to information on upcoming sales, including Wednesday's.
Notes from Council: President Clarke serves his humor dry; Councilman Bobby Henon's anti-blight campaign — different than the last anti-blight campaign?
Clarke: Dry as a funny bone.
We at City Paper have been developing a new appreciation for 5th District Councilman and Council President Darrell Clarke and his remarkable — almost unsettling — knack for humor so dry and subtle that it's not always entirely clear he's making a joke.
There was an offhand remark the Clarke made to Councilman David Oh on the second meeting of Council this year. Clarke had missed Oh's signal or skipped over him or something and said:
"I didn't quite know where you were, sir." — Which was either simply what it seemed to be or a deeply subtle reference to Oh's uncertain alignment in the political struggle for the presidency of Council. The jury is still out on that one.
There was Clarke's line when the mic went out during contentious testimony from AFSCME 33 union members at Council. Clarke's impromptu: "Is there an electrician in the house?" miiiight have been just a bit of cornpone; or it might have been an invocation of Philly politics and the looming role of IBEW boss Johnny Doc so deep my hairs stand on end in recollection.
Today, after Councilwoman Marian Tasco announced that she will be dancing on Dancing With the Stars to raise money for sickle cell anemia, Clarke seemed to (gently) rib his colleague and her dancing by thanking her for "that very informative" piece of news.
Henon: On a crusade to do something we were supposed to be doing already.
6th District Councilman Bobby Henon, the freshman city legislator replacing longtime Councilwoman Joan Krajewski, has made a pet issue out of going after blight. Today, he introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by many members of Council, calling for hearings to examine establishing a "problem property task force."
Blight is, of course, about as chronic a chronic problem in this city as any we have. But it's also a problem that seems to attract perennial promises of some new fixit plan.
Last year, as you may recall, we reported that the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections was embarking on a brave new campaign to go after private owners of blighted property using new tools and strategies, including investigating the owners and going after their assets if they owed the city money. The program was to begin with a pilot project in and around Port Richmond.
It seems like we haven't heard so much about that problem lately or whether it did, as intended, reach into the most blighted areas of the city rather than the less severe areas used in the pilot.
It's a question we're likely to hear answered — at Councilman Henon's hearing.
Yesterday's City Council budget hearings on SEPTA did not, at the outset, promise much in the way of fireworks.
This reporter tweeted suggested questions of a sort that never materialized: (One example: why is it that El operators often fail to mention trolleys aren't running (requiring passengers to remain on the train until 40th street) *before* passengers leave the train to discover SEPTA's only reliable indication of trolley diversions — a blinking blue light?).
But most of the questions asked by Council members were not of the boat-rocking variety; until, that is, it came time for 6th District Councilman Bobby Henon to ask his questions.
After a few routine inquiries, the Councilman, with a round of somewhat awkward throat-clearings, asked: "You would not endorse a company doing business with your organization who had broken the Davis-Bacon law?" referring to a federal act requiring that certain federally-subsidized contractors pay prevailing local minimum wage laws.
"Any contractor that we hire is obligated to comply," with that law, answered SEPTA General Manager Joseph Casey, saying the company could be "disbarred" from working with SEPTA.
"I'm going to reference a subcontractor who, it's been brought to my attention, has some issues," said Henon."I'm going to ask you a list of questions."
The questions, though somewhat hard to understand, revolved around accusations by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 that a subcontractor working for SEPTA, the Fairfield Company, has systemically misclassified work assignments in order to underbid other competitors for several major SEPTA contracts.
IBEW Local 98 is the powerful electricians' labor union run by political boss and local kingmaker John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty. Councilman Henon previously served as that union's political director, and his campaign for City Council was heavily supported by Local 98 and a political action committee controlled by Dougherty.
In February, as reported (only) by PlanPhilly, Local 98 asked a SEPTA board to disqualify Fairfield, citing "serious allegations" against the company.
"What I'm trying to do here is establish a record of how people circumvent and how people [undercut] bids systematically by misclassifications on their bids," Henon told Casey yesterday, though he did not go on to elaborate the details of these allegations.
According to a document reviewed by City Paper, IBEW Local 98 has apparently conducted its own investigation of the Fairfield Company and appears prepared to make the case that it was able to underbid other companies for SEPTA contracts by paying for labor at lower rates than required under the Davis Bacon Act.
Reached by phone after the hearing, Henon told CP he's looking out for Philly workers, citing high invovlement rates of local, minority and women-owned businesses in IBEW Local 98's work on the convention center.
Hall Monitor is not exactly a coding genius; but, recognizing the increasing role of "Computer Assisted Reporting" these days, we offer readers of this blog post the following program, to be entered into your favorite BASIC processor (non-80s-computer-nerds avert your eyes):
10 Print "The Philly311 App is coming!"
20 Goto 10
As the Daily News reports, the city administration told City Council yesterday that a 311 smartphone app is on its way — great news but not, we'd point out, very different news than we heard two years ago, when the administration said the same.
Technically Philly has been reporting on the delay for years. In July — July, 2010, that is — TP reported on what was then a 2-month delay:
Last week, while the City of Philadelphia was busy celebrating the country’s 234th birthday, another anniversary passed by with little fanfare. July 5 marked three months since the city announced it was developing its own 311 iPhone application to allow citizens to access city data on the go. It also marked the day the application was two months late.
In an April 5 announcement, Division of Technology chief Allan Frank said the application would be available in May, yet there’s still no sign of it on thecity’s 311 site or in the App Store.
To be fair, Mr. Allan Frank no longed heads the Division of Technology. He left, the division was renamed, and two years later, it's Chief Innovation Officer Edel Ebeid, of the Office of Information Technology, who's now promising to deliver the mythical 311 app.
When? Goto 10.
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