Archive: March, 2012
Philly's largest homeless shelter is again targeted for closure, with replacement beds expected to be in place by summer, city officials told City Council today. The new date for closing Ridge Shelter: June 30. The city has set aside $1.2 million in part to fund replacement beds, for the shelter, the closure of which has been repeatedly delayed as the city struggles to find alternative housing for the 120 men Ridge serves.
Council President Darrell Clarke told Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison and Budget Director Rebecca Rhynhart, "What I want to make sure personally is that individuals are relocated at the standards we've established in Philly, and we're not simply warehousing people so we can close a facility."
The administration believes sufficient beds will be in place by June 30. "We are trying to put together the contracts that we'd need to make sure the people serviced by that center would go elsewhere," Gillison said. "We understand we're on target."
An even better question: "Is the closing generated by the city or is the closing generated by the possibility of that site beng sold to a developer?" Councilwoman Marian Tasco wanted to know.
Given that the city is already drawing the ire of homeless advocates with a plan to curb outdoor feeding programs — just in time for the much-hyped opening of the Barnes in May — there's plenty of cause for concern. As CP's Isaiah Thompson reported in December: "Despite a number of promising new initiatives, the overall trend of homeless services has been a downward one, while the number and need of the homeless seem to be growing."
This morning's City Council budget hearing, which covered the proposed Fiscal 2013 budget and Philly's five-year plan, was pretty dry stuff. But one comment by Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison drew notice. Philly's expecting some tax revenues to increase substantially in the coming year, yet total revenues are expected to grow by only 0.5 percent, because Fiscal 2012 saw a couple of one-time revenue bumps. Among them: $11 million, paid from the Philadelphia Parking Authority. The money was revenue from the Love Park parking garage that was supposed to have come to the city over several years, but that the Philly Parking Authority (which has seen its share of political scandals and financial investigations), hadn't bothered to pay.
Council President Darrell Clarke seemed incredulous: "How did we discover that additional revenue? Was there an analysis done or did we trip on it?"
Rebecca Rhynhart, Philly's budget director, answered. Sort of. She explained, "It came to our attention, when reviewing legal documents regarding how that revenue is supposed to flow into the city's general fund, that that money should have flowed to the city. So the Parking Authority sent that money over."
"It's that easy?" Clarke had to ask. "Is it possible with further analysis we might discover or trip over additional revenues owed to the city of Philadelphia?" Rhynhart responded that that's all the city's owed from Love Park. Whether there's more PPA money floating around to be "tripped over" remains to be seen.
Let's stipulate to the following: Last night's Board of Health meeting, at which the Board intended to vote on a new rule regulating various aspects of "outdoor feeding" in the city, was interrupted repeatedly by protesters (many if not most associated with Occupy Philly). The disrupters were asked repeatedly to quiet down, and didn't.
The Board members eventually called a recess and then resumed in another room, to which the general public was not allowed access — though reporters were, including a member of Occupy Philly, who was allowed to videotape the proceedings. Audio from the meeting was piped, live, into the original meeting room, allowing the public to listen to the proceedings as they happened.
Here's the question: does that still make the meeting "public" under state law?
The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act broadly states that meetings of most "public" bodies — the Board of Health would almost certainly qualify — must be "public," meaning that citizens should have the right to see what's happening and express themselves. Generally, a quorum of a body may not conduct business behind closed doors.
Occupy Philly didn't exactly invent the disturbance of meetings: it happens all the time, including at many or most City Council meetings. Usually, disturbers are asked to settle down. On the (fairly rare) occasions that they don't, they are often escorted out by a Sergent At Arms or the city's Civil Affairs Unit officers. On some rare occasions, they are arrested.
But this is the first time we've known the public body — the Board of Health in this case — to opt to remove themselves, rather than the disrupters.
And there is, after all, a difference: public officials obviously didn't want to mass-remove the many disrupters — but had they started to do so, is it possible that other members of the public would have allowed the meeting to take place and thus had the opportunity to watch it in-person and make their opinions known? The purpose of this meeting wasn't to take public testimony — but by attending, members of the public have the ability to express themselves, even just by being present for reporters to see.
Even Mayor spokesman Mark McDonald referred to a "segment of the audience that was bent on disruption." So what about the other segment?
McDonald and Department of Health Communications director Jeff Moran both told CP last night and today that the city's law department assured the Board that they were well within the bounds of the Sunshine Act.
"The Sunshine Act allows an entire meeting to be conducted by speakerphone, with members in various remote locations, so long as the public is given access to hear what's going on," McDonald wrote in an email. "Last night's meeting far exceeded those standards, in that the press and videographers were allowed in to observe, while the remaining public was allowed to hear."
I ran this by Darrell Zaslow, an attorney whose passion for government transparency led him to pursue a multi-year (and eventually victorious) legal crusade to force City Council to hear public testimony in Council sessions (no they didn't used to).
He agreed: "If the public makes their participation or observation impossible by their own misconduct, it would seem to me that [The Board] did their best under difficult circumstances to comply," he said.
"They probably would be found by a court to have acted to the best of their ability under the circumstances."
Among the optimistic and outsize ideas floating around for the (soon-to-be-feeding-free) Ben Franklin Parkway and its environs, there's been a particular push recently for a rehabbed aboveground Reading Viaduct Park and a sprawling, underground trailway that would link Boathouse Row to Broad Street. Here's another proposal that hasn't, as yet, gained much traction: the Artway, a concept for an "elevated linear museum stretching from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Convention Center."
Efforts to move the homeless off the Parkway aside, Herman DeJong, a local architect, sees the opening of the Barnes as the perfect time to focus on another vision for Philly's museum corridor. The plan: a $300 million, 40-foot-wide, gallery-lined walkway 15 feet above Pennsylvania Avenue, tucked in among the tree canopy. "There could be art shows, art galleries, museum, exhibits, craft shows, flower shows and would connect the art museum in the base at the Joan of Arc statue with a pedestrian walkway across five or six lanes of traffic, and then tie into the second floor of the Perelman building." In theory, he says, it could connect the Barnes, the Rodin, the PMA, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Free Library and Parkway hotels and condos. An underground parking lot for a few thousand cars would pay for the infrastructure and upkeep, and allow the Artway to work in tandem with the underground portion of the Reading Viaduct. It would be the second-longest building in the world and visible from space, with skylights and a green roof with open-air walkways.
Councilman Bill Green skeptical of "AVI transition fairy," Councilman Mark Squilla spinning yarns about shallow water, as opposition to mayor's property plans takes shape.
The public should question the existence of an "AVI transition fairy."
The public should "not to jump in the water until you know how deep it is."
Such is the folksy wisdom coming from City Council today, as opposition to the mayor's property plans takes shape.
The first tidbit came from a post-Council conversation with At-Large Councilman Bill Green, who frequently tends to set himself up in counterpoint to the mayor's proposals and has not failed to do so when it comes to the administration's plans for a move to an "Actual Value Initiative" (AVI) property reassessment program. Green supports AVI, but calls the mayor's plan to bring in $90 million extra from property taxes as a result of instituting it a "backdoor tax increase" — which Green believes deserves its own discussion.
The cautionary lesson about jumping into murky water came from First District Councilman Mark Squilla, who says that moving to Actual Value Initiative would be "irresponsible" because of a lack of available data on new assessments and uncertainty over legilsation in the state House that would enable an exemption for some owner-occupied residences.
Both indicate that opposition to the mayor's proposed budget is already taking definite shape in Council.
There are a few points of contention over the proposed property tax reforms and budgeting. Briefly:
— $90 million in increased revenue: The city, citing a study it commissioned, says it anticipates that the ongoing property reassessment will end up showing that housing values rose, overall, by about 25%, or $90 million. The mayor wants to dedicate that money to the ailing Philadelphia School District. The city characterizes this not as a tax hike, but as, essentially, the city's collecting money it should have been collecting all along, but for a broken property tax assessment system.
But critics like Councilman Green contend that that's a backhanded way of simply imposing a property tax hike. There is, he says, no reason to believe in an "AVI transition fairy" that will deliver $90 million extra to the city. And even if the fairy delivers, there's no reason Council should automatically allow that money to be appropriated and spent.
"Should we spend it, or should we lower [the property tax]?" Green asked CP. "[The mayor] doesn't want to call it what it is: a tax increase."
— Homestead exemption: The mayor and Council want to give a break to certain owner-occupied residences. To do that, they need enabling legislation to be passed in Harrisburg, where nothing is ever certain — and, indeed, Councilman Squilla says he was told by members of the Philadelphia delegation that the current bill's prospects are bleak. What's more, complete property reassessment data won't likely be available until after Council would have to approve this plan.
"I believe my district may be hit the hardest by this," Squilla told CP over the phone, "and my fear is that if we rush into it we may not do it correctly."
Squilla says he's working to build a coalition among Council members who share his concern.
— To implement or not to implement: For all the nervousness within Council over implementing the various components of a transition to AVI, the question is less whether than when: the administration wants to make the transition in more or less one stroke; but Council could decide to delay implementation until after data is available.
Municipal workers showed up in force at City Council this morning to support Councilman Goode's bill urging Mayor Nutter to offer employees AFSCME district councils 33 and 47 a fair contract after three years without one. They described personal despair and hardships; a sense of outrage over the city's reversal on past promises; and a work environment where morale is low and attrition is increasing.
Catherine Scott, president of AFSCME DC 47, told Council, "In spring 2009, Mayor Nutter's negotiating team stated to our team that AFSCME DC 47 would receive financial credit for any savings we could recommend which the city could implement." She claims they came up with savings of $35 million but "no credit was ever given." The savings, she said, included $4 million saved last year by releasing nonviolent offenders into supervised probation; a 1 percent sale tax increase; and a recommended (but never implemented) proposal to save $8 million by replacing contracted Health Department employees with city workers.
"Instead," she said, "Mayor Nutter's administration has punished workers by freezing their step increases."
A Parks & Rec worker said she had lost $6,000 a year by giving up pay increases, and that she now has to explain to her children why her family can no longer afford vacations. Pamela Robinson, with the Department of Human Services, said she's worked longer and longer hours at the expense of her family. She took the job "so every child will reach its full potential. It's disheartening to know the city would not want the same for me and my child." Cynthia Preston, a registered nurse at the Department of Public Health, was wondering why she took a $20,000 pay cut to work for the city, only to find her promised raises and benefits disappear.
Council did in the end pass Goode's legislation. Whether it will finally help city workers get a contract remains to be seen.
There's a new campaign finance watchdog in town and politicos, good government folks, data junkies and journalists might want to bookmark this one.
David Lynn, database programmer and former author of a column on campaign finance for the Public Record, has launched his own website, freepoliticalspeech.com, and intends to turn it into a new source of unreported — and, we're betting, often intriguing — details of how and where money is spent in local politics — "to use publicly available data and explain its meaning to the public in plain language."
Lynn knows the data well: he created free software to help candidates maintain and properly file their campaign finance reports to the state; and his column in the Public Record demonstrated both an unusual appetite for the kind of details virtually no one in this city has time or mandate to uncover, and also an ability to turn those details into news: Lynn's reporting on financial irregularities within Stephanie Singer's campaign for City Commissioner preceded the city's Board of Ethics announcing settlement agreements with her campaign for violations of city finance rules.
Pennsylvanians appear to be waking up: support for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett―whose suggestion that women undergoing an anti-abortion/pre-abortion ultrasound “just have to close [their] eyes” went viral―is in a slump.
Just 41 percent of respondents said they approved of Corbett's performance in a Quinnipiac University poll released last week (down from 47 in December), with 41 percent disapproving.
Corbett kept a low-profile for much of his first year in office in part because he, unlike his star-wattage colleagues in New Jersey (Chris Christie) and Wisconsin (Scott Walker), refrained from attacking public employee unions. But now Pennsylvanians are getting to know him, and many don't like what they see: voters oppose mandatory ultrasounds 48 to 42 percent, and oppose his handling of the budget (which cuts services to the poor, sick, and disabled) 49 to 36 percent. A full 65 percent oppose proposed cuts to public universities.
Corbett's agenda is of course extraordinarily unpopular in Philadelphia.
Last year, the killing of Fishtown resident Shane Kelly galvanized hundreds of neighbors to show up for a candlelight vigil. A new community effort, River Wards Crime Watch is designed to turn that outrage into a protective force for the community.
"Just seeing how many people showed up out of respect for somebody they didn't even know, it felt to me like a galvanizing moment," says Neil Brecher, a Fishtown resident and the organization's president. "Everybody was fed up. Everybody had had enough. People came from Olde Richmond and Kensington; people came from a pretty good distance to kind of support this. Everyone seemed to know that something had to be done."
So, Brecher and some other neighborhood leaders began talking about a town watch, one that would extend throughout the 26th Police District's PSA 3, and bring in all of its civic associations and community groups: East Kensington Neighbors Assocation, Olde Richmond Neighbors Association, Fishtown Neighbors Association, Fishtown Action (FACT), the Ancient Order of Hibernians, New Kensington Community Development Corp. and Fishtown Area Business Owners Assocation. "Listening to the statistics, and seeing that our PSA was the largest out of all three in the district, and hearing Capt. [Michael] Cram's call for the neighborhoods to participate, it just seemed to make sense," Brecher says.
"This is the first time you've got every civic under one roof. This is complete unity from one end of the area to another," he adds.
They're thinking big -- and small: phone trees among crossing guards, organized block captains and coalitions of vigilant dog-walkers to create an early sense of "eyes on the street." Brecher hopes a formal town watch will be in place within two years. In the meantime, he hopes to generate interest with occasional unannounced "nights out," where neighbors will gather at a given intersection in a show of solidarity or unity. "It's kind of vulnerable to be out there fihgting crime. But knowing that there are hundreds of other people in the neighborhood who care amakes it easier to feel supported in that mission.... It also sends a message to criminals that they're being watched, that, 'You're not gonig to be allowed to prey on this community anymore.'"
A weekly series of foul-mouthed investigations into empty lots, dead-ass proposals and other design phenomena in Philadelphia. Find more stories like this at Philaphilia.blogspot.com.
Bounded by 30th, 31st, Chestnut, and Ludlow Streets. This lot is ridiculous. An immense asphalt desert that sinks under the IRS/old Post Office building. Even as new buildings and other developments have occurred all around, this Sunken Ocean of Assholes has managed to stay completely empty and decrepit for over a decade. Will this lot soon be dead? Good fuckin' luck.
You know an empty lot is bad when you're not the first person to name it. Some folks on Philadelphia Speaks call this the Drexel Hole (a play on the name Disney Hole), and the university itself has a name for it: Lot F. That is to say, Lot Fuck. This block has spent most of its dull life as industrial buildings that would later get replaced by other industrial buildings. Most notable and long-lasting among these was the famous Abbott's Dairies company.
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