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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.
(For more on AVI and everything else Philly, follow Isaiah Thompson on twitter)
Who loses in switch to AVI? This adorable cat.
In the long weeks of conversation over the city's anticipated (but not yet certain) switch to the “Actual Value Initiative” plan for property tax assessment, the fate of this adorable cat has been largely ignored.
The cat, it's true, doesn't own any property or pay any property tax. And neither does her owner (ok, it's me). But her owner does pay rent (not to mention wage and other taxes) — and, under AVI, his rent might be about to go up drastically.
That's because while the Nutter administration and Council have been working on various measures designed to protect resident-homeowners from possibly drastic increases in their property values, there has been almost no conversation about protecting renters.
Politically, it's understandable: renters are by their nature more transient and less directly invested in issues like property tax — and therefore simply less important to elected officials. If a renter has to move, he or she can probably do so more easily than a homeowner.
But there are a lot of us: about 569,000 renters in Philadelphia, or 30% in 2009, according to United States Census American Housing Survey.
And while some are unmarried professionals who can afford to feed cats and such, many are not: In 2000, Philadelphia had the highest rate of low-income renters in the state, about 75%. Nearly half were labeled “extremely low income” by HUD standards.
And of the various proposals before Council now, none address the tax hikes that will in many cases be applied to that population.
Council yesterday voted on a bill that would provide a “homestead exemption” for owner-occupied properties of $30,000 worth of their new assessment. Councilman James Kenney, with the support of Council President Darrell Clarke, has pushed a bill that would help out residents in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Any ten-year resident whose property value will have tripled under AVI gets a break on assessments above that tripling for ten years.
According to figures compiled by CP from data supplied by the Nutter administration and the office of Councilman Bill Green, the two exemptions lower the average burden on the residents who qualify by something roughly like 22% — which, of course, means 22% more that everyone else, including renters, will have to make up.
Assuming the total property assessment is about $80 billion after AVI (a complicated assumption, but that's another story), that means that residents who don't qualify will have to share the burden of an extra $17.6 billion. (Sorry folks, not sure if these figures are correct; will update when I find out).
That's not, of course, to say there aren't plenty of good, important reasons to support homeowners — there are, not least among them the preservation of longstanding neighborhoods under threat by renters.
But it's fair to say that while those residents have been at the heart of this public conversation, renters — who do, after all, comprise close to a htird of all occupied homes — have been flung to the furthest edges of it, cats and all.
As seems to happen when City Council is up against a deadline, a regular Council meeting has become a marathon session of closed-door negotiations, this time over the passage (or not) of the mayor's proposed Actual Value Initiative and the details therein.
The mayor wants Council to pass a bill that would set a revenue target for the citywide reassessment, and allow the actual tax rate to be set to match it.
After weeks of grilling by Council members, though, the administration has hit some snags: it can't say, within multiple multiples, how much the city's property is actually expected to be worth when the assessment's over. It nontheless wants Council to come up with a firm number from those stick ones: $94 million extra for the School District, accompanied by about $80 million for the city to replace the revenue scheduled to disappear when a two-year “temporary” tax increase ends after this year.
Councilman Wilson Goode says he believes Council will pass something of a compromise: a bill that would raise about $85 million for the schools, partly through AVI but partly through a hike in the Use and Occupancy tax for commercial properties, as proposed by Council President Darrell Clarke in an alternative bill to mayor's.
CP couldn't confirm any of this, and Council members appear to remain in negotiation. Not in the room with them at the moment: Councilman Mark Squilla, who helped lead the charge to delay AVI until the administration has solid numbers. Squilla hopes to pass out of committee today a bill that would do just that.
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.
Yesterday, Philadelphia City Council passed a bill designed to protect residents from the full force of gentrification if and when the mayor's Actual Value Initiative (AVI) goes into effect.
The bill will go a long way to reduce the impact of AVI on some neighborhoods that have seen rapid gentrification, including Fishtown, Mantua, and Spruce Hill.
But it will also reduce taxes for residents of Rittenhouse Square — not exactly the folks you might think of as needing an anti-gentrification bailout.
The bill, which passed out of committee yesterday and has the support of Council President Darrell Clarke, would exempt homeowners of ten years or more from paying taxes on more than three times their current assessed value. In other words, if your property assessment quadruples, you'd only pay taxes on triple the assessment. The idea, of course, is to protected longtime homeowners whose neighborhoods have seen gentrification, the effect of which has been effectively masked by the city's broken and frozen assessment system.
Here's the catch: the exemption makes no distinction as to a resident's home value, income, or other measures of actual wealth and ability to pay.
In other words, while gentrification relief will offer huge relief to folks like lifetime Fishtowners whose property values are about to skyrocket, it will also protect high-income longtime Rittenhouse Square residents — all paid for by an estimated 2% hike in the real estate tax for the average city taxpayer.
Here's the breakdown:
According to numbers supplied to Council by the administration, the average residential property in Rittenhouse is valued at about 177K, but really worth about 554k, which would become its actual assessed value under AVI.
Because the value will more than triple (177k X 3 = 531K), the Rittenhouse homeowner qualifies for gentrification relief, and wouldn't have to pay taxes on more than triple the current assessment, or about $23,000 worth of value).
A resident in Central Roxborough, on the other hand, has a current average home value of about $80k, and that value is likely to rise to $233k — just under the cutoff for gentrification relief.
The amount the gentrification relief is allowed to cost is capped at $30 million citywide, so taxpayers will have to make up that difference, to the tune of an increased tax rate of about a two per cent.
That applies to everyone, but the result is that gentrification relief winds up saving money for wealthier Rittenhouse residents and costing money for less-wealthy Roxborough residents — a scenario that doesn't necessarily bring to mind the usual narrative of gentrification displacing low-income residents.
State Republican legislators are orchestrating a "gut and switch" legislative move to ram through the legislature a bill that would penalize municipalities who've attempted even modest gun control measures, according to anti-gun violence group CeaseFire PA.
Max Nacheman, director of CeaseFire PA, says he learned last night that House Republicans (specifically State Rep Timothy Krieger) are in the midst of a midnight legislative move that would all but prevent public input or open debate on the measure. House Republicans have re-introduced a long-dead bill, Senate Bill 273, which is identical (or nearly so) to House Bill 40, which passed instead last summer as the so-called "Castle Doctrine," which affords increased protection to individuals who shoot someone on their property.
(Becausethis is moving so fast, we have limited information — that's the point — so click here to read updates from CeaseFire PA, which is following closely; we can't confirm or endorse their information).
The only purpose of reintroducing that bill, Nacheman contends, is as a "vehicle" for another law, that would penalize municipalities that have passed laws cracking down on illegal gun trafficking and straw purchasing — laws that have so far held up in court, but which could conceivably be struck down later. Should that happen, this new law would require those municipalities to award extra damages to anyone affected. The idea, gun reform activists say, is to intimidate municipalities considering similar measures.
The House Judiciary Committee apparently just passed an amendment that would, essentially, erase all of the language in the "vehicle" SB273 and replace it with this new law. It could then be voted out of the state House this afternoon.
The "gut and switch" maneuver has a long, if not exactly venerable tradition in Harrisburg. Act 71, the bill that legalized casino gambling in Pennsylvania, was passed in a similar manner, allowing the passage of law with virtually no opportunity for debate or public input.
The City of Philadelphia and Mayor Michael Nutter are now facing a lawsuit over the mayor's recently-introduced ban on outdoor "feeding" in city parks.
The suit was filed this morning on behalf of various groups and individuals who've been serving meals to the homeless on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for years. The plaintiffs are being represented by Paul Messing of the Center City law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, which specializes in civil rights litigation, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and attorney Seth Kreimer. (City Paper first reported on the likelihood of this lawsuit two weeks ago).
[You can read the full complaint here]
It's been two months since Nutter announced a ban on the serving of meals outdoors in city parks. While the ban theoretically applies to the entire city, it was widely understood to target the serving of meals on the Parkway, which has been a site for that activity for more than ten years — and which has also been the focus of an attempted revival by the city, spearheaded by the opening last month of the Barnes Museum.
Nutter isn't the first Philadelphia mayor to try and curtail similar activity: mayors John Street and Ed Rendell faced opposition to various efforts to curb the presence of homeless people on the parkway and nearby in Center City. The mayor is, however, the first to impose an outright ban on the serving of meals outdoors.
Today's suit, filed in the United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, alleges that the mayor's ban (introduced as an administrative rule, and which thus did not pass through City Council) is in violation of state and federal law on three counts:
According to the suit,
— It violates the first and fourteenth amendment rights of the plaintiffs (many of whom believe it is their religious duty to serve such meals) by depriving them "of their rights to the free exercise of religion."
— It violates the first and fourteenth amendment rights of the plaintiffs by denying them of their "freedom of speech," the argument being that the serving of meals is itself a form of expression.
— It violates the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act, which guarantees Pennsylvania residents the right to "free exercise of religion."
The lawsuit asks for a judgment that the ban is unconstitutional and seeks an injunction against the city to bar it from preventing the plaintiffs from serving meals.
We'll have more detail soon, so stay tuned here at Naked City.
(Follow Isaiah Thompson on Twitter)
Before referring you, dear readers, to another post I wrote this morning explaining the same thing, I'll add, in the first person, why I think Mayor Nutter will not, in fact, enforce any homeless "feeding" ban today or anytime soon.
#1: Nutter lost the support of his only strong ally in the homeless community, Sister Mary Scullion, yesterday. Scullion had flanked Nutter when he announced the ban, and — despite the near-universal regard for her work in creating Project HOME and working to get homeless folks into house — took some heat for it. In yesterday's Council hearing on the ban, Scullion (via statement) said she could not support the enforcement of the ban, as no alternatives to the outdoor meals have since arisen.
#2: This whole thing has been all over the place since it started. Even before the ban, the city announced a separate permitting process, through the Department of Health, that would regulate — but not ban — outdoor meals. It was only later that Mayor Nutter called a hasty press conference to announce the ban of outdoor "feeding" in city parks. The proposed relocation of meals to City Hall has not taken place (the city can blame those who provided the meals, but the city itself provided only a couple of port-o-potties next to a construction site).
What's more, the ban was supposed to have gone into effect 45 days ago. June 1st only recently became the day the city would start enforcing its own ban, suggesting the date itself is arbitrary: after all. the Barnes has already opened.
#3: There isn't a mayor in America who wants to see headlines about his city issuing tickets to little old ladies for feeding homeless people — and if there is, it isn't Mayor Nutter.
#4: The city hasn't lived up to its end of the bargain, and it knows it. Mayor Nutter did appoint a task force to come up with new, better ways to provide meals, but only after announcing a ban on meals in the first place. The task force has met, but has made little to no progress so far.
#5: The last thing Mayor Nutter wants to do right now is piss off Council. Nutter's plan to move to the "Actual Value Initiative" system of property assessments (and raise $94 million for the schools in the process) is under serious fire in Philly's City Council; the mayor doesn't need to give it any fuel — potential or otherwise.
Some weeks ago, mayor spokesman Mark McDonald told CP that enforcement of the ban on outdoor "feeding" of homeless in city parks implemented by Mayor Nutter would begin on June 1st — today.
But don't bet on it.
Yesterday, City Council's Committee on Housing and the Homeless heard testimony on the measure, announced two and a half months ago.
Amid the two-plus hours of passionate testimony by those who serve meals, the formerly homeless, and sundry religious figures, was a bombshell: a written statement by Sister Mary Scullion, founder of Project Home, who appeared next to the mayor when he first announced the ban.
In her statement, Scullion said that “the reality is that the proposed indoor dining centers are not yet in place … so June 1st, tomorrow, amounts to a ban on street feeding without the additional availability of indoor meals and services, therefore we cannot support the ban on outdoor meal at this time.”
“We respectfully request that the ban on street feeding in Fairmount Park not be enforced until the appropriate quality dining centers are in place.”
The statement marked the latest of several blows to the mayor's push to end a decade-long tradition of free meals for the homeless on the Parkway. First came the angry reaction of those who serve meals; then active protests that seemed to rouse Occupy Philly from its winter hibernation. A few weeks ago, CP reported that the city has received notice of intent to sue from a Philly law firm, Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg LLP, over the ban.
But Sister Mary Scullion's request that the city not enforce the ban might be the strongest indication so far that the mayor would be going out on a limb to enforce his own policy. At the time of the announcement of the ban, Scullion told CP that she had supported the mayor conditionally — the condition being that the ban resulted in more, not less services for those who are homeless.
Since then, a task force appointed weeks after the ban was announced has met — but has issued no public statements or recommendations for how more, and not less people will be fed. The mayor did, as promised, provide port-o-potties and a hand-washing station to those who would like to serve meals on City Hall's apron — but few have taken him up on the offer.
Oh yeah, and the Barnes opened: The ban is widely believed to be tied to the opening of the Barnes Foundation museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Mayor has half-heartedly denied that this is so — but we'd be risking our credibility not to point out that it is almost certainly the case.
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A coalition of parents groups and schools are calling for a "vote of no confidence" in the School Reform Commission's recently-unveiled plan to close at least 49 schools and expand its charter program by 40%.
In a press release issued by Parents United founder Helen Gym and Home and School Council president Dolores Soloman — and signed by more than fifty parent organizations and individual schools — the group calls for the SRC to rethink its plan, citing the following critiques (copied below, verbatim).
The "vote" will presumably take place during tonight's SRC meeting, which is exploding on Twitter (#phillyeducation, #occupySRC) as parents, teachers, advocates, and, yes, even Occupy Philly, pour in for a showdown.
1. The budget fails to uphold the District’s core mission to provide essential personnel and
quality instructional resources to public schools. Schools have borne the brunt of years of fiscal starvation and mismanagement. This year alone schools lost over $300 million in personnel and instructional supports. There has been no provision made to prioritize restoration of cuts. Another $121 million in instructional spending cuts was found in the budget but has never been explained.
2. The District failed to include parents in decision-making. Despite parents taking the time to participate in committees and testifying repeatedly at community budget meetings, the FY13 budget reflects very few of our priorities. In contrast, our Chief Recovery Officer has openly praised his relationship with the Boston Consulting Group, which earned $1.5 million for six weeks worth of work– as "intimate" and "hand in glove".
3. It promotes a secretive, massive school closings plan without a full public vetting of the
criteria for closing schools or a quality plan for transferring students or transforming schools.Many schools had deep concerns about the process which unfolded this past spring.
4. The FY13budget balances a $218 million deficit on the backs of children while leaving the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania off the hook to pay its fair share to schools. Districts all across the state are suffering. As a state takeover district, we need a plan that shows how the state and other entities will support our district.
5. Finally, the budget promotes non-public options at the expense of public ones. It does not demonstrate efficiencies around private contracts. It promotes a massive expansion of charters while targeting public schools for widespread closure and budget cuts. The choice to move from public to non-public options via 40% charter expansion or through private contracts with third party operators compromises the infrastructure of the District as a whole. It does not support education for all Philadelphia children – particularly those with special needs – and can be irreversible.
The group also lists its own proposals:
Set up an emergency process with school-based parent organizations and other parent groups to assess the impact of school-based losses this year and prioritize restoring funds to school-based budgets;
The SRC must hold public hearings on school closing criteria and slow down the process for closing schools in FY2013 to avoid mistakes like Creighton (seeking an educator-led turnaround process) and Sheppard and E.M. Stanton (both wrongly targeted for closure). They must design a process that gives parents time to seek quality options and not rush a decision in the spring.
An opportunity for parents to meet with budget staff to review and offer an alternative list of cuts, such as private contracts, consulting costs, and other options.
A process to engage parents, District leaders and the City in seeking alternative funding
sources including a collective effort for additional state revenue, Payment In Lieu of Taxes
(PILOTS), and other sources of revenue.
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