Week two of Fiscal Year 2024’s budget hearings heard testimony from two of the most discussed departments, the District Attorney and Streets.
Reflecting the significant amount of calls council offices received regarding road conditions, Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams received questions regarding various aspects of department operations and discussed the department’s $354 million budget.
The first item on the mind of Council President Darrell Clarke was the implementation of the city’s Traffic Safety Officers, whose responsibilities will include identifying abandoned cars for removal, for which the new officers have begun training.
The 20 officers are expected to begin shortly, but as Clarke noted, the first cohort is not nearly enough officers for the task. The Streets Department is not requesting additional officers in the 2024 budget, as they are still developing the program, but it is expected they will seek additional funding in subsequent years.
In order to adequately maintain city streets, the department’s goal is to repave 131 miles of streets per year. This year, the department plans to repave 75 miles of city streets, 56 miles short of their goal. Deputy Managing Director for Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability (OTIS) Director Mike Carroll said 70% of the funding for each paving project goes towards curb cuts and ramps so as to comply with American with Disabilities Act guidelines.
“And that’s a ratio which makes it very hard for us to scale up,” Caroll said. “But what we’re trying to do is organize it so they were able to do that as efficiently as possible.”
Carroll said city and state utilities, developers, and other builders need to do their part when it comes to maintaining the curb cuts and ramps. He also said it was crucial that subsequent work in an area was not tearing up recently completed cuts and ramps, identifying better coordination as a matter of routine.
Williams said paving the entire goal of 131 miles would require an additional $120 million, when asked by Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson.
Illegal dumping has become another major consideration of council, with cameras being placed in high-dumping areas, and new crews established to combat the increasingly growing problem. Currently there are three illegal dumping crews, with a fourth to be funded in this year’s budget. Each crew consists of around 33 members and includes heavy equipment. Last year, the crews cleared 13,000 tons of illegally dumped trash.
Ideally, Williams said he would like to have ten crews; one per council district, with the ability to move the crews from district to district as needed.
Councilmember Curtis Jones inquired as to the progress of the installation of new LED lights in alleys across the city. The idea being alley lights can help reduce crime and illegal dumping. Council allocated $1 million in last year’s budget for the program, which will lead to the installation of 533 cameras.
Jones also inquired about trash pick-up, which Commissioner Willams said was largely meeting internal department requirements for timeliness. The goal, Williams said, is to have all trash picked up by 3 PM. The department has a 97% success rate in meeting this mark.
District Attorney Larry Krasner faced tough question from City Council related to retail theft, prosecutions regarding specific cases, and the DAO’s Carjacking Unit.
Council President Darrell Clarke began the hearing with questions about the DA’s Carjacking Unit.
Krasner praised the collaboration between the DAO, the Philadelphia Police Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and said information regarding the city’s carjacking problem has come to light.
Specifically, certain cars are systematically being targeted to be sold overseas. According to Krasner, Toyotas and Land Rovers are being stolen and sold in other countries for up to $65,000. Often, juveniles are recruited by carjacking rings, with the juveniles not knowing for whom they are working. With knowledge of how the criminal enterprise works, Krasner said the DAO and its partners are in a better position to combat the carjackings.
Krasner said the carjacking unit is staffed by attorneys who work exclusively on carjacking cases, often working on making the lower-level criminal participants identify the larger players in the enterprise.
Councilmember Jimmy Harrity lamented the fate of stores in his neighborhood of Kensington, citing rampant retail theft as a major cause in the decline of retail stores in the area.
Krasner said prosecuting the fences, or the people selling the stolen goods, was a priority. Usually, the people selling the stolen items are not the ones who did the stealing. Some of the fence operations are sophisticated, million-dollar schemes, recruiting vulnerable people to shoplift.
Attempting to correct an assumption about the nature of retail theft prosecution, Krasner clarified that his office does not have the authority to charge retail theft crimes; this is handled directly by the police department. After a summary shoplifting charge is issued by the police, it then goes to the DA’s office, which Krasner said prosecutes every retail theft offense “in one way or another.”
Krasner said the DA’s office often charges “prolific offenders” with felonies, citing an example of a repeat offender who had 42 retail theft charges.
Taking a familiar tact in his questioning, Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson asked multiple questions about gun violence, and the rate of prosecutions undertaken by the DAO.
Krasner said the DAO’s conviction rate for homicides is about 80%, and the conviction rate for non-fatal shootings is 70%. Krasner said the DAO typically requests bail be set at $1 million plus for murder suspects, often seeking higher bails than what judges have set. In one of the more troubling aspects of the hearing, Krasner said some judges will actually lower bail if they feel “bothered” by the DAO’s office.
The most contentious interaction of the day was between the DA and Councilmember Cindy Bass, who accused Krasner of not taking retail theft seriously. Bass pointedly asked Krasner if the retail theft problem in the city was okay-to which Krasner reiterated the DAO’s prosecution rate of 99% in retail theft cases.
Bass said she hears from constituents about retail theft often, with the usual response from the Administration and other officials being, “we’re doing the best we can do.”
“Well, our best isn’t good enough,” Bass said. “If I was in your shoes, the idea that people are saying they are closing because the DA’s office is not prosecuting would bother me. And I don’t think it really bothers you.”
Krasner said the idea that certain crimes go unprosecuted is a political narrative, explaining that the DA’s office is only part of the equation in regard to a retail theft conviction. Replying to Bass’ criticism that he was unbothered, Krasner said he was bothered by two things.
“I’m bothered by anything that makes it difficult for small business owners in a city that needs to lift up its small business owners and not tax them to death,” Krasner said. “And it also bothers me when there is a narrative out there that is political and false.”
Krasner did not accuse Bass of perpetuating the narrative but mentioned that others he did not name had been consistently using this line of criticism against the DAO.
Bass expanded her criticism to include the case of Kymere Carlton, a murder victim who had at one point worked in Bass’ office and is the son of Donald Carlton, Director of Operations at OTIS. Bass asked Krasner why the case had not moved forward, using it as an example of what she called “the lack of prosecution and support coming out of your office.”
Krasner defended himself by saying he had met with the father of the victim repeatedly, pointing out that Bass had been invited to meetings and had attended one, causing Bass to respond to what she considered a slight by Krasner.
Council President Clarke attempted to restore calm to the proceedings, but the situation was only exacerbated when Krasner intimated that Bass’ concerns were motivated by election-year politics.
The comment was not well received by Bass, and once again Clarke restored order. We expect the District Attorney to testify again during department callbacks.