Hall Monitor’s Spring Council Session Wrap-Up (Part II)

April 14th, 2023: City Council: Police Take Center Stage At Budget Hearings

The Philadelphia Police Department’s budget hearing is typically one of the most scrutinized each year, with the department’s budget being one of the largest in the city. This year’s general fund expenditure will increase by $55.7 million, bringing the department’s fiscal year 2024 budget to over $855 million. With that, the department plans to deploy 6380 uniformed officers.

Regarding staffing, First Deputy Commission John Stanford, who was testifying in Commissioner Outlaw’s stead, said the department was short about 850 officers. Council President Darrell Clarke expressed concern regarding the prospects of hiring new officers, considering other municipalities are aggressively recruiting in the Philadelphia area.

“Orlando is offering this crazy package,” Clarke said. “(They have) big billboards on I-76 (showing) the sun and beach (when it’s) a 32 degree day in Philadelphia.”

There are currently 63 new recruits in the Police Academy, well below the number the PPD believes it needs to fill all of its vacant positions. In order to attract new recruits, the PPD has been using social media, billboard,s and television advertisements to make prospective applicants aware of the openings.

From previous hearings, the PPD discussed the process by which an applicant becomes a member of the department. It is a multi-step process that can eliminate many candidates early one, specifically when it comes to reading comprehension. To address this, the PPD was in the process of developing a program with the Comunity College of Philadelphia.

Officer retention is another issue, causing the department to focus more on the health and wellness of current officers.

Retail Theft
Retail theft, a much-discussed topic from last week’s hearing with District Attorney Larry Krasner, was broached again by Councilmember Quetzy Lozada, who was concerned that retail theft was driving some businesses, such as pharmacies, out of vulnerable neighborhoods, creating a gap needed services for some.

Stanford said the department tallied 1532 retail theft arrests in 2022, and already had 461 in 2023.

Deputy Commissioner Frank Vanore explained how the department handles retail theft as follows:
If less than $100, the first offense is a summary offense
If less than $100, the second offense is a misdemeanor of the second degree
If the first or second offense is over $150, then it becomes a first degree misdemeanor
The third offense, regardless of value, is a felony of the third degree.
Vanore said that the District Attorney’s office automatically downgrades any theft under $500 to a summary offense.

“There are examples of people who are arrested 60 plus times, if they kept the (theft) under $500,” Vanore said. “Some of those same people returned to the same business within a few short hours and reoffended.”

Hall Monitor expects this conversation to continue during the budget hearings, particularly during budget callbacks.

Safe Injection Sites
Also, testifying before council was Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole, who was questioned by Councilmember Jim Harrity about the opioid crisis in Kensington, the neighborhood in which he lives. Harrity was particularly concerned about the prospect of safe-injection sites, to which he is opposed. He inquired as to whether Bettigole supported the possibility of implementing the sites in areas of the city.

Bettigole explained the city’s multi-pronged approach to the epidemic was multi-faceted, including an information campaign about the effects of the drugs and certain additives, such as fentanyl.

Regarding the administration’s possible support of safe-injection sites, Deputy Mayor Eva Gladstein explained the current litigation over the sites, but said the administration does support the sites, but would not act without a legal pathway.

May 12, 2023: School District Paints Dire Budget Picture

Board of Education President Reginald Streater began the Board’s testimony by walking council through the district’s key issues in their fiscal year 2024 budget, which includes addressing gun violence, adequate and equitable funding, investing in aging facilities, and recruiting and retaining staff.

Streater said 26 students have been killed by gun violence this school year and called for a more coordinated response regarding times of day students are traveling to and from school, providing safe places for students before and after school and on weekends and during the summer, caring safety zones around schools, and expanding mental health services for students and families affected by trauma.

Board Vice President Mallory Fix-Lopez focused her testimony on school district funding, long a challenging issue for the district despite a recent Superior Court decision that ruled the state funding formula was unconstitutional.

Fix-Lopez said the district would need an additional $1.14 billion to “meet the educational needs of students,” which would include an additional $318 million from the city. Fix-Lopez also reiterated the need for capital improvements, which likely exceed a total of $7.8 billion for the district’s 300 buildings. The 215 schools in the district have an average age of 73 years old, with the oldest building over 120 years old.

Each year, the total needed for capital repairs grows by $200 million.

In his testimony, Superintendent Tony Watlington said the district’s fiscal year 2024 budget goals were strengthening school safety, working with parents and the community, and accelerating academic achievement.

Regarding school safety, Watlington said the district planned to focus on physical safety, social and emotional safety, and environmental safety.

With academic achievement always a key concern, Watlington laid out broad goals.

“We intend to accelerate academic achievement by investing in research-based standards-aligned core curriculum and high-impact tutoring with priority on kindergarten readiness,” Watlington said.

While staffing has been a concern throughout the city, Watlington had more positive news regarding district vacancies.

“School principal positions are 99.5% staffed with just one vacancy district-wide,” Watlington said. “At present, teacher positions are 98.5% filled with an average vacancy of one (teacher) per school.”

Watlington addressed district-wide environmental issues, testifying that there are currently 295 district buildings that contain “asbestos-containing materials.” Complicating matters are incomplete and/or inaccurate records regarding asbestos testing in district buildings. Watlington said the district has a new “enhanced inspection procedure” for identifying asbestos remediation.

Regarding specific financial matters, district Chief Financial Officer Michael Herbstman explained that nearly 88% of district revenue comes from city and state funding. When the American Recovery Plan funds are spent down at the end of 2024, that figure jumps to 99%.

Most alarmingly, Herbstman said the district will hit a “fiscal cliff” in 2025, beginning with a deficit of over $215 million in fiscal year 2025 that will grow to over $494 million by 2028. By 2028, the district’s fund balance will be in the red by $875 million.

In order to fund the district at an adequate level and stave off the potential deficits, the district said it would require an additional $4976 per student in funding, which amounts to $318 million in city funds and over $823 million in state funds.

May 19th, 2023: Primary Election Results

The 2023 May Primary Election came and went with little of the suspense promised by the months of jockeying by the candidates. The mayoral race (and perhaps others) were not expected to be known on Tuesday night. Still, as the evening went on, it became clear that Cherelle Parker was building a significant lead over her opponents, and rather than having to wait days for the results, Parker had the race won before midnight.

Much had been made about how the race developed the way it did and how frontrunners like Helen Gym and Rebecca Rhynhart were unable to find a path to victory despite polls showing them in the lead at various times during the campaign. Hall Monitor will only add the following short paragraphs to the voluminous opinions found elsewhere (and everywhere…).

Rebecca Rhynhart and Helen Gym appeared to be competing for a particular portion of the progressive vote. With Rhynhart earning 55,806 votes and Gym 53,644, it’s not difficult to imagine one of these candidates topping Parker’s 79,290 votes if the other had not been in the race. If either Rhynhart of Gym had picked up half of the other’s vote, there could be a different Democratic nominee.

Allan Domb ran a steady, self-funded race. He didn’t pick up any of the endorsements conventional wisdom suggests you need to win a mayoral primary, but he never seemed to hurt himself, either. However, without the built-in infrastructure and support ward and labor endorsements can provide, Domb had to build a campaign operation from scratch, which is an extremely difficult task under the best of circumstances.

Jeff Brown started strong, surprising some observers with the endorsements and goodwill he earned early in the race. But three major issues complicated and ultimately caused his campaign to sputter at the finish. First, he gained too much momentum too early. Campaigns are about timing as much as anything else, and Brown peaked too early, making him a target for his competition. Secondly, the ethics investigation into his campaign’s cooperation with a SuperPAC seemed to become what people began associating with him. Thirdly, Brown could not get out of his own way. A steady stream of gaffes soured public opinion of his candidacy and gave his opponents ample ammunition with which to dispatch him.

Ultimately, Parker ran her race the way she wanted by focusing on crime and other quality-of-life issues while letting her opponents fight amongst themselves. While this was no easy win, Parker’s message and tenacity propelled her through a crowded and challenging field to a historic victory.

The City Council races were also a drier affair than anticipated. At-large, the three incumbents (Isaiah Thomas, Katharine Gilmore Richardson, and Jim Harrity) all won reelection despite each having a poor ballot position, including Thomas pulling the last spot on the at-large ballot. However, party backing and the inertia of incumbency ruled the day.

For the two vacant seats, insurgent challenger Rue Landau, who had earned the backing of almost everyone, easily captured the fourth spot. Rounding out the Democratic field is Nina Ahmad, a past candidate for other offices who finally was able to cross the finish line. While the Democratic City Committee did not endorse Ahmad, she was “recommended” along with Eryn Santamoor and Erika Almiron.

Seven of the ten district council members ran unopposed, but incumbents did face challengers in the seventh, eighth, and ninth districts.

Quetsy Lozada and Anthony Phillips, of the seventh and ninth districts, respectively, easily overcame opponents. However, the eight-district race came down to the wire, with Cindy Bass barely beating her opponent, Seth Anderson-Oberman, by just over 400 votes of over 26,000 cast. The race was expected to be tight for Bass, with the result unknown until late Thursday.

The other big shake-up on Election Day was the ouster of incumbent Register of Wills Tracey Gordon. Challenger John Sabatini, the candidate endorsed by the Democratic City Committee, managed to defeat Gordon by 3500 votes. Incumbent Sheriff Rochelle Bilal managed to fend off a challenge from Michael Untermeyer, and endorsed candidate Christy Brady won the Democratic nomination for Controller over to challengers.

The 2023 Primary was a fascinating look at urban politics against the backdrop of serious systemic issues facing the city. The next mayor and council will have numerous challenges waiting for them when they take office next January.

June 23, 2023: City Council Passes the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget

At its last stated meeting of the 2023 spring session, Philadelphia City Council passed the fiscal year 2024 budget. As we’ve reported, the process of passing the $6.2 billion operating budget and the $4.72 capital budget began publicly in March with Mayor Kenney’s final budget address. Following a month of analysis from council members, hearings began with various city departments. Following the hearings, behind-the-scenes negotiations began to finalize the legislation passed yesterday.

Amongst other aspects of the budget, Mayor Jim Kennedy touted investments in violence prevention.

“This year’s budget includes a historic investment – more than $233 million in anti-violence efforts, expanding prevention programs we know to be effective and bolstering our public safety programs such as Operation Pinpoint, Group Violence Intervention, recruitment for the police department and the Youth Leader Program, which will bring conflict resolution training to high school students,” Kenney said via press release. “Together we will continue to expand ongoing efforts to intervene with individuals at the very highest risk of being involved in gun violence and strengthen coordination to keep these individuals alive.”

City Council highlighted multiple categories of investments, including:

Quality of Life Improvements

Street Sweeping and Illegal Dumping: $9 million
Commercial Corridor Cleaning: $10 million
Cleaning Vacant Lots: $3.89 million
Same Day Pay: $6 million (between CLIP, Mural Arts, and PHS)
Tax Reforms

Tax Reductions: $32.7 million

Resident Wage Tax reduced from 3.79% to 3.75%
Business Income and Receipts Tax Net Income Rate reduced from 5.99% to 5.81%
Budget Stabilization Reserve: $42 million ($107 million total in the Rainy Day Fund)
City and Workforce Recruitment and Retention

Staffing and Retention: $45 million (including $16 million for prisons)
Cameras: $1.4 million
Police Department: $19.6 million+$50 million Capital
District Attorney’s Office: $25 million
Defender Association of Philadelphia: $25 million
Public Transit

SEPTA $140.6 million (including $31 million in free transit for those near or at the poverty level)

Community College of Philadelphia: $51 million+$15 million in capital investments
School District of Philadelphia: $282 million
However, not all members were comfortable with the tax cuts passed in the new budget. Councilmember Kendra Brooks said the cuts would amount to $107 million in lost revenue over the next five years, which will eventually lead to service cuts.

“I would much rather see the money invested in city services that helps small businesses and working families thrive,” Brooks said. “Services like street and streetlight repairs, trash collections, and cleaning and greening of vacant lots.”

Regarding quality of life issues, Councilmember Gauthier likened the city’s efforts to“like putting a band-aid on a broken bone.”

Explaining voting against the final budget bill, Gauthier said the budget is a moral document, and voting for it would be sending a message to residents that city council values the bottom line of corporations and affluent residents (more than struggling Philadelphians).

“Council’s latest tax cuts save the median resident a mere $21 annually,” Gauthier said. “That means Philadelphians earning over $53,000 annually won’t even save enough for a half a tank of gas.”

Gauthier also said businesses with an income of over $1 million will receive $1800 back due to the cuts. Most neighborhood businesses earn nowhere near this amount.

Councilmember Isaiah Thomas took exception to his colleagues concerns, saying he believed it was disingenuous to give the public the perception that council had to choose between tax cuts and city services.

“Last year, we had a $700 million surplus,” Thomas said. “And for those who don’t understand economics, when you’re operating in the midst of a surplus, if you decide to offer any type of tax cuts, we’re not cutting services or (avoiding) hiring people.”

Thomas said the tax cuts were minor and meant to be gradual while occurring over a five or 10 year timeline.

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