Can a City Council budget hearing be called such if only six members attend? Last night was Northeast Philadelphia’s turn in a series of meetings Council is holding to take public testimony about the Fiscal Year 2013 budget.
President Darrell Clarke led the hearing and was joined by a mostly silent but present 1st District Councilman Mark Squilla, 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, 7th District Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, 9th District Councilwoman Marian Tasco and Councilman-at-large Bill Greenlee.
Though Clarke apologized for other members’ tardiness as he got the meeting started more than 30 minutes late, the other 11 council members never arrived. Absent were 3rd District Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, 4th District Councilman Curtis Jone Jr., 6th District Councilman Bobby Henon, 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass, 10th District Councilman Brian O’Neill and at-large members David Oh, Denny O’Brien, Wilson Goode Jr., Blondell Reynolds Brown, Jim Kenney and Bill Green.
Quality of Life
With the exception of a few key issues, the hearing resembled a community civic association meeting, and was even held in St. William’s parish hall – the monthly meeting spot for the Lawncrest Community Association and 2nd District PSA1.
Of the 20-plus people who took the microphone to delivery testimony, most focused on quality of life issues. Specifically, speakers wanted better access to the Department of Licenses & Inspections and 3-1-1 service after hours and on weekends – when problems occur most frequently.
Phil Grutzmacher, the LCA’s zoning officer, called L&I enforcement “critical,” and told Council it plays a crucial role in helping civic associations monitor zoning and property issues.
His statements were echoed by the Greater Bustleton Civic League’s Myles Gordon and Summerdale Civic Association President Phyllis Swing.
But three main issues kept popping up amid the quality of life complaints.
Three people used their time at the mic to call on Council to restore $8 million to the Department of Parks and Recreation. A parking tax increase passed in 2008 was meant to funnel money to the city’s parks. Instead the proposed budget – more than $20 million lower than planned, according to the 2008 figure – doesn’t include an increase from those allocated funds.
“It’s time for City Council and the mayor to honor the promise,” Business Association of West Park member Cassandra Hayes told Council. Her statement was echoed by Philadelphia Parks Alliance board member Walter Marlin and Friends of Pennypack Park member Cynthia Masiejcqyk.
Whiles parks advocates demanded funding, opponents of AVI had a different ask of Council: patience and transparency. Many spoke out against the Actual Value Initiative, if not for its purpose to adjust homeowners’ property taxes then for the confusion around exactly how those values will be determined and where the money will go.
Self-described budget bulldog, former City Controller candidate and Castor Gardens native Brett Mandel asked Council to “wait and see what the value of our homes are” before enacting AVI, and challenged members to first go after tax delinquents before potentially putting more taxes on homeowners.
James Jones delivered one of the most compelling pieces of testimony of the night. One of the last to take the mic, Jones described himself as School District of Philadelphia alum, college graduate and Philadelphia homeowner. Unlike many others who spoke about AVI, Jones said he supports the initiative if he can see the accountability. Though adjusting property taxes promises more money for the struggling school district, Jones said a chunk of money isn’t the solution.
But the most heartfelt testimony Tuesday night came from the wives of two Philadelphia firefighters. They were there to protest the city’s rolling brownouts, the process of closing different fire stations on different days of the week to save money. Joined by women holding signs opposing the brownouts, Theresa Gavin and Lisa Hogan implored Council to end the brownouts.
“I expect and plead that the city does everything in its power to bring [my husband] home everyday,” Gavin tearfully told Council. Hogan later delivered a similar speech asking Council to recognize the limitations of a smoke detector, citing statements by Mayor Michael Nutter last month that residents keep a working smoke detector in the house to prevent fire deaths.
More than two hours after the scheduled start time and 90 minutes after the hearing got underway, what was left of the crowd went home. The folding chairs once occupied by the approximately 150 people who attended screeched and skidded as residents left to the sound of Clarke thanking them for the “truly enjoyable” evening.