City Council cites ‘tough realities’ ahead at Kroc Center budget hearing

A crowd of nearly 100 Northwest Philadelphia residents got the rare chance to address members of Philadelphia City Council in their own neighborhood on Wednesday night. 

The hearing, co-hosted by 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass and 4th District Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., was held at the Salvation Army Kroc Center on Wissahickon Avenue and aimed to address residents’ concerns and questions about the upcoming 2013 budget process. 

“I will learn from you; good ideas don’t always come from the second floor of City Hall,” said Jones as the meeting opened, “We’re ready to listen.”

Council members warned the crowd that budget cuts and “tough realities” were on the horizon. “But we’re going to try to make a dollar out of 50 cents every way we can,” added Jones.

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Addressing communication concerns 

After two hours of testimony, neighborhood issues ranged from more funding for youth empowerment programs, to Parks and Recreation concerns, and even the call for a “land bank” as a strategy to deal with the city’s vacant land problem. But one suggestion called for better communication between residents and City Hall.

Andrew Bantly, president of the Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association, said that it was great to see the council, as a whole, near his neighborhood. 

“Many of us don’t have the opportunity to talk to everyone at the same time,” said Bantly, who isn’t able to regularly attend council’s morning sessions. He expressed his interest in the city considering the thought of sending more funding to Licences and Inspections, and bolstering the city’s 311 system. He added that there’s too much of a disconnect between residents and the city. 

“When you report something to 311 you get a message that the task has been completed but you’re not quite sure exactly what that means, then, when you ask for specific information, you’re not given an explanation,” he added.

As a result, he says angry residents blame city services when, in fact, it might just be a communication problem.

Requesting funds for parks and schools 

Several residents, including members of Friends organizations for Cloverly Park and Vernon Park in Germantown urged council to recognize how cleaned up parks raise property values and, eventually, help build neighborhoods.

Council responded by saying they will not be able to restore the $8 million in funding promised by Mayor Michael Nutter when he was elected in 2008, but they understand how important the park system maintenance is for city residents, and are seeking alternative funding sources.

In 2008 Nutter passed a “parking tax” that would help fund city parks but advocates argue the money hasn’t been allocated properly.

Meanwhile Sheila Simmons, a member of Parent Power, a group organized to create partnerships between the city and school district parents, urged council for matching fund programs that would encourage parent participation.

“We know that in our city, where poverty is high and family stability is often too low, schools cannot do it all, so I call on you for help,” she said, citing a recent shift in East Falls where parents have expressed interest in sending their children to Mifflin Elementary after St. Bridget closes at the end of this year. 

But Council said there’s not much money to crunch. According to the Mayor’s budget released in early March, the School District of Philadelphia is facing a $26 million gap to close by the end of this fiscal year and he expects a deficit of up to $400 million by next June. Despite many issues, direct solutions to resident questions were limited as Council continues to decide on top priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.

Council members will continue their community budget hearings across the city on May 1 at the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center, 2646 Kensington Ave., from 6 to 8 p.m.

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