Council and Mayor battle over reserve fund, soda tax

    Another skirmish is over in the battle for a budget in Philadelphia. Even though a budget has been approved, it wasn’t what the mayor was looking for.

    Another skirmish is over in the battle for a budget in Philadelphia. Even though a budget has been approved, it wasn’t what the mayor was looking for. That dispute has sparked service cuts.

    City Council members huddled behind closed doors Thursday morning confronted by a letter from Mayor Michael Nutter.

    It was Sophie’s Choice, raise property taxes by 12.2 percent, pass a soda tax, or accept budget cuts.

    Council members went for door number three, but expected Mayor Michael Nutter to back down.

    Councilman Frank DiCicco says the budget they passed is one that would handle the city’s spending for the fiscal year beginning July 1st.

    “We just have a disagreement on what we think,” says DiCicco. The current budget does have a fund balance of about $42 million. We think that, although that’s not the $200 [million] most people think we should have, in these difficult times we think we did responsible budget.”

    A few hours after council passed the budget, Mayor Nutter announced $20 million in cuts, including not replacing 200 retiring police officers and 40 firefighters. The plan also closes all library branches one more day a week–except the central library.

    The mayor says the reductions are necessary to keep the city from running out of money to pay bills.

    “At some point in time you do start to impact services,” says Nutter. “It’s not an endless series of cuts and cuts and cuts with no impact whatsoever. These cuts will have an impact, and they are across easily about a dozen different departments.”

    Budget Director Steve Agostini says many of the job reductions won’t require layoffs.

    “There are a number of them that are vacant,” says Agostini. “There are some, like in the instance of the police classes, where we would anticipate that we would be using them to fill vacancies were we to continue with the classes. With respect to the library, there are a number of those that we think are vacant, but we will have to take a count over the next 30 to 45 days as we begin to implement this.”

    A year ago, there was a major uproar when similar library cuts were proposed by the mayor. Amy Dougherty is head of Friends of the Free Library. She thinks Nutter is trying to force council to reconsider the soda tax.

    “It would be terrible,” says Dougherty, “but, to be honest with you, there were so many unscheduled closures last year because there weren’t enough guards that most libraries were only open four days a week.  Having said that I think it would be devastating because people go to libraries to look for jobs, to look for jobs, and to look for jobs.”

    Councilman Jim Kenney characterized the cuts by the mayor as punishment because administration officials testified that they had money to hire more people with the money from the soda tax.

    “So now for them to turn around and say he needs to lay off 340 people to me seems a bit

    punitive,” said Kenney, “because he’s not getting his way on sugar.”

    Councilman Bill Green went even further, saying the administration is refusing to apply savings found in the prison system to the budget that would make the cuts unnecessary.

    “I find these cuts disappointing, cynical and really retribution for council not passing a sugary-sweetened beverage tax,” said Green.

    The soda tax is not officially dead: Council just delayed acting on the bill and indefinitely postponed a hearing that would have moved it out of committee to the full Council for approval or disapproval.

    Council President Anna Verna said this is about the soda tax’s fate.

    “The mayor did not have nine votes,” said Verna, “whether he’s able to get nine votes in the next week or so that remains to be seen if that be the case, then we would certainly list it for a public hearing.”

    Councilman Frank DiCicco was more emphatic.

    “I don’t even think it’s on life support at this time,” said DiCicco. “I think it’s officially dead”

    But Amy Dougherty of the Friends of the Free Library thinks this is a ploy by the mayor.

    “I think that really they are still negotiating and this is kind of a bargaining chip,” says Dougherty. “I don’t think that Mayor Nutter or City Council want to cut library services.”

    The mayor also has to deal with three unions that don’t have contracts, including the firefighters.  That union and the city are in the midst of an arbitration process. The blue and white collar city workers have been working without a contract for almost a year.

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