Critiquing Kenney: Could the mayor’s signature soda tax sink his re-election bid?

Philadelphia’s soda tax — which raises money to fund pre-K, community schools, improving parks, and other initiatives — has many critics and some defenders

Hadeill Yousif, co-owner of South Style Pizza and Deli in Cobbs Creek, Philadelphia, P.A. (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY)

Hadeill Yousif, co-owner of South Style Pizza and Deli in Cobbs Creek, Philadelphia, P.A. (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY)

To get a sense of how voters are feeling about Jim Kenney’s four years as mayor, we sent reporters to several neighborhoods, asking residents what’s changed, what hasn’t and how that affects their vote for mayor.

Throwing a party is a lot more expensive in Philadelphia, thanks to Mayor Jim Kenney, said Rita Grant of Cobbs Creek.

Because of Kenney’s 1.5 cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages, the 24-year-old said she had to make a recent barbecue BYOB.

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“I couldn’t afford to supply the sodas,” she said laughing.

Grant’s anecdote reflects a big issue many Philadelphians have with Kenney as he seeks re-election this year. The soda tax — which raises money to fund pre-K, community schools, improving parks, and other initiatives — has many critics and some defenders.

Brittany McCray, a mother of two, said she was able to enroll her child in pre-K at no charge because of revenue from the tax.

“All in all, if the money really does go to parks and recreations and making our city better especially for the youth, I think he did a good job,” said McCray, whose daughter was one of 4,000 children enrolled in pre-K so far.

Brittany McCray, 26, of Cobbs Creek in Philadelphia, P.A. McCray has lived in Cobbs Creek for most of her life. (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY)

The mayor is doing a good job, she said, but she is uncertain about voting for him again. She has been more focused on the City Council race, but is “trying to weigh the pros and the cons of voting” for Kenney.

All over Philadelphia, the tax is a hot topic when people talk about Kenney’s four years in office. A recent Inquirer poll found that 62% of those questioned call it a failure.

“People are really kind of going at the mayor’s throat about the soda tax thing,” said Lawanda Horton, who leads Mission Incorporated, a nonprofit in Germantown.

“But they have to understand on the other side of that are some really great things for our community that our communities need — that I think our community won’t have if we don’t have that kind of money and funding.”

Hadeil Yousif, co-owner of a pizza and deli shop in Cobbs Creek, said the tax is bad for business. Soda sales are slow due to the price markup, which adds about $1 to the price of a 2-liter bottle, she said. So Yousif often resorts to reducing the price, taking a loss to clear shelf space.

“I’m losing money, you know,” she said.

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Research shows the trend is responsible for more than half of the 46% decrease in sales of sweetened beverages in the city.”

South Style Pizza and Deli in Cobbs Creek, Philadelphia, P.A. offers a free 2 liter with every order over 35 dollars, which was raised from 20 dollars before the soda tax took effect. (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY)

Jackie Damon, a friend of Grant who lives in Lansdowne, Delaware County, said she sees shoppers looking for a cheaper high fructose fix the grocery stores where she shops.

And if they went that far outside the city for soda, she said, why not buy the rest of their groceries while they’re at it?

“If they decide to buy soda in the Giant, or whatever, instead of just buying soda, they will say to themselves, ‘Well, let me just go ahead and purchase my grocery list for the week or month’ whatever it may be.”

Jeff Brown owner of the now-defunct Brown’s ShopRite in West Philadelphia on Haverford Avenue blames the tax for forcing him to close his supermarket. The store was also close to the suburban border so customers shopped elsewhere to avoid the tax. He says sales tanked by $7 million between 2016, before the tax went into effect, and 2018.

Damon and others who were iffy about the tax say they want more transparency about how the money raised from the tax is being used.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart released data that showed about 74 percent of the $137 million raised by the tax is in the general fund, and about 23 percent went to pre-K. The report compiled three years worth of information.

Marcus Heppinstall, a city sanitation worker from Germantown, said he supports Kenney, but he criticized the way the soda tax revenue is handled.

“If you’ve got a beverage tax designed to do preschool and education and the parks and recreation,” he said, “then why is more than 75 percent of the money collected in the general fund. Why is it not earmarked and purposely put to where you say it’s supposed to go?”

In response to the controller’s report and such criticism, the Kenney administration said it did not ramp up spending with revenue from the levy while legal challenges were still pending. Officials hesitated to start projects only to halt them because of a loss in court. Now, officials said,  spending will proceed more quickly on pre-K, libraries, recreation centers and parks.

More transparency sought

Penny Johnson, who said she approved of the job Kenney is doing, said she would like to see this type of audit on the soda tax done more often.

“I would rather see, maybe once a year, how much was put into it,” she said. “How many kids it was used for and for what. If they could do it like that then, yeah, no problem.”

Greg Paulmier is a lifelong Germantown resident, former ward leader and perennial City Council candidate. He said he wouldn’t have a problem with the soda tax if the city was wisely spending the money it already had.

Greg Paulmier, in his home in Germantown, on April 1, 2019. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

“If people’s lives were improving,” said Paulmier, “if the quality of life was improving in ZIP codes that historically have not gotten the city services, the jobs, and the commerce, and the rec centers that they need, then I would say fine.

“You want to improve it even greater, so be it. But we haven’t seen an improvement. Matter of fact, we’ve seen things get worse in the area,” he said. “Poverty and the high incarceration rates — they’re the signs that things are getting worse.”

Even as Kenney draws criticism over the tax, it’s not clear how much that will hurt his re-election bid. Few of the residents interviewed who were upset over the tax had decided to vote against Kenney.

As for Grant, the Cobbs Creek woman who made her barbecue BYOB because of the cost of soda, will she vote for Kenney?

“I don’t know,” she said. “Don’t ask me that. Let me drink a soda first.”

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