Education, labor, and alleviating poverty: A look at Kenney’s 2020 budget proposal

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney addresses the crowd at The Met after he was sworn in to his second term as mayor. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney addresses the crowd at The Met after he was sworn in to his second term as mayor. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated 3 p.m.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney unveiled today the first budget proposal of his second, and last, term in office.

The mayor’s plan doesn’t call for any new tax increases, but it does call for almost $170 million more spending than last year.

In a speech before a council chamber packed with policymakers, Mayor Kenney contrasted the City Council’s ability to work together with national political paralysis.

“I have said this several times over the last four years, and it remains just as true today: With the dysfunction of governance at the national level, it is clear that cities large and small must lead,” Kenney said.

“We will not be stopped by polemics or partisanship. We will not be stopped by thinly disguised racist rhetoric. We will not be stopped by fake news or the lies of those who claim to be leaders,” Kenney said, to swelling applause. “No matter where the United States is headed, we here in Philadelphia will not be stopped.”

Kenney’s speech outlined his administration’s priorities for the year ahead, including large new outlays on education and anti-poverty programs. But much of the public comment, and the most vehement reactions, were dominated by opponents and supporters of the supervised injection site that the nonprofit Safehouse wants to open.

“This is democracy not dictatorship,” said Shannon Farrell, president of the Harrowgate Civic Association, condemning the Safehouse effort to put a supervised injection site at Constitution Health Plaza in South Philly.  “You know it’s not going to be popular, so you are trying to force it down everyone’s throat.”

But Kenney maintained his support for the policy proposal in his speech, and promised that his administration — which is not technically responsible for the rollout — would take a greater role in engaging the community.

“I understand that some of you disagree with the policy, and have concerns with how and when community members are consulted,” Kenney said. “With all that said, I want to be very clear that I refuse to look another parent in the face and tell them I didn’t do everything I could to try and keep their child alive long enough to survive their disease.”

But much of Kenney’s speech focused on how his administration’s priorities are reflected in his budget proposal. He opened by focusing on public safety and public education, linking the two and arguing that spending more on schools would reduce crime and prevent incarceration in the long term.

That priority is reflected in the budget. On the operating side, which covers personnel and programs, the largest increase will be in education spending, including an additional $45 million for the Philadelphia School District from the city’s general fund.

“While the district remains stable this fiscal year, its future financial condition is tenuous,” Kenney said.  “I refuse to return to days of draconian cuts and wondering whether schools will open on time. It is our generation who must have the political courage to act.”

Kenney’s budget also proposes $20 million in new spending to the city’s Labor Reserve, because all municipal union contracts expire on June 30 and the city anticipates labor costs will rise as a result. Although this did not get as much attention as some other proposals, it’s the single largest increase in new spending.

The Kenney administration also wants to earmark $25 million for anti-poverty programs, which will include a variety of local rental assistance vouchers and a pilot cash subsidy program akin to the “Philadelphia Basic Income” proposal that City Council floated Tuesday.

“We will test innovative and cost-effective practices to housing instability and poverty alleviation, including through a cash transfer pilot program,” Kenney said.

This pot of money for anti-poverty programs will also go to the Octavius Catto Scholarship, which would help Community College of Philadelphia students with tuition, transportation, and food costs.

“CCP is the predominant gateway to greater economic mobility for graduates of Philadelphia public schools,” Kenney said.  “We know that tuition is not the only significant barrier to graduation. In fact, more than half of the respondents to a recent Temple University study indicated they were housing- and food-insecure.”

As Kenney promised in his second inauguration speech, his administration wants to increase funding for street sweeping (by $10.5 million)  in an effort to bring the basic service to all Philadelphia neighborhoods. This time, he noted that sweeping will be expanded, but said it is not yet clear where the services will begin this year.

“Cleaning will be expanded to new neighborhoods and, in some areas, cars will be required to move during sweeping operations,” Kenney said.

A $10.2 million bump will be given to the City Commissioners for the year, to help them with costs associated with the 2020 presidential election, while $8 million in new spending will go to anti-violence programs, $5.7 million to the Police Department’s “Operation Pinpoint,”  and $3.3 million on efforts to alleviate the city’s opioid crisis.

On the capital budget side, which covers spending on infrastructure and facilities, the largest expenditure by far will be $32.6 million for the street paving program in the next fiscal year. The administration allocated $2 million to Vision Zero projects, a suite of pedestrian and street safety policies that have not met expectations. A further $2.5 million will be spent to hire an Americans With Disabilities Act consultant to help the city figure out how to make sidewalks more navigable.

Philadelphia is currently being sued by disability rights activists, who argue that local leaders have long neglected their responsibilities under the 1990 civil rights law. Many other cities have been sued in a similar fashion, and most have settled by agreeing to spend more of the money they allocate to street paving to sidewalk needs.

And Kenney promised that he would bring 40 miles of protected bike lanes to the city by the end of his time in office, a promise he originally made in 2015 but on which he made little progress  in his first term.

The Philadelphia Police Department is getting $23 million for new facilities and $3 million to repair existing buildings, while the Fire Department gets $5 million for repairs to existing sites and $3 million for new vehicles. The Streets Department will get $2 million for new vehicles to help cover the growing street-sweeping program. And $22.5 million will be spent bolstering the Office of Innovation and Technology applications that are meant to smooth the public’s interactions with local government.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was not discussed in the mayor’s budget speech, though Councilmember Allan Domb introduced a resolution calling for hearings on how the city is preparing.

In a press briefing on Wednesday, Kenney administration officials said they are closely monitoring the coronavirus’ impact on the economy. They do not yet see reason to change the city’s budgetary plans, although they noted the city’s efforts last autumn to begin preparing for a recession .

“We have not changed our asset allocation as a result [of the coronavirus] because no one knows how long this will or won’t last,” said Rob DuBow, the city’s director of finance. “We’re in constant contact with our outside advisers, and they don’t think that we should really change where we have our allocations.”

The administration said that spending is increasing by 2.3% this year, over the $5.1 billion it is estimated the city spent last year. That’s a 4.2% increase over the $5 billion budget approved by City Council last year, which grew inflated with additional spending beyond what was laid out at this time last year.

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