‘Not even close to out of the woods’: Philly Council faces big challenges as they return to work

Philadelphia City Council is starting up its weekly meetings with tough budget negotiations ahead and COVID-19 keeping them virtual.

A closeup of Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Council resumes its weekly meetings after a winter break Thursday morning and there is plenty to do as the legislative body remains virtual to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Council President Darrell Clarke said they are going to continue their virtual meetings for now with no immediate plan to return to their legislative chambers at City Hall.

“Every time we think that we might be able to change our ability to operate in person, be it staffing, be it hearings, all the other activities we get pushed back,” Clarke said, noting that council staffers are keeping a close eye on transmission rates and tracking risks.

It’s not only council operations that have been shaken by the virus. Much of the spring session will focus on determining the city’s next budget, which will be approved sometime in June, at the end of the session. With city coffers depleted by reductions in tourism, sales tax and wage tax revenue, the math will be tricky this year, he said.

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“We’re a little better than we were last year, but we’re not even close to being out of the woods yet,” Clarke said.

The council president said he expects to have to adjust service levels to reflect the drop in tax revenue.

After a lively debate about tax cuts last year, a council working group is compiling a report on tax reform possibilities that Clarke hopes will be able to shape the next budget,

The council president said the legislative body’s work over the next few months will depend on how COVID-19 ebbs and flows.

“We are required to provide levels of services at the level that people are comfortable with and we’re going to do what we have to do. But again, a significant amount is going to be driven by the virus and its continued ongoing impact on the city, the state, and the country,” Clarke said.

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Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said there’s another factor that will come into play more in the upcoming year, and that’s the number of members of the city’s legislative body that could be waiting to run for mayor. She is among those rumored to be considering a run.

“This is when we’re supposed to show the best of our work, the best of our capacity, obviously, and being consistent with our track record in our public service,” she said. “So, I would think that you’re going to get more thoughtful, more engaged policy, and an in-depth discussion about the future of the city of Philadelphia. This is not about 2023. This is really about 2030.”

Political insiders believe there could be as many as five members among the 17 on council who are considering a run for the city’s top job. The city has a resign-to-run policy, which means if they announced they were a candidate they would have to quit their job, so no one is going to make their intentions known at this point, although many are quietly talking to potential supporters to decide if they will run for mayor in 2023.

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