Where do Philly mayoral candidates stand on business and economic development?

Those vying to become Philadelphia’s 100th mayor weigh in on how to improve public safety, cut red tape, lower taxes, and more to spur economic growth.

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The Philly skyline along the Schuylkill River.

Shown is the skyline in Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

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This story is a part of the Every Voice, Every Vote series.

The priorities of the next mayor of Philadelphia — who could serve until 2032 if reelected — will affect economic development across the city.

Public safety may not be traditionally tied to economic development discussions, but it’s something that some small business owners across the city say they want the next mayor to prioritize. All candidates running for mayor say they will prioritize crime reduction across the city with slightly different plans.

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The city of Philadelphia is both a major public sector employer with more than 22,000 workers but also levies taxes on hundreds of thousands of businesses and their employees. Businesses rely on the city for permitting, licenses, and incentives to promote economic development.

Past mayors have pushed to cut business and city wage taxes as one strategy to boost the economy, tax reform and cutting red tape. It appears those issues are top of mind for mayoral candidates this year.

Candidates also shared workforce development and affordable housing plans for Philadelphia.

Mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker did not offer any time to interview her for this story.

On public safety

An audience watches mayoral candidates on a stage at a forum.
Candidates for mayor of Philadelphia participated in a forum focused on gun violence hosted by WHYY. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

All of the mayoral candidates interviewed suggested that there needs to be more police on foot patrols in neighborhoods, especially along commercial corridors where dedicated officers can meet regularly with business owners. In general, candidates supported more security cameras and cracking down on retail theft, especially for goods under $500 in value.

Beyond that, Rebecca Rhynhart said it’s about collaboration between the police, the Mayor’s Office, and the district attorney to executive a public safety plan.

“I would activate the city’s emergency operation center, which allows the mayor to coordinate not just the Police Department response, but the Streets Department to fix street lighting in high crime areas and the other departments as well, to be working together,” Rhynhart said. “I would call the DA and the police commissioner together into the same room to get on the same page to tackle illegal guns, because right now the criminal justice stakeholders are not on the same page with that.”

Allan Domb said that “you’ve got to get public safety under control,” and wants to stand up a public safety cabinet which would include the city police commissioner, the DEA, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Domb said he would declare a public health emergency in Kensington on his first day in office.

“You’ve got to get Kensington under control because the issues go into every other section of the city,” he said.

Helen Gym proposed expanding a pilot where mental health counselors respond to individuals in crisis instead of police.

“To de-escalate situations, get people into help that they need, my mission is to move out of the pilot phase and get them going citywide,” Gym said. “Diverting a number of calls to the mental health crisis units and allow police officers to focus on the crimes that Philadelphians want them to handle.”

Gym also pitched promoting more detectives because in Philadelphia, “we really need to solve crimes. Too many people get away with it.”

Likewise, Jeff Brown wants to expand a homeless outreach program used by the convention center in Center City to deter crime and expand it citywide.

“They used homeless outreach and met with each individual and worked out a path to supportive housing and treatment,” Brown said. “I think the same needs to be done on the business corridors. It just cannot be acceptable for someone to panhandle outside of someone’s business.”

James DeLeon proposed a “social media” ban to reduce the likelihood of internet beefs playing out in real life and supports the existing curfew for teens. Law enforcement should closely monitor social media accounts of bad actors.

“We want to give them anger management, [mental health] counseling, job counseling, employment opportunities and educational opportunities,” De Leon said.

Lone Republican David Oh said he would replace the police commissioner and seek to improve morale across the Police Department.

“It’s hard to hire people when people are leaving,” Oh said. “I think it is wrong to send the message to people that you can come to Philadelphia and do all kinds of crimes. I think that’s the city’s fault. Retail theft is a big problem.”

Cherelle Parker has said in public forums and mayoral debates that her public safety plan is about more community policing, which would include hiring more police officers but also providing financial support for grassroots anti-violence organizations. She also supports police being able to stop individuals when they have suspicion that a crime may occur.

“I am unapologetic about being able to use every legal tool to make our public safety and health our number one priority,” she said. “We can have zero tolerance for any misuse or abuse of authority for law enforcement while embracing community policing.”

Amen Brown said that he would support involuntary removal of individuals panhandling in front of businesses if voluntary measures do not dissuade them.

“We are not going to allow individuals to set up shop and just solicit or even just sleep in front of the businesses,” Brown said.

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On tax reform

All candidates said they would support tax reform but vary in their strategies to achieve it. Some want to study the topic first with yet another tax commission while others aim to restructure the tax system to support small business. Other candidates are worried about cutting city wage taxes and business taxes too swiftly, which they say could force the city to trim back services.

“I will continue the reductions in the wage tax and do believe that we need to lower the business income and receipts tax,” Rhynhart said. “We need changes in that tax structure in order to grow small business, grow entrepreneurship in Philadelphia. So it is a priority for me.”

Domb said he was tired of businesses being double taxed, that is, taxed on both net income and gross receipts. He promised to reduce the business income taxes to zero.

“We have the highest taxes for businesses [among major cities],” he said.

Gym suggested that it’s too soon to commit to cutting any specific taxes but instead proposed a new commission to review all city taxes.

“I would establish a new commission on tax equity and growth, a comprehensive review of existing taxes, and make significant recommendations to streamline our taxes, propose and create new subsidies and incentives in our priority areas,” Gym said. “I am much more interested in easing the number of taxes that small businesses are subjected to, expanding exemptions, establishing opportunity and equity funds, which can specifically target access to capital for Black and brown and diverse businesses.”

Several office buildings in Philly.
Center City, Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Jeff Brown said that he’s interested in lowering the business tax and employee wage tax but that it’s more important to get individuals who are underemployed into the workforce and grow the tax base.

“The real tax relief comes from getting people back on their feet and working in good paying jobs,” he said. “And so the actual path to becoming more competitive in our tax structure is to help people get good jobs.”

Beyond that, Jeff Brown said he’d like to close legal loopholes where major corporations significantly reduce their city tax burden.

DeLeon said that the Philadelphia tax system is broken.

“The city wage tax has long been considered a very strong factor in driving businesses and residents away from the city,” he said.

DeLeon said he wants to change the state’s uniformity clause so the city can impose a higher tax rate on commercial properties than is levied on residential homes.

“And use that tax to offset the potential revenue loss through lowering wage, business income and receipts taxes,” he said.

Oh said he’d support a phased-in approach to tax cuts because inflation has meant that even to keep existing city services, the city must spend more.

“We can’t do everything at once,” he said. “The mayor can’t simply cut taxes either, that is up to the council.”

“If we want to see a more aggressive reduction in wage and BIRT and other business taxes, we have to increase the amount of property taxes and real estate taxes that we can recoup,” Parker told the Philadelphia Business Journal in April. “You can’t do that if you’re not increasing the number of homeowners in the city of Philadelphia.”

Amen Brown said it’s about providing more resources to small business owners.

“We’re going to make sure we have a system in place to help small businesses drive up traffic, help them with their marketing and managing and branding,” he said. “These are things that I didn’t have when I started out as a small business owner.”

On bureaucracy

All candidates said that the city’s systems were antiquated and difficult to navigate, and there’s a need to streamline how residents and businesses interact with the city. Some candidates want to stand up new offices citywide so individuals don’t have to trek downtown, while others want to leverage technology and build application trackers.

Rhynhart wants to oversee an office for small business.

“I plan to have a senior official in the Mayor’s Office responsible for being the contact, for having a small unit, an office being the point of contact for businesses to navigate their issues while we are working on fixing the bigger issues between the departments which are causing this slow service level, lack of responsiveness to businesses to deal with their issues,” she said.

The north facade of Philadelphia City Hall.
Philadelphia City Hall, north facade. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Domb proposed a dashboard so businesses can see in real-time the status of applications with the city. He also said there should be standard time frames for how long a process should take.

“We should streamline all the services of the city and tie in timeframes. You need a zoning change? It’s 90 days,” he said. “Work backwards with the timeframe and then figure out how we can make it more efficient. You can’t have people with small entrepreneurs waiting on the city for six months to a year. You’ll kill their business.”

Gym said she would invest more budget in the city’s commerce department and bring the department services back in-house rather than subcontracting the work out.

“The kind of the things that many of the businesses are dealing with right now cannot be managed by an external actor,” Gym said. “You’ve got to actually have someone in City Hall coordinating those conversations, addressing cleanliness around corridors and directly engaging on things like abandoned property.”

Jeff Brown said the city needs a “massive simplification” of its various processes.

“It would help every business, especially small businesses,” he said. “I want to have a cabinet level position for process improvement, and technology.”

Oh said that the city has been micromanaging business activity and there’s fear about streamlining services.

“There’s this idea that if we keep things very discombobulated everybody keeps their jobs and if you streamline it with technology people are going to lose their jobs,” he said. “They’re not, they’re going to do a better job.”

Parker said she’s focused on tackling trash, especially along commercial corridors.

She’d like to continue the PHL Taking Care of Business program that hires local residents to clean the streets and wants to scale the program citywide.

Amen Brown said streamlining city services means offering businesses one place to go.

“Once someone applies or gets a business license, we’re going to give you all the next steps that you need to take and give you direct access so you can do everything at one stop shop,” he said.

On workforce development

Plans pitched by the candidates to improve workforce development for especially individuals under the age of 25 years old who are underemployed spanned from high school internships to vocational training and city-led matchmaking programs.

Rhynhart wants to focus on training for growing industries such as life sciences, which has some jobs that don’t require a four year college degree.

“We need to make sure as a city that we are really expanding workforce programs that have been shown to work and creating these type of pathway programs…we have a growing life sciences industry in Philadelphia,” she said. “Many of them require an associate’s degree.”

Domb suggested offering high school students four days of school and a work-study program on the fifth day.

Gym said she wants to re-engage with thousands of students who have dropped out of high school.

“We need an all out re-engagement strategy around our young people, which not only includes our school doing outreach on young people who are disengaged from school, but is focused really directly on subsidized jobs programs for youth and particular teenagers to get them, you know, into productive activity,” she said.

Jeff Brown suggested the training needs to be in close collaboration with employers and recommended matching a social worker with individuals who may benefit from that.

“All the training should be specific training for employers that have openings and the training should be customized to the employer’s requirements. That partnership needs to exist,” he said. “Any kind of criteria, any kind of certifications that the employer needs, they should get as part of the workforce training. A lot of people that have lived in poverty for a long time have other challenges, and all of this training should come with a caseworker to navigate social challenges.”

DeLeon said he wants to see more coordination between the education system and economic development programs.

“We have to improve the coordination of education, workforce development, and economic development programs to ensure that these students are given access to apprenticeships and internships aimed at preparing them to enter the workforce as a trained asset to the employer,” he said.

Parker said that there’s opportunity right now in life sciences and it’s important to make sure “every industry that is thriving in our city is training our children and quite frankly our adults who are unemployed and underemployed to fill those roles so they can earn a living wage.”

She also wants to promote partnerships between high school students and the building trades unions to apprentice youth so they can train to build the next swath of affordable housing across the city.

Amen Brown said he wants to include young people at the table when decisions about workforce development are made at the city level.

“Our young people are going to be a part of the conversation,” he said. “We’re talking about incentives for companies who hire young people that are still in high school to give them the actual experience.”

This story is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. Learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters here.

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