Protesters stage mayor’s office sit-in to oppose Philly business tax cuts

Sam Rise holds a sign that says,

Sam Rise joined a group of protesters from Reclaim Philly and the Sunrise Movement in an attempt to talk directly to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney about the needs of the city’s residents outside his office in City Hall on June 8, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia residents staged a sit-in within Mayor Jim Kenney’s office to protest proposed cuts to the city’s business and parking taxes.

“It is negligent. It is reckless … to be pushing for tax cuts to major corporations, nonprofits, developers who should be giving back what they have been extracting from our communities,” said A’Brianna Morgan, an activist with Reclaim, a progressive advocacy group. “We’re left out here to dry by elected officials.”

In addition to expressing opposition to the tax cuts, the activist groups also voiced support for plans to pump more funding to anti-violence programs and other social programs. But organizers with Reclaim and the Sunrise Movement timed the Tuesday afternoon protest to coincide with a City Council Committee of the Whole vote to advance several proposals to trim the city’s tax rates.

One proposal, from Councilmember Cherelle Parker, would cut city parking lot taxes by a third; another from Allan Domb seeks reductions to the city’s Business Income and Receipts Tax. Finally, legislation underpinning Kenney’s proposed $5.2 billion budget for the next fiscal year would resume previously planned BIRT reductions.

All have been pitched as ways to kick-start the city’s economy post-pandemic, after remote work and lockdown restrictions hammered the city’s wage and sales tax haul. But to activists who filed into Kenney’s office to protest, and to residents testifying during the virtual committee hearing, the proposals felt like tax breaks for the rich.

“I’m not sure why corporations, universities, and a lot of rich people in our city are getting tax cuts but I’m seeing a lot of my neighbors continuously in crisis,” Ronnie Begum from West Philadelphia said during public comment. “I’m seeing them either trying to navigate unemployment and my neighbors are in a deep crisis and they’re just not being heard.”

South Philadelphia resident Kyla Van Buren testified that they didn’t understand why the council was discussing cuts when it seemed as if essential city programs needed funding.

“I think it’s just clear that there are lots of people in our city who don’t have the support that they need,” they said. “We really don’t need to be cutting taxes for the rich … but instead, funding our mental health services, or public parks or libraries.”

Emily Telstad holds up a sign that says, "Tax the rich."
Emily Telstad, a Sunrise Movement member, joined other protesters in an attempt to talk directly to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney about the needs of the city’s residents outside his office in City Hall on June 8, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Councilmembers also heard from several groups specifically opposed to the parking tax –– an issue that has united both progressives and urbanists in criticism.

The city’s parking lot tax was already set to fall to 22.5% from 25% due to the expiration of a temporary tax increase passed last year, at a cost of $40 million in forgone revenue over the next five years. Parker’s proposal would shift the bottom rate even lower,  to 17% –– which officials estimate will cost the city another $90 million over five years.

Parker has pitched this reduction as a move to benefit both parking industry leaders and their employees, encouraging more downtown visitors while helping operators hire back lot attendants laid off during the pandemic. Parker also said the parking tax won’t go into effect unless a special committee concludes the move will benefit workers. That committee features parking magnates like Robert Zuritsky of Parkway Corp. and a representative from the service workers union SEIU 32BJ, which supports the legislation –– as well as Parker herself.

But some opponents say the cuts would disproportionately benefit parking companies, not workers. Urbanist and transit groups, meanwhile, have organized against the bill, saying the legislation promotes cars instead of public transit.

“This bill would send a check straight into the pockets of private parking garage owners and subsidize suburban car owners,” said Daniel Trubman, a member of the urbanist political action committee 5th Square, which launched a petition opposing the bill. “Meanwhile, Philly’s transit riders, pedestrians, and cyclists get nothing.”

Last week, Councilmembers Kendra Brooks, Jamie Gauthier, and Helen Gym all went on record in opposition to the parking tax legislation, as well as to Kenney’s proposed business tax cuts.

After several hours of testimony Tuesday, Councilmembers elected to delay the vote.

Though the mayor was not present during the sit-in, sheriff’s deputies and Deputy Mayor James Engler arrived to speak with the activists. After a brief conversation –– which included the threat of trespassing charges from one sheriff’s deputy, as protesters had bypassed a security checkpoint –– the group left.

“We’re fully supportive of individuals expressing their First Amendment rights and advocating for causes they support,” said Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble. “We look forward to working with Council to finalize this budget in an amicable and collaborative fashion.”

Activist Sam Rise said Engler also assured the group that it had been heard and that he was grateful for their sentiments. But they said the words meant little when support for even small-dollar city programs -– like restored funding for the arts or a $3 million ask to support eviction prevention –– were still up in the air.

“It’s the same sorry excuses that we’ve heard for the last 20 months,” Rise said. “We can’t accept it. This is a system in which all of the channels that we have for representation, to articulate our wants and needs, are ignored and people are rendered disposable … I mean, perpetually it feels like we’re getting evicted.”

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