City Council is making a habit of letting the clock run down to zero. On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the final passage of Philadelphia’s sweetened beverage tax, Mayor Jim Kenney’s next-largest legislative endeavor to date — his $500 million reinvestment in parks, rec centers and libraries known as Rebuild — is shaping up to be a similar scramble to the finish just days before members take their summer recess.
On Thursday evening, the bill that would pave the way for funding and structuring the delivery of Rebuild cleared the Committee of the Whole, but not after a number of delays, including some Council members taking a break for cake to celebrate former Mayor John Street’s portrait finally being hung in City Hall. Originally, the Rebuild legislation was scheduled for consideration first thing in the morning, but nearly 10 hours later it was scheduled for a final vote next Thursday, which will be its last chance to pass before the fall.
For the first time all day, at nearly 7 p.m., the mood around City Hall seemed coalesce into a collective optimism that Rebuild would not be left in suspension over the summer. “Today’s hearing was a critical step towards launching Rebuild,” said deputy director of community engagement for Rebuild, David Gould in a statement. “The amendments allow us to target resources to the areas that need it most, while also maximizing diversity on work sites and delivering projects efficiently and effectively.”
Over the last few weeks, Council has pushed for a number of amendments to the administration’s Rebuild legislation, some of which had long been discussed publicly and some of which were entirely new. Lately, most of the scrutiny coming from Council has surrounded the specific pathways for the city use its projects as a means to achieve greater diversity in the building trades, which have long been overwhelmingly white and male. Among other diversity goals, Rebuild aims to have 45 percent of the workforce on sites to be comprised of minority laborers (27 percent African-American, 14 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian). It appears that enough Council members are now satisfied with what’s in the legislation.
“It is not solely the Mayor’s responsibility to change the historical racism that has existed in the building trades,” said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. “It’s not his job alone. I think what Council tried to do is to create a real mechanism to pick away at that.”
On Thursday, compared to the previous committee meetings on Rebuild, there were hardly any amendments to the legislation. According to Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez, most of the negotiations yesterday concerned a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the administration and the building trades unions, a document that Council does not have legislative control over but has nonetheless sought to influence. “It was about the MOU and how you operationalize this,” she said, referring to the ambitious goals of Rebuild. “What we’ve been trying to do is create a pathway for them to be able to reach the goals. They’re only aspirational if true access is not available to grow that workforce.”
Recently, changes to the MOU have included additional commitments from the building trade unions that include the creation of a pre-employment program modeled off PennAssist, intended for Philly public-school graduates of Career and Technical Education programs to gain direct experience on construction sites alongside apprentices and get the chance to become one themselves.
Attempts to diversify the building trades have historically failed to take hold. There’s an attitude in Council that Rebuild must be different, and, after months of deliberating, the current legislation has come to a solid consensus. As for the MOU, however, Quiñones-Sánchez indicated those conversations would continue. “That is going to be a living, breathing document. Always evolving,” she said.
If the legislation is passed by Council next Thursday, the administration’s Rebuild team can accelerate the planning stages of the massive project, such as selecting an initial round of sites, writing up criteria for “project users” (the organizations that will be administering many of the Rebuild contracts), and engaging with neighborhoods. Rebuild can’t operate on all cylinders, however, until the lawsuit challenging the soda tax is resolved in the courts. “This is why we have been urging the American Beverage Association to let the Commonwealth Court’s decision in favor of the City stand and forgo yet another protracted appeal,” Gould wrote in a statement.