The 2020 budget process was complicated. So was my ‘yes’ vote.

Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who is frustrated at how much tax dollars are spent on police, explains why he voted yes on a budget that didn’t “defund the police.”

City Hall in Philadelphia

City Hall in Philadelphia (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

My first budget process as an at-large Philadelphia city councilmember was complicated. Initially presented in early March, the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget had shown a significant surplus, which excited many residents.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney had proposed new programs and increases in critical services, but no new taxes. It was an exciting time, and the budgeting process appeared as if it was going to be seamless.

Then, roughly a week later, the coronavirus pandemic hit Philadelphia. Our residents were quarantined in their homes and most businesses were forced to close their doors. The economy was, essentially, on pause.

Before we knew it, the City Council — which had been discussing pilot programs and expanding city services — was staring at a $749 million deficit.

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As we were grappling with how to manage the deficit, George Floyd on Memorial Day was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, who was caught on video with his knee on the neck of the 46-year-old for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd screamed. He called for his late mother. He repeated: “I can’t breathe.”

The anger in Minneapolis resonated across the country. And within days of the video going viral, every major American city saw large-scale protests, where activists demanded that their governments “defund the police.”

In Philadelphia, approximately 15% of the city’s operating budget is allocated to the police department. In a moment where taxpayers are hearing about cuts to critical services, it is understandable that this fact would frustrate many Philadelphians. Let me be clear, it frustrates me, too.

I think that we are allocating way too much of the taxpayers’ dollars to the police department. And I look forward to a chance to discuss, with my colleagues and the public, how to make more effective investments in public safety.

Though not perfect, the Philadelphia City Council did take an important first step: we didn’t approve a $19 million increase to the department, which was what the mayor proposed. We reallocated an additional $14 million – for Crossing Guards and Public Safety Officers – from the department to the Managing Director’s Office. And we were able to allocate $400,000 to a new Police Oversight Commission; restore a $20 million cut to the Housing Trust Fund; and passed the New Normal Act, which distributes $25 million for health care, anti-poverty programs and job training initiatives.

During the budget process, every Philadelphia city councilmember fought hard to save and bolster critical government programs and services. On a personal level, I’m proud to say that I fought to increase the budget of the Defenders Association of Philadelphia, an institution that has been on the frontline in influencing criminal justice reform.

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And when the Office of Arts and Culture’s budget was proposed at $0, I successfully fought to allocate to it $1.35 million, $350,000 of which will go to restore cuts at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. I also advocated that the Office of Adult Education, whose budget was also proposed at $0, receive $1.45 million.

I’m even more proud that with a $749 million budget deficit, the city was able to pass a budget without leveling a new tax on our most vulnerable citizens.

I voted “yes” on the fiscal year 2021 budget, and I firmly stand by my decision. Because I voted “yes” on funding the arts. I voted “yes” on continuing to fund adult education. I voted “yes” on no increase to the Philadelphia Police Department’s budget. And I also voted “yes” on the four police reform bills that passed in late June.

This work, like the conversation on how we invest in public safety, is far from over. But as this budget goes — and considering that a budget reflects a city’s values — I’m proud of Philadelphia and its values.


Watch Philadelphia City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas on the series finale of “Police Reimagined” Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. on WHYY-TV 12.


Councilmember Isaiah Thomas
Councilmember Isaiah Thomas. (Jared Piper/Philly City Council)

Isaiah Thomas is a freshman councilmember at-large representing the entire city of Philadelphia. He lives in East Oak Lane with his wife, Klissa, and their son, Isaiah Jr.

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