Philly City Council's little-known capital budget allows members to stockpile reserves

Pat Loeb
April 29, 2019 - 4:00 am
Philadelphia City Hall

Holli Stephens/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — One part of city spending that won’t be scrutinized, as budget hearings continue in Philadelphia City Council, is council’s own budget. Among the mysteries of that budget is how district council members spend their capital budget, a little-known allotment of $1.3 million for each of the 10 members every year.

Some of the money is earmarked for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation projects; the rest can be spent however each member sees fit. Half the district council members, though, don’t spend it and carry it over into the subsequent year's budget.

As a result, half of them have multimillion-dollar reserves.

Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, for example, has amassed $5.6 million dollars, including money unspent by her predecessor. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell also has over $5 million sitting in her account. Council president Darrell Clarke and Councilwoman Cindy Bass each have more than $3 million, and Councilman Brian O'Neill has over $2 million.

“If the purpose of this particular program is to address small public projects that are of high need in a given district, that should be used in a given year, not built up over time,” says Pat Christmas, policy director for the Committee of Seventy.

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The Committee has called for more transparency on council’s budget, but Christmas says he didn’t even know about the capital budget until KYW Newsradio asked about it.

Council President Darrell Clarke, whose district has many capital needs, blamed a slow process for delays in spending his capital budget. He said two projects slated for this year, that will use about $1.8 million which is about half of what’s accumulated in his fund, have been years in the planning.

“I wish they would move it quicker so we could spend the money quicker,” he said.

Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, on the other hand, intentionally lets the money accumulate.

“Her strategy is based on her experience, both as a staffer for Councilwoman Marian Tasco and as a state representative” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “She watched Councilwoman Tasco reserve her funds so that she could completely rebuild both Dorothy Emanuel Recreation Center and Sturgis Playground. As a state representative, she learned the importance of combining both state and local funds to leverage an investment for maximum impact.” 

Indeed, Parker's $5.6 million reserve indicates Tasco left behind unspent money when she left council. 

Councilwoman Blackwell seems to have built up her capital reserves almost by accident. She expressed surprised at how large it was. 

“Are you sure I have $5 million?” she asked in an interview. “I don't try to save my money. If we can help people, I believe in spending it so that just happened.”

By contrast, Councilman Curtis Jones spends his capital budget as soon as the money becomes available.

“We have a propensity to plan ahead and spend on time,” he said, saying he didn’t want to be part of the problem with delays in capital spending.

Jones prefers using the money to address immediate needs in his district, even if they’re small projects.

“Capital dollars are infrastructure builders,” he said. “They fix playgrounds, they install traffic signals, they repair party walls so they are the glue of the infrastructure of my district.”

Christmas had other concerns about the fund. 

“Council members' ability to stockpile these funds seems problematic when tax bills have increased and other city services are stretched thin,” he said. “And if Council members are to have this sort of power, it's problematic that these decisions, including where the money goes and why, isn't easily accessible to the taxpayers. This is related to other concerns regarding Council, including prerogative and the Activities Fund. A lack of transparency around the power elected officials wield means voters can't hold them accountable for the decisions they make.”