Mayor Kenney offers pragmatic budget for election year

Pat Loeb
March 07, 2019 - 6:23 pm
Mayor Jim Kenney has confirmed that, despite appearances to the contrary, he really does like his job. It was one of the lighter moments during his Thursday address to City Council in which he laid out what might be called an "election year" budget.

Pat Loeb/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has confirmed that, despite appearances to the contrary, he really does like his job. It was one of the lighter moments during his Thursday address to City Council in which he laid out what might be called an "election year" budget.

The $5 billion spending plan calls for no new taxes and increases of varying size on popular programs in public safety, education, housing, transportation, even the revival of a long dormant street sweeping program.

He framed the package with a vision of Philadelphia 2024 as a place with good schools, a growing and equitable economy, clean and safe streets and healthy citizens.

"Everything I just described, this grand five-year vision, is attainable if we continue to work together as we have done over the last three years," he said, suggesting a theme that both he and the 15 City Council members seeking re-election can use as a campaign platform.

Council members were generally supportive but pushed back on the lack of funding for some of their priorities. 

"It was refreshing to hear from him that there is a connecting of the dots of all the things he wants to do," said Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez. "For me, we're going to be looking for what are more built-in efficiencies so we can really dive into every department and what they're doing around our poverty rate, seniors and more vulnerable communities."

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The largest increase in spending, $33 million, goes to the school district. Over six years, the city will contribute $1.2 billion, of which $700 million is new funding. The mayor says he wants to ensure the district "continues its positive momentum and never again is forced to make devastating cuts that put our children's futures in jeopardy."

There's also an additional $1.3 million in the city's contribution to Community College of Philadelphia. Education spending is coupled with funds for Out-of-School time programs for after-school time and weekends.

With the sweetened beverage tax litigation over, the city is speeding up expansion of the anti-poverty programs it pays for: an additional 1,050 pre-K seats and five new community schools.

Some of the new funding is for programs that actually began this year, such as the Resilience Project to attack the opioid epidemic in Kensington and various violence prevention efforts.

One cut in the budget is $10 million dollars from the corrections budget, but that's good news because it reflects the decline in the inmate population due to criminal justice reform.

Fixed costs continue to eat up most of the budget, including an additional $30 million in pension contributions (though the mayor notes that, this year, there were more contributions than withdrawals from the fund), an additional $30 million in the police department largely covers a new contract with the Fraternal Order of Police, and an additional $6 million will cover the increased cost of recycling.

But there was enough discretionary funding to revive a long-dormant street sweeping program, beginning with a pilot program in six neighborhoods this spring, an announcement that drew sustained applause in council chambers.

There's also funding for new voting machines (Pennsylvania has ordered counties statewide to buy them), for census outreach and for the municipal ID program.

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"These efforts to make government work better may sound boring to the average person," the mayor said, "but I'm sure you'd agree with me that it's often the most rewarding part of our work. You know, on a related note, this might actually come as a shock, but some people think I don't really enjoy being mayor."

As laughter rolled through the chambers he added, "The truth is, I love my job. I'm just frustrated often by where we are because I can see our tremendous potential... We already have what we need to make Philadelphia a city that works for us all. And I know that this budget and plan will help us achieve the 2024 vision that I described earlier."

Council members seemed willing to join the effort, to a point. 

"I'm pleased by Mayor Kenney's ongoing commitment to education, from early childhood learning through community college. This budget proposal also addresses the so-called growing pains of our city, and the bread-and-butter commitment to road maintenance and anti-dumping measures is most welcome," said Council President Darrell Clarke in a statement.

But he also called for amendments to the budget to address poverty and equity.

An early point of disagreement is over funding for the Free Library of Philadelphia. The mayor proposed a $2.5 million increase in funding. Advocates who spoke at a news conference before the address called for an increase of $15 million, and most council members said they support the higher figure.

Council has also embraced the bar association's call for a low-income tenants defense fund. 

Chancellor Rochelle Fedullo says she's optimistic it will find its way into the budget.

"This is a work in progress and we think our leaders will move forward and help people facing eviction. It's really imperative," she said. 

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That may involve trade-offs, but Councilman Curtis Jones says council may also find other ways to fund the programs. 

"There may be some fat in this budget that is hidden," he said. "And always in this exercise they underestimate the revenue portion of the budget. We understand that, so that's an ebb and flow that we will have to negotiate with him."

The budget won widespread praise from education advocacy groups, labor and business leaders, even Gov. Tom Wolf.

"I commend Mayor Kenney for his continued focus on education, public safety, infrastructure and government reform," Wolf said in a statement. "This budget proposal lays out a bold agenda to improve Philadelphia for residents and make the economy and schools both stronger and more inclusive."