WEEKLY REPORT: COUNCIL TO WEIGH COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE TAX ABATEMENT REFORM; AS COVID CASES CLIMB, MEMBERS MONITOR VACCINATION PLANS

In Cherelle Parker, Cindy Bass, Council News, Curtis Jones, Jr., Darrell L. Clarke, David Oh, Derek Green, Featured, Helen Gym, Isaiah Thomas, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez, News by PHL Council

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CITY COUNCIL INTRODUCES LEGISLATION TO REFORM COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE TAX ABATEMENT TO RAISE FUNDS FOR CITY SERVICES AND SCHOOLS

Legislation was introduced in Council yesterday to reduce the real estate tax abatement for commercial construction. The reform, coupled with a previous reduction to the tax abatement for residential construction, will generate a combined $347 Million in new revenues for essential city services and Philadelphia’s public schools over the next decade.

The new tax reform would reduce the abatement by 10 percent for new commercial or industrial construction. Over the next 10 years, the reform of the commercial tax abatement will generate an estimated $83 Million in revenues for city services and schools.

Last year, Council approved a sweeping reform to the real estate tax abatement for new residential construction. Signed into law by Mayor Kenney, that reform rolled back the residential abatement by 10 percent per year, and will generate an estimated $264 million in new revenues for city services and schools over the next decade.

The two abatement reforms combined will generate an estimated $347 million in new revenues for the city and School District of Philadelphia. The revenue from the reforms will also help pay the debt service for a planned $400 Million bond issue to address a wide array of economic and racial disparities and needs revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed deep disparities in our city and society,” said Council President Darrell L. Clarke (5th District). “We need more affordable housing for our citizens. We need renter protections for people facing evictions. We need more funding for our schools so our children receive a quality education. Everyone must pay their fair share in address these deep-seated problems. The residential and commercial development community, which has benefitted greatly from the existing tax abatement program, must be part of the solution.”

In a rare move, the Council President temporarily left the president’s rostrum, ceding control to Majority Leader Cherelle L. Parker (9th District), so that he could address the legislative body in support of the commercial tax abatement reform.

The commercial tax abatement reform would reduce the 100 percent abatement on new commercial construction to 90 percent for projects that apply as of January 1, 2021.

Revenues from real estate taxes in Philadelphia are split between the city, which receives 45 percent of revenues, and schools, which receive 55 percent. If the commercial tax abatement reform is approved by Council and signed by the mayor, it will generate an estimated $45.6 Million for schools, and $37.4 Million for city services.

The residential tax abatement reform, slated to go into effect on January 1, 2021, will generate $145.2 Million in revenues for schools, and $118.8 Million for city services.

Both abatement reforms combined will generate an estimated $190.8 Million in additional revenues for schools and $156.2 Million for city services over the next decade.

Earlier this Fall, Council leaders introduced legislation creating a 1 percent construction tax, coupled with a delay in the residential real estate tax abatement reform, as a way of helping to finance a bond issue of up to $400 Million to pay for thousands of new units of affordable housing, additional protections for renters from evictions, and other services badly needed to address economic and racial disparities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic. That legislation remains pending in Council.

Council leaders are in negotiations with the Kenney administration over the best way to finance that bond issue to pay for these resources for city services and to improve public education in Philadelphia.

“Strengthening Philadelphia’s tax base, growing our economic pie, and creating access to the kinds of opportunities that will allow us to do so much – especially for people in marginalized communities – must be our number 1 priority,” said Majority Leader Parker. “Now is the time to double down on housing preservation, neighborhood revitalization and commercial corridor revival. COVID-19 has heightened these challenges. We must be intentional about investing in our neighborhoods because they are the lifeblood of our city.”

The Council legislation around tax abatement reform comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has left tens of thousands of Philadelphians unemployed, and exacerbated Philadelphia’s problem of more than 400,000 residents living in poverty.

AS PHILADELPHIA’S COVID-19 CASES SURGE, COUNCIL COMMITTEE EVALUATES CITY’S PLAN FOR DISTRIBUTING EVENTUAL VACCINE

As the city’s Public Health Department announced 765 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, as well as three more deaths – continuing a Fall surge plaguing the region, Commonwealth and much of the country – a Council committee on Thursday heard from a distinguished panel of witnesses on the city’s preparedness plans to handle and distribute vaccines for the deadly virus when they become publicly available.

The Public Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by Councilmember Cindy Bass (8th District), heard from an array of city health officials and academic experts on what the city needs to do to be prepared to deliver vaccines effectively when they become available.  In recent days, two major vaccine development trials have revealed to the country that their vaccines are in end-stage trials and are proving over 90 percent effective against COVID-19. Public health experts still predict it will not be until early next year before any vaccines are made available to the general public.

Dr. Ala Stanford, creator and founding force of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, testified at the hearing and sounded cautionary notes. Dr. Stanford said that the Consortium has been testing about 400 people a day on average for the past two weeks in Philadelphia, with positivity rates coming in between 17 percent and 19 percent.

“The reality is, everyone who needs a test in the City of Philadelphia still cannot get a test,” Dr. Stanford said. “I’m concerned about [vaccine] distribution because everyone who needs a test in this city, particularly the people who are contracting it the most, dying the most, and spreading it the most, still cannot get a test, uniformly.”

CAN THE KENNEY ADMINISTRATION DO A BETTER JOB EXPLAINING ITS COVID-19 PLANS TO CITY COUNCIL?

The polarization of the debate in our country over how governments should handle the COVID-19 pandemic made its way into Council yesterday, as a spirited back and forth debate occurred between one Councilmember citing a court case that criticized Governor Tom Wolf for his handling of the pandemic in Pennsylvania – and a trio of Councilmembers who challenged that court case and whether it had anything to do with how the Kenney administration has handled keeping Council briefed on its public health plans.

After Councilmember David Oh (At Large), a Republican, cited to the court decision (a federal district judge in the Western District of PA), and used it to question whether the Kenney administration has done a good enough job keeping Council informed of the city’s COVID-19 plans, three Democratic Council members carefully challenged their colleague.

Councilmembers Helen Gym (At Large), Maria Quiñones Sánchez (7th District) and Derek Green (At Large), all challenged their colleague’s citing that court case, which is currently on appeal in the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Gym noted that while she too at times has been frustrated with the Kenney administration’s information-sharing with Council during the pandemic, she strongly condemned the underlying facts in the court case, where the Republican-controlled state legislature has tried to block Gov. Wolf’s taking emergency public health actions to protect Pennsylvanians from the worst impacts of the virus.

Quiñones Sánchez echoed Gym, and then suggested to Oh that he hold his resolution and instead convene a working group of legislators with the administration to seek a better process for information distribution to Council.  Oh concurred, and held his resolution – eliciting praise from other members for his willingness to work in a bipartisan manner.

SEEN ON SOCIAL MEDIA…

COUNCIL HOLDS FIRST-EVER HEARING ON POLICE UNION CONTRACT

After a turbulent Summer and Fall marked by widespread unrest over police-involved fatal shootings elsewhere around the country – and then a fatal police-involved shooting in West Philadelphia last month, a Council committee this week convened the first-ever public hearing into what goes into the negotiation and crafting of the city’s contract with its police union.

In a Committee of the Whole hearing, the bill, offered by Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson (At Large), draw wide public attention and testimony from dozens of members of the public.

The Kenney administration’s Deputy Mayor for Labor, Rich Lazer, testified that the administration too sought substantive reforms as it negotiates the next city contract with the police union, Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police. Lazer mentioned a number of issues where the administration is seeking change, including rules for disciplining police officers and limiting back pay or reinstatement of fired officers. Lazer detailed at length how existing state law governs the contract arbitration process with its police union.

Yet for dozens of members of the public, the hearing offered a first opportunity to offer a litany of complaints of how they were dealt with by police, and to urge city government to achieve reforms.  As the sponsor, Councilmember Gilmore Richardson, said originally, the point of the hearing and her legislation was to create an atmosphere of transparency and public accountability in the police contract process where none existed before.

“This is truly a historic day in the City of Philadelphia,” Gilmore Richardson wrote on Facebook. “For the first time ever, we are giving the people a chance to have their voices heard on a subject that has been shrouded in secrecy for far too long.”

The police union, Lodge 5, has filed suit against the bill in Common Pleas Court, challenging Council’s right to hold hearings on its contract process with the city.

IN OTHER NEWS…

Council Praises Commissioners for Counting 749,000 Philadelphians’ Votes for President – and Notes Wisdom of Waiting Until All Votes Are Counted. Councilmember Curtis Jones, Jr.’s resolution praising the City Commissioners and their staffs for their exhaustive, two-week effort to accurately count every ballot cast by mail or at the polls for President and other offices easily passed Council today. Then, Majority Leader Parker put a fine, pointed point on Council’s praise of the commissioners, noting that a number of local news stories over the last week criticized Philadelphia for under-performing on voter turnout, while the nearby suburbs turned out overwhelmingly for now President-elect Biden and VP-elect Harris. 

Actually, those reports of Philadelphia’s underperforming turnout were greatly exaggerated, as Parker pointed out. The final turnout of 749,317 ballots cast in Philadelphia was the highest since 1984, Parker said, crediting the news site Billy Penn and reporter Layla Jones specifically for getting it right. President-elect Biden’s winning vote margin in Philadelphia was 471,305, just a few thousand votes shy of Hillary Clinton’s 476,000-vote margin in the city four years ago.

“As President John F. Kennedy once said, ‘Victory knows a thousand fathers, and defeat is but an orphan,'” Parker noted. “Philadelphia voters turned out in force, and they got the job done – along with our city commissioners and their staffs.”

Council passes Councilmember Thomas’ Keep It Local Bill. The bill would require local business usage and raise reporting requirements in the city’s procurement process. COVID19 has caused widespread economic insecurity for people and businesses in Philadelphia. As cities re imagine economic prosperity and prepare for more months of hardship, Councilmember Isaiah Thomas’ legislation would encourage the city to find solutions in the local and diverse business community.  

“In the midst of a pandemic, and as we prepare for a post-pandemic Philadelphia, we need to ensure that our local economy survives,” Councilmember Thomas said. “My Keep It Local Bill would give local and diverse businesses a better opportunity for government contracts. We have talent in our backyard – it’s on us to harness and promote that talent.”

In addition to encouraging that local and minority-owned businesses receive better access to government contracts, the Keep It Local Bill would amend the procurement reporting process to promote government transparency and accountability. An annual report will show the types of bids in which a contract was awarded, the number of each type of contract, local businesses which breached their contract, procurement goals, and the strategy for achieving these goals. These reports will help determine the success of the procurement process as well as provide ease for local businesses’ involvement in the process.

OTHER SIGHTS AND SOUNDS FROM THE COUNCIL WEEK

Committee on Rules, held 11-16-2020

Committee on Law and Government, held 11-17-2020

Committee of the Whole, held 11-18-2020

Stated Meeting of Philadelphia City Council, held 11-19-2020

Committee on Public Health and Human Services, held 11-19-2020

NEXT WEEK IN PHILADELPHIA CITY COUNCIL

Monday, November 23, 2020
Committee on Public Safety  9:30am
Committee on Labor and Civil Service  1:00pm

Tuesday, November 24, 2020
Committee on Law and Government 10:00am

Wednesday, November 25, 2020
Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless 9:30am

Thursday, November 26, 2020
Thanksgiving Day – All City Offices Closed

PHILADELPHIA FACTS AND FIGURES

Source: Office of City Commissioner Al Schmidt

 

The next Stated Meeting of City Council is scheduled to take place on Thursday, December 3, 2020 at 10 am. The Meeting will be held remotely due to the ongoing pandemic, and will air on Xfinity Ch. 64, Fios Ch. 40 and stream at www.PHLCouncil.com/watch.

Photo: Elevated Angles for Visit Philadelphia

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