(This article has been updated with a comment from Rebuild deputy director of engagement, David Gould)
Philadelphia City Council is close to a deal with the Kenney administration on Rebuild, a half-billion dollar project aimed at rehabbing city-owned buildings and public spaces.
A key Monday hearing for authorizing legislation was rescheduled for June 5, prompting speculation among some City Hall sources that long-running tensions between Council President Darrell Clarke and Mayor Jim Kenney over implementation had finally boiled over.
But Clarke’s office said nothing could be further from the truth – the rescheduling was purely for logistical reasons, with a final deal close at hand.
“I think it’s safe to say that all members of Council are excited to join Mayor Kenney and his Administration in breaking ground on the first round of park, recreation center and library upgrades,” Clarke spokesperson Jane Roh wrote Friday in a prepared statement. “The Council President is pleased that the legislative process here is working in a productive and positive way.”
Roh said the new date would ensure that all council members would be included in the hearing. However, she declined to describe specifics about amendments to authorizing legislation for Rebuild, except to say that Clarke’s previous concerns had largely been addressed. The Kenney administration did not expand on Roh’s statement.
In the past, Clarke has said he feared an administration plan to operate the massive repairs program through a city-held nonprofit would cut council members out of the site selection process and jeopardize minority inclusion efforts.
“I think the big issue in council was which facilities would get done and who would do the work, whether it's the mayor or the council member,” said at-large Councilmember Allan Domb.
The administration has collaborated with the William Penn Foundation, which is contributing $100 million to Rebuild, and suggested channeling projects through the Fairmount Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that has a close partnership with Parks and Recreation, according to Parks and Rec Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell.
“Why would I support that? I would get roasted by the people I represent,” Clarke said of partnering exclusively with the Conservancy, in January. “It's inconsistent with the goals we have.”
Although greased with $400 million in expected revenues from the soda tax implemented by Kenney earlier in the year, Rebuild would initially be funded by a $300 million bond issuance – which is contingent on council approval.
Many other council members expressed similar concerns over site selection and inclusion for women and minority contractors – sources said the fear was largely that white-dominated building trades would get the lion’s share of work over groups favored by council members.
Kenney signaled a willingness to compromise several months ago on the project, which is central to his administration’s agenda. However, Clarke continued to vocalize reservations about the program’s structure: In April, he noted that the administration’s contract language might somehow lead to the privatization of city-owned properties. In earlier council hearings, he seemed to suggest that the administration’s community outreach efforts would fall flat.
On the surface, it sounds like Clarke and Council may have gotten what they wanted: a project run through the city’s internal procurement process, which Rebuild deputy director of engagement David Gould has previously criticized as slow and ineffective. But Gould later clarified that the final version of authorizing legislation would feature a previously proposed middle path: channeling projects through an open nonprofit RFQ process, rather than one dominated by the Conservancy.
"Our proposal remains the same. We'll work through nonprofits, although the administration can't comment on who the nonprofits will be," he said, referring to the yet-to-come RFQ. "But there was an adjustment based on City Council feedback."
However, Gould said he could not offer any more detail as negotiations were still ongoing.
Rebuild as a whole has been delayed in part because of a lawsuit over the soda tax – which council sources ironically credited with allowing more time to hash out an agreement between council and the mayor.
But even with a deal at hand, Domb worried that greed would blunt the impact of money sorely needed for crumbling libraries, rec centers and parks.
“My biggest concern is that the money not be squandered,” he said. “I think those decisions should be made by a third-party group. These decisions shouldn’t be political. It’s an opportunity for us to make a big impact in the city.”
This story has been updated to reflect comment from Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Lovell.