City Council’s chief clerk strugged to corral an unruly stack of dozens of new bills as Philadelphia lawmakers moved to close out budget discussions and loose ends ahead of a summer holiday.
On tap were resolutions denouncing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, promises to combat lead poisoning and, of course, more back and forth over the increasing likelihood of Mayor Jim Kenney’s soda tax proposal, which drove a committee meeting into the evening hours last night.
During the three-hour legislative session, Councilwoman Helen Gym introduced a resolution “condemning the racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-American values” espoused by Trump, perhaps the first time City Council has used its bully pulpit to excoriate a presidential candidate.
Gym said she wasn’t sure if council had taken a shot at a presidential campaign before, and that the resolution was more about Trump’s racist commentary more than his candidacy. Councilman Bobby Henon supported the resolution, saying council has taken positions on other politicians before, like with the recent “Porngate” email scandal.
Gym, Cindy Bass and Blondell Reynolds Brown all offered legislation to address the issue of lead contamination in Philadelphia’s drinking water. Brown's addressed lead testing for daycare centers, Bass' would reqiure landlord-tenant notification in buildings with lead pipes. Gym’s would require special certificates of inspection for lead contamination in buildings used for educational purposes, saying this was just “the first of several bills to address water safety and testing.”
Council teed up a final vote next week on the city budget and Kenney’s soda tax, with likely passage of a 1.5-cent tax on sugary beverages, including diet drinks. But last-minute revelations from the administration that millions in new revenue would go to top up the city’s critically low fund balance – as opposed to promised universal pre-K services – further agitated opponents of the levy.
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, who chairs council’s appropriations committee, introduced a resolution calling for hearings on the city’s fiscal stability, specifically citing the critically low fund balance – the difference between what the city spends and what it brings in, projected to be $15 million in 2018 – and the usage of “new revenue” due by 2017, the latter being a not-so-veiled reference to the financial gains from the soda tax.
“This is an expression of council’s concern about the fund balance and the notifications at the last minute about why we needed all the money in the fund plan,” said Sanchez.
The legislation was introduced at Council President Darrell Clarke's request. At earlier hearings, the city hadn't outlined the need for soda tax revenue to rectify that balance, according to council sources.
The administration said the issue was much ado about nothing. The tax would still fund all the programs the mayor initially promised.
"The soda lobby is twisting a normal, fiscally responsible practice into something nefarious," said mayoral spokesperson Lauren Hitt. "In the very early years of the tax, it raises slightly more than those programs cost, so the excess revenue is designated toward the fund balance."
Her chair gives Sanchez considerable say over the administration's use of tax dollars in future budget cycles, setting the stage for continued sparring between Kenney and opponents of his spending plans.
In other business:
• Council pushed forward with a plan to authorize $1 million in tax credits for businesses that offered “healthy beverages,” a complicated giveback to stores impacted by the soda tax.
• Fran McLaughlin, a director at the local painters’ union, was the latest appointee to the board of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
• Councilman Bill Greenlee and Henon moved along with plans to spot-zone a controversial new billboard in Northeast Philadelphia, despite the state revoking the city’s authority to regulate outdoor advertisements.
• A string of bills would create a one-block neighborhood improvement district around the site of new luxury hotels that previously received tax increment financing. The NID would presumably guarantee the city could collect and spend future revenues generated by the properties.
• A bill to mandate the installation of LED lighting in future city projects, authored by Brown, sailed to passage.
• In between dozens of bills on zoning matters, the committee on the Department of Licenses and Inspections moved out a raft of bills to toughen regulations on chronic building code violations and nuisance businesses.