Eric is a general assignment reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune
Mayor Michael Nutter is asking the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission to determine if Philadelphia Magazine deserves public censure for a recent article on race – a move that elicited praise and scorn from magazine officials.
“I ask that the Commission consider specifically whether Philadelphia Magazine and the writer Bob Huber are appropriate for a rebuke by the Commission,” wrote Nutter, in a letter sent to PHRC director Rue Landau on Friday.
In reply, Philadelphia Magazine Editor Tom McGrath issued a statement.
“His call for a ‘rebuke’ of the magazine by the PHRC is rich with irony,” wrote McGrath. “This is the same mayor who just yesterday was shouted down by an unruly mob in City Council; now he himself wants [to] shut down conversation about an important issue in our city.”
Nutter’s request came at the end of a three-page letter to Landau. In it, Nutter also asked the commission to conduct an inquiry into the state of race in Philadelphia through a public hearing.
“I ask that the Commission take testimony from individual citizens and from organizations … for the purpose of submitting to me and our city a report of the state of racial issues in Philadelphia.”
That met with McGrath’s approval.
“I applaud the mayor for asking for an inquiry into the state of racial issues in Philadelphia,” McGrath said. “The need to have a deeper discussion about race in our city is exactly why we ran our story in the first place.”
Earlier this month, the magazine published a story titled “Being White in Philly.”
The cover story included a series of anecdotes, from anonymous sources – all of them white -- outlining their views on the city’s Black population. The piece caused an immediate outcry from people Black and white; everyone from writers on the magazine’s staff to members of City Council and the mayor leveled criticism at the piece.
Nutter called the story the “reckless equivalent of shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater.”
The mayor is allowed his opinion, said McGrath, but should not use the authority of his office to stifle the media.
“Like any reader, the mayor is entitled to think and say what he wants about the story,” wrote McGrath. “That said, his sophomoric statements about the magazine and mischaracterization of the piece make me wonder if he’s more interested in scoring political points than having a serious conversation about the issues … the mayor loves the First Amendment – as long as he and the government can control what gets said.”
Nutter said media officials have a duty to act responsibly.
“The First Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not an unfettered right,” wrote the mayor. “A publisher has a duty to exercise its role in a responsible way.”
Landau declined to comment specifically on Nutter’s request for a public rebuke.
“I’m not going to be able to comment on the rebuke,” she said.
But, she added that the commission had already decided to address the issue of race in the city. As a first step, commissioners on Friday morning agreed to hold their next monthly meeting in Fairmount/Brewerytown in an effort to start a conversation on race.
On the whole, Landau said, racial tensions seem limited to certain neighborhoods.
“I believe that most Philadelphians live in harmony,” she said. “There are pockets of the city that are having trouble with change, but that’s not the majority.”
While acknowledging the need for a public dialogue on race, Landau said Philadelphia Magazine’s piece was ill-advised.
“The article was irresponsible and perpetuated harmful stereotypes,” she said. “I also think that Philadelphia Magazine could have used their alleged concerns in a different manner.”
Even among those who were critical of Philadelphia Magazine’s story, the idea of a public rebuke was received with some discomfort.
“It’s important that people stand up and say, ‘Wrong. We disagree,’” said Barry Morrison, director of the Philadelphia office of the Anti-Defamation League. “I don’t think this calls for any formal procedures or formal resolutions. I agree with the spirit of what the mayor is doing, but I don’t know that any formal procedure needs to be adopted.”
The contest between Mayor Michael Nutter and members of the city’s municipal unions boiled over in City Council chambers on Thursday in an unprecedented show of rage by union members that forced the mayor from the room.
Ultimately, the commotion also drove all of Council out of the chamber and the meeting was recessed indefinitely, a success for frustrated union members, said Herman ‘Pete’ Matthews, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 33.
“Yes,” said Matthews, when asked if it had been union leaders’ plan to force Nutter off the dais during his speech. He said he had not discussed those plans with Council leaders.
Hundreds of union members shouting “No contract no peace” overwhelmed the mayor’s attempts to deliver his speech. Council leaders charged with greeting Nutter and standing by him during his speech left the platform and chaos briefly reigned in the chamber.
The mayor stood, shrugging, and turned questioningly to Council President Darrell Clarke before finally starting his speech – in a sort of unintelligible pantomime – unable to talk over the deafening noise.
To spectators it appeared that Clarke had abandoned his chair. Nutter, effectively silenced by the crowd, eventually left too.
“I’ve been to a lot of Council sessions in my time, so I’ve seen some activity upstairs. I think going into it everyone knew it was going to be a very loud day,” said Nutter, speaking to reporters afterward.
The exodus by the mayor and Council members overshadowed the substance of Nutter’s presentation – his $3.75 billion fiscal year 2014 budget and spending plan for the next five years.
The mayor seemed unclear as to exactly why Council leaders allowed the meeting to recess.
“What I didn’t realize was that there was some activity going on behind me as I was delivering my remarks,” he said. “The session was apparently recessed by motion and vote. It’s a little difficult to give a speech to a Council that is not there.”
In reviewing a recording of the meeting, it was discovered that Councilman David Oh made a motion to recess while Nutter spoke. It was seconded and voted on as the mayor continued to speak. Council simply recessed without hearing the city budget details.
Questioned later, Nutter said he wouldn’t second-guess their decision.
“That is a decision made by members and the president. It’s their house,” he said, adding that he would have kept on talking despite the din.
Hundreds of union members mobbed the corridors of City Hall and Council chambers, blowing whistles and chanting slogans in the hours leading up to and even during to the budget address. Admission to Council chambers was by invitation only. Unusually, additional security was posted at both of the large grills guarding the corridor that leads to Council chambers. Union members gathered by the hundreds at both the east and west ends of the hallway. A police officer scanned the crowds with a camera.
Nutter and the unions have been jousting since 2009.
“These workers are frustrated,” said former Mayor John F. Street, who routinely attends budget addresses and remained in the room after Council’s exit. “They’ve been six years without a contract.”
Most recently, the administration has taken its case to the state Supreme Court in an effort to force the unions’ hand.
“He wants to impose a contract instead of negotiating a contract,” Street said, adding that Nutter’s approach has been “ineffective. Here we are – it’s been six years and he has not negotiated a contract. That’s crazy. Mayors negotiate contracts.”
Matthews said the municipal unions wanted an administration plan to allow furloughs struck from its list of negotiating points.
“Take furloughs off the table,” he said.
Taking questions from reporters later, Nutter said he understood that union members were frustrated, and that he too wanted a contract – but not without necessary reform.
Furloughs were crucial, he said.
“Rather than having as our only tool that we would lay someone off, we would rather have the authority to give a one-day furlough and have them return to their job the next day,” he said. “It seems to me that having a job always beats not having a job.”
As Council melted away, some members paused to consider what had just happened.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell with a shake of her head.
Nutter’s exit was followed by loud chants of “piece of sh**” from union members.
Council did not return to chambers.
Nutter retreated first to Clarke’s office, then to the second floor of City Hall, an area barred to union members, and from there – with chants from the unions seeping in from the street below – Nutter gave his speech in the Mayor’s Reception Room in front of administration officials and reporters.
Officials from his administration gave him a standing ovation just prior to his remarks.
Lost in Thursday’s tumultuous City Council meeting were the details of Mayor Michael Nutter’s $3.75 billion budget proposal -- which did not include any new taxes or any spending cuts – but did include about $99 million in new spending.
“I consider this kind of a turning of the page, a turning point,” Nutter said, noting that since the start of the recession his budget proposals have included either tax increases or spending cuts. “We’re really starting to have strategic investments.”
Administration officials expect revenue to rise between 3 and 4 percent over the next five years, paying for the new spending with that projected increase and new efficiencies, which are expected to save about $13 million.
The majority of the new spending, roughly $69 million, was dedicated to increased pension costs and increased spending for police as the administration looks to bring the force up to a strength of 6,525 officers from 6,375.
Nutter was forced to leave City Council Thursday as he attempted to present his budget. He and administration officials later met with the Tribune’s editorial board to discuss budget details. In addition, several officials also held a briefing earlier in the day.
Two things -- the fact that the proposal did not include funds for increased labor costs as part of its current labor negotiations, and a request by Nutter to cut a homestead exemption as the city implements AVI -- were sure to generate debate.
The proposal did include $26 million next year for future contracts with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, District Councils 33 and 47and the International Association of Firefighters, Local 22. In all, a total of $84 million was set aside for contracts over the five-year plan.
The move to the AVI will result in property tax revenues of roughly $1.2 billion – the same as last year.
The mayor has consistently said the shift to AVI would be revenue neutral.
However, the plan included a lower than expected property tax rate. Nutter wanted council to tweak some of its plans for AVI and set a property tax rate at 1.32 percent, lower than previously discussed numbers which ranged as high as 1.4 percent.
In order for the lower rate to be enacted, Nutter said, the city needs to lower its homestead exemption from $30,000 to $15,000.
Doing so, said Finance Director Rob Dubow, will allow the city to provide other protections for low-income property owners. Dubow and several other administration officials briefed reporters on budget details before the failed speech attempt Thursday. It was too early to discuss details of those protections, said Dubow, saying they would be hammered out over the coming months in budget negotiations.
“We wanted to be able to do some dedicated relief to people who were seeing particularly large increases who lived in their homes for at least 10 years and who were low income,” he said. “So, we wanted to shift some relief to that.”
The administration has set aside $30 million for those unspecified protections.
Administration officials also included more money for property tax appeals under AVI. Nutter set aside $32 million for lost appeals, expecting the number of appeals to jump by about 50 percent.
The budget did include three tax cuts.
The sales tax will drop from 8 percent to 7 percent. The sales tax was boosted several years ago at the administration’s request, as an effort to bolster the city’s books during the recession. It was approved by the state legislature with the proviso that it be temporary. It sunsets this year.
Also, wage tax cuts will resume in fiscal 2014 after being halted in 2009.
Under the new budget the wage tax will begin to ratchet down from 3.93 percent to 3.76 percent for city residents and from 3.5 percent to 3.3 percent for non-residents over the next five years. .
Finally, the Use and Occupancy tax was also cut to .92 percent.
Nutter said his plan also included about $18 million in new investments from a list of items that included $4.7 million for new fire department equipment, $1 million to expand library hours, $1 million to offset tuition increases at the Community College of Philadelphia and $1 million for the Revenue Department to step up tax collections.
The plan also called for the sale of Health Center 1, at the corner of Broad and Lombard streets, police headquarters, and the city morgue. All three facilities will be consolidated at a new facility at 4200 Market Street at cost of $195 million. According to Dubow, the move was part of a larger plan to raise money by selling Center City real estate.
The controversial paid sick leave bill was comfortably approved by City Council Thursday, over the objections of the business community, which has argued that the move will hamstring the city’s economy.
Council disagreed and approved the bill by a vote of 11 to 6, a larger margin than in 2011 when a similar measure passed by 9-8, only to be vetoed by Mayor Michael Nutter.
“These workers are good people and they work hard and they deserve the right benefits,” said the bill’s sponsor Bill Greenlee, urging his colleagues to support it. “And it’s time to do the right thing.”
It passed with the approval of members Cindy Bass, Jannie Blackwell, Blondell Reynolds Brown, W. Wilson Goode Jr., Greenlee, Bobby Henon, Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones Jr., Maria Quinones Sanchez, Marian Tasco and Council President Darrell Clarke.
Voting against the proposal were Bill Green, Jim Kenney, Dennis O’Brien, David Oh, Brian O’Neill and Mark Squilla.
Nutter would not say whether or not he would veto this proposal.
“It is my policy; I don’t predict what I’m going to do on legislation,” the mayor said, adding that his broad views had not changed.
The bill would require employers to provide one hour of paid sick time off for every 40 hours worked. Large firms, those with 20 employees or more, would be required to give seven sick days a year. Small employers, those with between 5 and 20 employees, would give four paid sick days. Organizations with fewer than 5 employees are exempted.
The vote was preceded by a lengthy debate as members aired their differences and the public had a chance to comment.
Business officials again argued against it.
“We ask for a no vote on this legislation for one simple reason. It will not create one new job in Philadelphia,” said Rob Wunderling, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
Oh and Green pointed out that Philadelphia has high unemployment – 10.6 percent, according to Green – and is expected to lose jobs in the coming years. Oh said those jobs were likely to be low-paying.
Both men were booed by the audience, which consisted of many union members.
“The issue is going to be whether we are going to create more jobs or lose more jobs,” said Oh.
Several city residents asked Council to put business interests aside and think of the working man.
“If you all want to do something for, we the people, pass the bill. Stand with us,” said Marvin Robinson.
Vincent Fragle, a member of of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, District Council 33 put the issue in the context of the city’s labor movement.
“What are you going to do?” he asked, saying that all workers – union and non-union, public and private –- deserved sick days. “Are you going to get your heads out of the sand or just smile and shake our hands and give us the bull**** like you’ve been doing?”
Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said members needed to think of the larger context of history.
“We cannot be afraid of pushing the needle in the right direction for the sake of humanity,” he said. “We will be judged, not by what we do for the strongest of us, but by what we do for the weakest of us.”
Council President Darrell Clarke is urging patience as residents adjust to new property tax assessments and brace for the upcoming budget debates in city Council.
“The thing I’ve asked my colleagues and people in general is – be patient,” he said.
Clarke sat down with a group of reporters from the city’s smaller newspapers to discuss this year’s budget and the move to AVI, and to give a glimpse of how the city might raise more revenue.
The city’s need for more tax revenue and how that might be achieved was at the heart of the conversation.
Implementing the Actual Value Initiative – a real estate tax system based on market values rather than a fractional value – has evoked an outcry from many city residents since new assessments started hitting mailboxes last month.
For many, rising property values are expected to substantially increase their taxes. But, it’s really too early to tell, Clarke said, because Council has not yet set the tax rate – the number that will ultimately determine which direction taxes on individual properties will go.
“At this point, I think it’s, frankly speaking, a disservice to a number of people to talk about what the rate is going to be, what the rate won’t be,” he said. “The reality is that at this point, nobody knows what the rate is going to be.”
Several tax rates have been thrown around. They range from 1.4 percent to 1 percent.
“It’s our job to figure that out,” Clarke said.
Council will ultimately set the rate as part of the city’s budget process, and the final rate depends on several factors – including the value of all of the real estate in Philadelphia and how much revenue is lost through protections offered to property owners – things like a homestead exemption.
In addition, the state could grant Council the authority to do a number of things that would radically change residents’ tax bills.
There are four separate proposals now in Harrisburg that could help residents by expanding Council’s options as members struggle to raise revenue without hitting residents too hard. The proposals include: a measure that would give Council the authority to give longtime homeowners a break in their taxes, another that would allow low-income tax payers to pay in installments, one that would allow the city to file tax liens on all property owned by delinquent taxpayers and one that would allow the city to set one tax rate for residential properties and another for commercial.
“Those four measures would be very helpful to us,” Clarke said, noting that their passage by the state legislature is not guaranteed. All would need state approval and the allowing of two tax rates would require an amendment to the state constitution.
Clarke urged property owners to look carefully at their new assessments and bring any questions before the city.
Assessments are likely to evolve, he added, as residents and the city hammer out values and the assessment process is fine-tuned.
“I think the assessments will change in three years,” Clarke said. “They attempted to do something in one year … something that’s traditionally done in three years. In three years, I don’t expect assessments to be the same.”
Looking ahead, Clarke said he thought the city’s need for money could force Council to consider a number of new things.
Among them, the Council president said he expected changes in the city’s tax abatement program, which gives new property owners or property owners who renovate a 10-year break from paying their property taxes.
Clarke endorsed the concept of abatements, but said he’d like to see changes that would give the city more authority in where they are applied. As an example, he said abatements were not needed in neighborhoods where real estate sales were hot – like Center City or Northern Liberties. But, in other areas, like the Southwest or sections of North Philadelphia, abatements could be used to fuel growth.
“Why do we need a 10-year tax abatement in what is the city’s hottest neighborhood?” he asked. “I just don’t think we do.”
He suggested abatements that dropped as time passed or abatements at different levels for different neighborhoods.
He also said he expected this year’s budget talks to include a discussion about asking city nonprofits to make some payment in lieu of taxes.
“I think we’ll have that conversation,” he said, estimating it could bring in as much as $8 million for the city’s $3.6 billion budget. “In the overall scheme of things it’s not going to make that much of a difference. And, I think you’ll see significant pushback.”
Roundtable discussions with reporters are rare among city officials. Administration officials do meet with groups of reporters to discuss things like the city’s budget or other major initiatives. For council officials it’s more rare. Clarke said he intended to change that.
“One of the things that we want to do is be a little more outgoing, be a little more aggressive in terms of interacting with the community,” he said.