Cries of “phony baloney” echoed off the façade of the Comcast Center skyscraper this week as protestors shouted their accusations that Comcast’s Internet Essentials program hasn’t measured up to its promise.
“So many families don’t qualify for it,” said Dawn Hawkins of North Philadelphia. “They told me I was not qualified because I owed them back money from 10 years ago.”
Hawkins, the mother of two — a 23-year-old and an 11-year-old who attends L.P. Hill Elementary School — meets the main requirement, but said she has been kept out by other eligibility hurdles.
Comcast rolled out the program in September.
At the time, officials estimated that it could bring low-cost Internet service to as many as 150,000 Philadelphia students. That figure was based on the number of students in the free and reduced lunch program, the program’s main eligibility requirement.
It was a figure Hawkins said was “baloney.”
“It’s not going to impact anywhere near 150,000 families,” she said.
Hawkins felt there was too much fine print — intended to keep out the people who needed it most.
“They should bring down some of the barriers for the children in the community,” she said. “Our children, over and over, have been left out.”
In response to the protest, Comcast issued a statement saying it was committed to expanding the program.
“The goal of Internet Essentials is to get more Americans online and help close the digital divide,” said the statement. “Comcast is proud of its groundbreaking program to help close the broadband adoption gap and is particularly pleased that the rest of the cable industry has committed to participate in a similar program developed by the FCC … Comcast is partnering with scores of organizations to raise awareness, level the playing field, and get those students and their families connected.”
Hawkins was part of a group of about 15 protestors with Action United that gathered at the corner of 18th St. and JFK Boulevard on Wednesday afternoon. Several police officers stood between protestors and the glass tower. The city’s tallest building was also the site of a protest last fall that led to 10 arrests after members of Occupy Philly invaded the lobby there.
This week’s protest followed a meeting earlier this month between Comcast officials, Action United and a group of parents — who urged Comcast to drop some of the more restrictive eligibility requirements. Among their suggestions: a commitment to enrolling 75,000 families in Philadelphia, creating payment plans for customers who owe back bills, allowing existing Comcast customers to take part and a ban on credit checks.
Hawkins took part in a Jan. 10 meeting.
“They didn’t want to hear what we had to say,” said Hawkins. “When we met with them we asked, ‘If we work out a way to pay the back bill, will we still be qualified? The answer was ‘No.’ So, why put the program out here when there is so many barriers?”
According to a Comcast official, “tens of thousands” of people have enrolled in the program in 39 states, where an estimated 2.5 million families could be eligible to participate.
An informal survey, done by Action United in December, found that of 107 parents who met income requirements, only two were eligible. The majority, 62 percent, had not heard of the program; eight percent had and tried to sign up but were hindered by several things: delinquent Comcast bills, an application process that was too time consuming, or already having Internet service.
Internet Essentials provides broadband Internet access for $9.95 a month, and guarantees no price increases, activation, equipment or rental fees. It also gives participants a voucher for the purchase of a Dell or Acer computer for $149.99 and provides free digital literacy training courses in print, online or in person.
To be eligible, in addition to having a child in the free lunch program, participants must: live where Comcast offers Internet service, have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days, and do not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment.
More than 400 families enrolled; protestors call outreach a ‘PR gimmick’
Four hundred and sixty-three low-income Philadelphia families have enrolled in Comcast’s Internet Essentials program since it was unveiled last fall, according to a report released earlier this week.
The report provided a glimpse into the nation’s digital divide, in which Blacks and Latinos lag behind their white peers in access to a high-speed Internet connection.
“What we think we have here is the first live research on real American families living in poverty, who do not have access to the Internet today,” said David Cohen, the company’s executive vice president, who also announced several new initiatives that the cable giant hopes will expand the program. “There isn’t any better data out there in terms of the need of this population, and what motivates this population to sign up for the program.”
Cohen, on Tuesday, provided the first progress report on the Internet Essentials program intended to help low-income families get high-speed Internet access.
Within Comcast’s service area, 41,726 families were enrolled from a pool of 47,766 applications.
“We approved over 94 percent of the completed applications,” Cohen said.
The company could not provide the number of applicants in Philadelphia. However, it was on the company’s list of top 20 counties in its coverage area to enroll participants. Cook County, Illinois, topped the list with 5,109 participants.
When they rolled out the program in September, company officials said that based on income requirements, it would be open to about 150,000 students and their families in Philadelphia and as many as 2.5 million people in Comcast’s 39-state coverage area. Those figures were based on the number of students who received a free lunch in the school districts within that service area.
The report follows recent criticism from Action United.
Members of the group said barriers to the program kept out many of the low-income families the program was intended to serve.
They continued to make that argument this week, after seeing the numbers.
“There are too many hoops and obstacles still for anyone to believe that this program will address in any serious way the digital divide as it exists in low-income cities across America,” said Action United, in a statement. “Comcast calls less attention to the fact that only 463 families in Philadelphia out of 150,000 eligible, or just .3 percent, have been enrolled. We continue to believe that the Internet Essentials program is a PR gimmick without real substance.”
Cohen said the real problem was a lack of understanding among many of its intended customers on the importance of high-speed Internet service.
“Digital literacy and awareness remains the number one barrier to broadband adoption,” said Cohen. “All of our research demonstrates that the relevance of broadband, the ability to understand what it is, the value to the family and even to understand what you don’t understand remains a significant impediment to broadband adoption.”
Comcast has partnered with the Urban Affairs Coalition, among others, to raise awareness in Philadelphia. An official there agreed with Cohen’s assessment.
“People get broadband when they need it for work, they need it for school, or it came down to the right price point,” said Arun Prabhakaran, director of government and strategic partnerships, noting that many people have it on their phones and think that is enough. “The reality is you can’t … write any documents of length, write a résumé, fill out an application. And, employers are expecting that people are having some familiarity with a computer. It becomes ever more relevant in daily life.”
Internet Essentials provides broadband Internet access for $9.95 a month and guarantees no price increases, activation, equipment or rental fees. It also gives participants a voucher for the purchase of a Dell or Acer computer for $149.99 and provides a free digital literacy training course in print, online or in person.
According to Cohen, 5,500 computers have been sold to program participants and about 1,250 people took part in literacy training.
Cohen added that Comcast is hoping to expand its numbers and this year will roll out several changes to that end. Among them: Eligibility will be based on participation in the free and reduced lunch programs; students at schools that provide free lunches to all students will be automatically approved, and the company hopes to cut the cost of computers to program participants.
“Our goal is to do better,” he said.
Comcast Corporation has announced agreements with four new minority-owned independent networks.
After evaluating more than 100 proposals, Comcast selected four networks — two of which are majority African American-owned, and two that are majority Hispanic American-owned and operated and programmed in English. The networks will be distributed on Comcast Cable systems between April 2012 and January 2014.
“We are thrilled to work with such talented individuals to launch these new networks that will bring exciting and fresh content to consumers,” said David L. Cohen, executive vice president, Comcast Corporation.
“Comcast is committed to delivering programming that reflects the interests of our customers, and we look forward to integrating these great networks into our rich programming lineup.”
The two networks in the African-American category are Aspire and REVOLT.
Spearheaded by NBA Hall of Famer and entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson in partnership with GMC TV, Aspire will deliver enlightening, entertaining and positive programming to African-American families, including movies, documentaries, short films, music, comedy, visual and performing arts, and faith and inspirational programs. The network will launch by summer 2012.
“Aspire will be a network that encourages and challenges African Americans to reach for their dreams and will appeal to all generations,” said Johnson.
“Aspire will celebrate our heritage, our groundbreaking achievements and the fearless talent that has shaped American culture. I’m most excited about Aspire creating opportunities for the new voices, new visions and the next generation of storytellers.”
Proposed by superstar entrepreneur Sean “Diddy” Combs and MTV veteran Andy Schuon, the REVOLT network is designed to have programming inspired by music and pop culture. The network, which launches in 2013, will include music videos, live performances, and music news and interviews, and will incorporate social media interaction for music artists and fans.
“REVOLT is the first channel created entirely from the ground up in this new era of social media,” said Combs.
“We’re building this platform for artists to reach an extraordinary number of people in a completely different way. REVOLT will be live, like all great moments in television history. REVOLT will also be immediate, like today’s social networks. We know it was a highly competitive process and we want to thank Comcast for this opportunity to truly change television with REVOLT.”
The two networks in the Hispanic category are El Rey and BabyFirst Americas.
Proposed by Hollywood director Robert Rodriguez and FactoryMade Ventures executives John Fogelman and Cristina Patwa, El Ray is designed to be an action-packed, general information network in English for Latino and general audiences that includes a mix of reality, scripted and animated series, movies, documentaries, news, music, comedy and sports programming.
The El Ray network will include programming that features Hispanic producers, celebrities and public figures. The network has entered into an agreement to launch by January 2014.
“This partnership with Comcast signals an important moment for the Latino community in this country — we are passionate about creating a wildly entertaining destination that we can be proud of by appealing to both Latino and mass market audiences,” said the principals of El Rey.
“We are engineering El Rey to address a burgeoning opportunity to deliver unique, high-quality and compelling content to a hard-to-reach demographic, and are excited to bring more opportunities to generations of talent, storytellers and dreamers through this special partnership.”
Proposed by Spanish language television veteran Constantino “Said” Schwarz, this network is designed for infants, very young children and their parents and emphasizes the importance of early development of verbal, math and motor skills. The network will launch by April 2012.
“We are thrilled to partner with Comcast and commend them for recognizing the importance of quality education for young children,” said Schwarz.
“BabyFirst Americas aims to bring the essential academic building blocks for kindergarten readiness into the home, making it accessible for families all across the U.S.
In 2011, Comcast made a series of public interest commitments in connection with the NBCUniversal transaction, one of which is to launch 10 new independently owned and operated networks over the next eight years.
Of the 10 channels, four will be majority African American-owned, two will be majority Hispanic-owned and two will be operated by American Latino programmers. These criteria were established based on several agreements Comcast entered into with leading diversity organizations.
Each of the 10 networks will be added on select Comcast systems as part of the digital tier of service.
The locally-based nonprofit Urban Affairs Coalition will address a burgeoning education-related issue when it convenes a teacher-only symposium, “Educating in the Digital Age.” The day-long semester is scheduled for Wednesday at Drexel University’s Bossone Research Center.
Comcast, one of the leading sponsors of the event, has teamed up with UAC and Drexel University for the effort, which will also feature keynotes and sessions by nearly a dozen education and technology specialists, including Philadelphia Works, Inc. President and CEO Mark Edwards and Knight Foundation Program Director Dr. Aroutis Foster.
Philadelphia School District Superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr. will also attend, as will Drexel University Provost for University and Community Partnerships Dr. Lucy Kerman, and International Society for Technology in Education Board of Directors President Holly Jobe.
“Part of what we’re doing is talking about the digital divide and how we can get [parents and families] connected to the Internet, but at the same time, it is a very practical continuing education event for teachers across Philadelphia,” said Comcast Regional Vice President of Community Investment Bob Smith. “There will be a number of workshops were teachers can earn continuing education credits to keep them current in their classrooms. We’ve worked with experts to craft topics for the workshops so that they are relevant.”
Smith has said he has reached out the School District of Philadelphia – a prime partner in the event – and to the archdiocesan schools. Teachers throughout the city’s charter school network have also been invited to the symposium.
The overall topic, Smith said, is teaching in the digital age, and will take into account several revolving issues – paramount among them is convincing low-income families to invest in a computer and an inexpensive Internet connection.
Data provided by digital divide analytical outlet Anson Alex lends alarming credence to Smith’s call, as it shows that while six million students nationwide are taking online classes, a full half of the poorest households do not own a computer. Further, the data sets show that minorities have a significantly lower rate of Internet access, as compared to whites. White households, at 72 percent, by far is the largest demographic enjoying the Internet at home, followed by Hispanics at 57 percent. Black households trail both, as only 55 percent of their households have Internet service.
Also highlighting the importance of this discourse is that 80 percent of teachers feel that e-learning increases the quality of education.
“The main idea is that teachers are trusted, and this prepares them for the future, and the future looks very technology oriented,” Smith said. “The school district made tools online for students, and also made those tools available for parents to get engaged, so they understand how important it is to be connected. This really becomes critical for the economically-disadvantaged students.”
But for this to truly work all the way through, it will still boil down to at-risk families taking on another sacrifice to obtain even a low-power computer and Internet service. To that end, Comcast Executive Director David Cohen created the “Internet Essentials” program, which provides Internet access to qualified families for $9.99 a month. Smith believes, when it comes to educating their young, even the most pressed families can squeeze out ten dollars a month.
“The problem we have with low-income families is that the parents don’t use the Internet for work, so they don’t think the Internet is needed for homework,” Smith said. “And then they also have to make financial decisions. It’s a choice between maybe a pizza a month for the family or the Internet.”
The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania have announced that it will extend the contract of President Amy Gutmann for five additional years beyond its current expiration date.
“I am truly grateful to the trustees for their extraordinary support and for giving me the opportunity to work with so many talented individuals,” she said. “I am very proud of all that our fantastic faculty, staff, students and alumni have together enabled us to accomplish these past eight years, and I am confident that we will continue to move forward with passion and purpose.”
The extension, announced on Tuesday by trustees Chair David L. Cohen, will be formally ratified at the board’s meeting on June 15 and will extend Gutmann’s contract as president to at least June 30, 2019. The extension would make her the second longest serving president in the school’s modern history.
“The Trustees feel very strongly that Amy Gutmann is simply the best university president in the country,” Cohen said. “Under her superb leadership, Penn is a stronger and more vibrant institution than at any time in its storied history. She has done a fantastic job.
“Penn is an incredible resource for our community, our state, our nation and indeed the world,” he added. “As trustees, we feel a special obligation to ensure its continued success. We made a great choice in 2004 when we selected Amy Gutmann as Penn’s president and being able to keep her at the helm for another seven years is a huge win for our University. We are confident that she has the vision and the energy to keep Penn’s momentum going. If there is one thing on which our faculty, donors, alumni, students, overseers and trustees all agree, it is that Amy Gutmann is the right person to lead us into what we know will be a very bright future.”
As Penn’s president, Gutmann has championed greater interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship, enhancing the school’s stellar faculty by attracting world-renowned scholars, adding more than 100 new named professorships, including 14 Penn Integrates Knowledge professors jointly appointed between two schools, and launching a new Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence.
It could be noted that Penn’s students are some of the most academically accomplished and diverse in its history. Gutmann inaugurated Penn’s no-loan undergraduate financial aid program, which has greatly expanded access to a Penn education and become a model for other universities.
She has led one of the most successful fundraising campaigns in higher education history, with Making History: The Campaign for Penn attaining its $3.5 billion goal 16 months ahead of schedule and securing the largest single gift in Penn history – $225 million from philanthropists Ray and Ruth Perelman.
Alumni engagement has soared with participation at record-high levels.
Under her leadership, Penn Medicine has reached new heights in clinical care excellence and is more closely aligned with the university than at any point in its history.
Penn’s sponsored research funding has grown 23 percent to nearly $940 million annually.
Through the Penn Connects master plan, Gutmann has overseen a strategic and dynamic renewal of Penn’s campus, adding 47 acres — including Penn Park and the purchase of the former DuPont Marshall Lab property — and completing nearly 4 million square feet of capital projects. She has played a crucial role in strengthening Penn’s connections to its community, the nation and the world.
Gutmann, who assumed the presidency in 2004, expressed gratitude for the faith of the trustees in her leadership and pledged to build on the University’s momentum and history of innovation.
“The status quo will never suffice at this University,” she said. “Our boldness is a characteristic that has set Penn apart from its peers, and it will be what distinguishes us in the coming years.”
In addition to her duties as president, Gutmann also serves as the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences with secondary faculty appointments in Philosophy, the Annenberg School for Communication and the Graduate School of Education.
She has published widely on the value of education and deliberation in democracy, on the importance of access to higher education and health care, on “the good, the bad and the ugly” of identity politics and on the essential role of ethics –- especially professional and political ethics -– in public affairs.
Gutmann continues to be an active scholar as Penn's president, most recently lecturing on “What Makes a University Education Worthwhile?” and publishing her 16th book, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It (with Dennis Thompson) this month.
Appointed in 2009 by President Barack Obama, Gutmann chairs the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.
She also serves on the National Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences and on the boards of the National Constitution Center, the Carnegie Corporation and the Vanguard Group.
Gutmann has won the Harvard University Centennial Medal (2003) and the Carnegie Corporation Academic Leadership Award (2009) and was named by Newsweek one of the “150 Women Who Shake the World” (2011). On May 16, she will receive an honorary doctorate from Columbia University in recognition of the national leadership that she has shown in higher education.
“As the Making History campaign comes to a close, we will review our evolving strategic priorities and think very seriously about how we position ourselves in a changing higher education environment,” she said. “But in the end, everything we do at Penn will continue to be about our passionate commitment to make a Penn education the very best in the world.”
Source: University of Pennsylvania Office of Communications / Penn News
Two of outgoing City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller’s aides have been fined by the city’s Board of Ethics — and one of them was fired after admitting to performing unauthorized campaign work at Miller’s City Hall office.
Communications director Michael Quintero Moore and Kacy Nickens — who also happens to be Miller’s niece — were both fined by the board. Nickens was fired, too, after the pair admitted to working on fliers and other campaign material for Verna Tyner’s campaign at Miller’s office.
Miller endorsed Tyner in the May primary, after announcing that she would not seek re-election.
Moore has agreed to pay fines totaling $3,800–$1,800 for violating the city’s ethics code, which prohibits the use of city time and property for campaign work, and $2,000 for trying to obstruct the Board of Ethics’ investigation into the matter. He’s allowed to keep his $60,179 job until the end of the year, but then must seek employment outside City Hall for at least one year.
Nickens agreed to pay fines totaling $300 for doing campaign work in Miller’s office. She lost her job, at a salary of $30,000. The terms of the settlement also bar her from returning to a city job for one year.
Officials with the Board of Ethics announced the settlements early this week, after the board ratified the settlement agreements. Miller was not part of the settlement.
On May 13, just days after Miller announced her retirement, city officials raided her office, seizing stacks of documents and several computers.
According to documents released this week, they found Nickens “seated at Councilwoman Miller’s desk, surrounded by hundreds of copies of 59th Ward fliers promoting Verna Tyner … at the same time, the office photocopier was printing out additional copies of the fliers.”
Moore created the flyer using a computer, email and printer in Miller’s office, and gave more than 1,000 copies to Nickens with orders to fold them. He also admitted to creating other campaign materials for Tyner with office equipment at City Hall. In addition, documents released by the ethics board said Moore received reimbursement for the cost of putting together the fliers and used a City Hall computer to review the checks he received.
After the investigation started, Moore admitted to destroying computer files linked to the investigation and refused to take part in a board interview under oath, leading to the obstruction charge.
The investigation highlighted the barroom brawl atmosphere surrounding the election to replace Miller in the 8th District. Seven candidates ran in the primary. Tyner had Miller’s backing, but Cindy Bass, who ultimately won, had the backing of several Democratic Party bigwigs, which was unusual. Typically, the outgoing candidate anoints his or her replacement with the blessing of the party — or at the very least does not oppose the party favorite publicly.
That was not the case in this instance.
And when a letter on Miller’s official letterhead endorsing Tyner went out, ethics officials zeroed in on her office. At the time, officials from Miller’s office and Tyner’s campaign characterized the letter as “an inadvertent staff mistake.”
Tyner has a long history in City Hall, having served as chief of staff for the late Councilman At-Large David Cohen and Councilman At-Large Bill Greenlee.
Bass, who will take Miller’s seat in January, has a long history with the Democratic Party and deep ties to U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah.
Framing access to broadband Internet access as the newest frontier in the civil rights battle, Comcast celebrated the second year of its Internet Essentials program on Friday – announcing Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy as the program’s new spokesman.
“For young people of color today, Internet access is … important to their future, to their ability to break the cycle of poverty,” said David L. Cohen, executive vice president at Comcast, agreeing with a characterization by a United Nation’s report that declared access a civil rights issue. “Access to the Internet, the leveling of the playing field, improving access to education, healthcare, vocational opportunities, news, information, entertainment, that’s the unfairness we are trying to address.”
Officials said they hoped to expand the program’s reach this year. It gives parents with school aged children who participate in the free or reduced lunch program broadband Internet for $9.95 a month, for as long as the child is of school age. Typically, broadband costs between $40 and $50 per month.
“For the cost of a pizza you are now putting the world at your child’s fingertips,” said Brian Roberts, Comcast chairman, president and CEO.
The company’s renewed focus on the program, aimed at bringing broadband to low-income homes, comes several weeks after the Federal Communications Commission released a report on broadband access. It was critical of the nation’s broadband infrastructure and highlighted the digital divide, which leaves low-income households without access to high-speed Internet.
A report released earlier this year by the Investigative Reporting Workshop (IRW), estimated that between 40 and 60 percent of Philadelphians have broadband at home. That breaks down to 44 percent of whites; 43 percent of Blacks and 11 percent of Latinos.
But, those figures varied widely according to zip code — Center City residents had a much higher percentage of people with broadband, 80 percent or higher — than did many areas of North and West Philadelphia, which had broadband subscription rates as low as 20 percent.
A display of the map included in that report served as the background for Friday’s press conference held at Constitution High School.
“The map says it all,” said Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite. “The digital divide is real.”
According to Cohen, in Internet Essential’s first year, the program signed up about 100,000 subscribers across the country. In Pennsylvania, there are roughly 4,500 subscribers, about 3,500 in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, and just under 1,500 in Philadelphia, he said.
Roberts added that he hoped everyone who met qualifications would take the opportunity.
“The goal is to get this everywhere,” he said. “It’s all about education.”
Though widely acclaimed, Internet Essentials did have some critics in Philadelphia when Comcast unveiled the program last year.
Action United, a local community advocacy group, urged Comcast to drop some of the eligibility requirements. Among their suggestions: a commitment to enrolling 75,000 families in Philadelphia, creating payment plans for customers who owe back bills, allowing existing Comcast customers to take part and ban credit checks.
Internet Essentials provides broadband Internet access for $9.95 a month and guarantees no price increases, and no activation, equipment or rental fees. It also gives participants a voucher for the purchase of a Dell or Acer computer for $149.99, and provides a free digital literacy training course in print, online or in person.
To be eligible, in addition to having a child in the free lunch program, participants must live where Comcast offers Internet service, have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days, and not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment.
Officials with Qatar — the oil-rich Middle East country that serves as both as one of the world’s busiest commercial transportation hubs and host to the largest U.S. Air Force base on foreign soil — were welcomed to the city last Friday by Mayor Michael Nutter and regional business executives, as the Qatar officials visited the city to get a better view of economic investment opportunities here.
The Qatari delegation included Qatar Ambassador to the United States and Mexico Mohamed Bin Abdullah Al-Rumaihi, former Qatar Ambassador to the United States and current President and Executive Director of the U.S.-Qatar Business Council Patrick Nickolas Theros. Comcast President and CEO David Cohen joined the mayor in welcoming Al-Rumaihi to Philadelphia and talked up the many pluses of partnering with Philadelphia.
“Philadelphia has a tremendous diversity of opportunity,” Cohen said, mentioning the city’s vibrant diversity, along with the city’s strong educational, pharmaceutical and commercial standing. “We have a very significant transportation and distribution hub, and it’s also our airport, our highway system and our rail system. A very easy city to get to and have goods transported from.”
Theros spoke highly of the America-Qatar relationship, noting that it began in earnest following the exploitation of the Al-Shaheen oil field in the mid-90s, and that presently there are roughly 10,000 Americans working in Qatar.
According Offshore Technology.com, Al-Shaheen, massive as it is, is part of the even bigger Dukhan field, which is operated by Qatar Petroleum. Offshore production is mainly via Exploration and Production Sharing Agreements with foreign oil companies in partnership with Qatar Petroleum on behalf of the Government of Qatar. The block 5, Al-Shaheen oil field is operated by Maersk Oil Qatar AS, and producing 300,000 barrels per day.
“We have a real good relationship with Qatar,” Theros said. “And the next step is to get more small-to-medium-sized businesses involved.”
The Qatari delegation will spend several days here, visiting universities and businesses while taking in the city’s many art and hospitality venues. The delegation will also tour many of the city’s historical landmarks and other areas of cultural importance.
“I came here two times before to visit friends who receiving the treatment of the highest quality from some of your hospitals,” Al-Rumaihi said, while complementing the city’s architecture and overall layout. “The friendship between the United States of America and the State of Qatar is very concrete.”
Al-Rumaihi spoke of wanting to increase Qatar’s cultural awareness and increase its humanitarian standing in the world. Al-Rumaihi said that Qatar has helped in the recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina, and is currently in Haiti, assisting with that country’s ongoing rebuilding efforts after a series of debilitating earthquakes and hurricanes.
“Today, Qatar has a very active policy and very active diplomacy, especially in the Middle East, United Nations and the world. We want to be strong and be engaged,” Al-Rumaihi said. “This is the responsibility we have taken. We know that we have to pay the price sometimes by political engagement, but we came here her to invest.”
Even with increase, school district’s revenue portion falls short
A 3.6 percent property tax increase was approved by City Council Thursday, the final piece of the city’s $3.6 billion spending plan, which officially set the city’s total allocation for the school district at $40 million.
It passed with a 12-4 vote.
Council members Jannie Blackwell, Bill Green, Dennis O’Brien and Brian O’Neill opposed the increase. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez was absent.
Blackwell called the increase “unconscionable” and said she felt obligated to oppose the move because many taxpayers in her district couldn’t afford higher taxes.
“I had to stand up and fight for them, even though we knew votes were there,” she said. “We have to try our best to represent the people who bring us here.”
For the average taxpayer, the tax hike means an increase of about $50 on a $1,400 bill.
This year’s increase comes on top of three consecutive tax increases. In 2010, members approved a 9.9 percent increase over two years and in 2011 added a 3.85 percent increase on top of that.
Coupled with a vote last week that raised the city’s use and occupancy tax by 19 percent, this week’s vote set aside $40 million for the school district, far less than the $94 million requested by the administration.
Council President Darrell Clarke said the decision was tough one.
“At the end of the day, we’re here to make tough decisions,” he said, adding that this year’s lengthy budget process allowed council to “reset the agenda.”
He was referring, in part, to the fact that Council will now have a voice in how a portion of the money aimed at the district will be spent. At least $20 million of the money destined for the school district will come through an accountability grant, which will hinge on the district’s cooperation.
“We will have substantive conversations, and we will formulate accountability measures as it relates to the passage of that grant,” said Clarke.
In the end, the feeling that Council was misled by district officials last year made members less compliant this year.
Even as members voted to approve some extra funds for the district, they criticized the School Reform Commission for again failing to keep them in the loop. At least four members said District officials failed to give them timely notification of last week’s meeting with candidates for superintendent.
“I want to echo my displeasure with the School District on the notification process for including us and any other stakeholder in the discussion about the superintendent,” said Councilwoman Marian Tasco. “It was unforgiveable to give [only] 24 hours notice.”
In addition to finalizing school funding, Thursday’s vote also laid to rest the possibility that Council would approve the administration’s Actual Value Initiative, which will now be delayed until next year.
Clarke urged members to consider how Council would deal with implementation over its summer recess.
“We just weren’t ready,” Clarke said. “But, there is a commitment to move forward with AVI in a fair and equitable way.”
He lauded Mayor Michael Nutter for getting Council to commit to AVI — albeit not within Nutter’s timeframe.
Despite divisions over the property tax increase, Council passed its operating and capital budgets with only one dissenting voice. Each passed with a 15-1 vote each, and in each case Councilman Bill Green voted against.
In other news, Council voted 10-6 to repeal a tax credit for low-income Philadelphians, which would have saved low-income residents an average of $300 a year. The ordinance was approved in 2004 at the behest of long-time Council member the late David Cohen.
His daughter, Sherrie Cohen, this week asked Council members to keep the law, which would not have taken affect until 2016 on the books.
“The poverty rate in Philadelphia today is 27.6 percent,” she said. “And, it’s only increasing. If Council votes to repeal this ordinance, they are increasing the misery and hardship of working Philadelphians.”
Councilmembers Cindy Bass, Blackwell, W. Wilson Goode Jr., Kenyatta Johnson, O’Brien and Mark Squilla voted against repeal.
Finally, Council decided, with a 9-5 vote, to retain Wells Fargo Bank for its payroll banking service. A number of protestors from Fight for Philly and Occupy Philly asked Council to terminate Wells Fargo’s business with the city, citing the bank’s “discriminatory and predatory lending practices.”
“‘Business as usual’ is not working out for too many of us,” said Anne Gemmell, political director for Fight for Philly. “We cannot afford another year with a bank that is too big to trust.”
The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce has selected Comcast NBCUniversal as the recipient of the first GPCC Diversity and Inclusion Award.
Comcast NBCUniversal was selected for its continued commitment to diverse hiring practices and for initiatives to expand and promote diversity and inclusion.
“It is an honor to be recognized for our commitment to expanding and enhancing diversity and inclusion within our organization and for the strides we have made in our diverse hiring practices,” said David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast Corporation.
“At Comcast NBCUniversal, diversity is embedded in our culture and at the core of what and who we are as a company and as individuals who represent and work on behalf of all members of our community.”
Cohen accepted the award during a meeting of the chamber’s board of directors on Thursday at the Bellevue in Philadelphia.
“We understand the importance of recognizing organizations that are leaders in diversity and inclusion practices and hope that their initiatives serve as an example for other businesses in our community,” said Rob Wonderling, GPCC’s president and CEO.
Created in 2014, the GPCC Diversity & Inclusion Award was created to honor those who best exemplify the standards set forth in the Chamber’s Diversity and Inclusion Statement. All companies who completed the Diversity and Inclusion Self-Assessment Tool distributed to regional businesses in January 2013, were considered for the award.