Members vote unanimously to keep the controversial pension program

 

City Council unanimously overrode the mayor’s veto of DROP legislation on Thursday but sustained — temporarily, according to the bill’s sponsor —– his rejection of the paid sick leave bill.

Council took action on a number of controversial items this week while continuing its debate over redistricting. Thursday afternoon was largely taken up with a public hearing on redistricting as Council struggled to move two proposals out of committee in time for vote next week.

Nothing had moved out of committee as of Tribune press time.

Paychecks for Council members have stopped until a redistricting plan is approved.

The override of Mayor Michael Nutter’s veto of a piece of controversial legislation that kept the Deferred Retirement Option Program, with a few minor changes, sailed over the two-thirds hurdle needed for an override. Only three members had opposed the bill when it passed in June, and all three now changed their minds.

“If we vote to override the mayor, we save money,” explained Councilman Jim Kenney. “If we vote to sustain the mayor’s veto then that bill is defeated and we would still have in place the original legislation.”

The new law allows the controversial program to remain, but changes the rules for employees in an effort to save the pension fund money.

Now, employees will be required to work two years past their minimum retirement date before they could enroll in the program. And, a provision that guaranteed 4.5 percent interest payment on DROP payments was eliminated and replaced an interest rate equal to the one-year U.S. Treasury bond.

A study by Council estimated the changes would save about $1 million a year.

Nutter condemned the decision.

“Obviously, council is ignoring completely the vehement opposition of the public for whatever their own interests are,” he said. “It’s a program we can’t afford.”

Nutter said he would continue to work for the elimination of DROP. Adding that he hoped that Council will eventually change its mind — perhaps next year when a new council convenes.

“I am certainly hopeful that the current members would revisit this issue or with a number of new members, potentially a third of the body being new next term that more fiscal soundness will come into the decision making process,” he said.

Council sided with Nutter as far as paid sick leave and tabled a bill initially approved in June.

Its sponsor, Bill Greenlee, moved to table the bill just as it appeared it would come up for vote.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have 12 votes,” he said, obviously deflating the handful of activists waving signs supporting the measure.

He went on to promise that he would re-introduce the proposal after a new council was seated and said that he thought it would pass eventually.

“This issue is coming,” he said. “In every poll that was taken, the citizens of Philadelphia said this is a good bill.”

Nutter vetoed the bill in late June saying it would dampen the business climate in a city that is struggling to create jobs.

“The bill as written was bad public policy and bad for the city,” Nutter said. “Quite frankly this is more of the type of thing that would put the city at a disadvantage.”

A vote on another controversial bill — a reduction in the city’s parking tax — divided members, four of whom asked Kenney, the bill’s sponsor, to withdraw, suggestions he declined and ended up passing by a 12-5 vote. Council members Bill Green, Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Brian O’Neill, Blondell Reynolds Brown and Darrell Clarke opposed the bill. Green, Sanchez, Brown and Jack Kelly asked Kenney to hold the bill, which will slowly decrease the parking tax from its current 20 percent to 17 percent starting in 2014.

Nutter had very vocally opposed the plan and had also asked Kenney to hold it in a letter sent Thursday morning.

“We can’t afford it at this time,” said the mayor, saying it would create a hole in the budget that would be difficult to fill. “When you look at what’s going on in the national and local economy. Unemployment unfortunately is slightly creeping up. Tax revenues in two big areas for us — wage and sales taxes — were weaker in July and August.”

The mayor also opposed the plan because parking garage officials said they would not pass their savings on to consumers.

“It is astounding to me that the parking industry folks testified that they will not reduce the parking rates for folks who use parking lots for years while they will absorb what, in essence, is a significant windfall,” he said. “So, it’s an insult and a rip-off to the parking public.”

Asked whether he would veto the bill he replied: “I’ve not made a decision.”

In other news, Council stepped onto the international stage, passing a resolution “reaffirming the commitment of the United States to a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The resolution was proposed in advance of a United Nations vote on a Palestinian move to establish an independent Palestinian state without consulting the broader community of nations.

It passed 14-2 with Sanchez and Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., opposing and Donna Reed Miller abstaining.

The resolution, the type of thing that usually passes quietly, stirred up a debate among audience members. Ten speakers rose to discuss the issue; eight for and two against.

Israel’s Consul General in Philadelphia, Daniel Kutner, urged Council to pass the measure.

“Israelis are not against a Palestinian state,” he said. “They are only against it if it’s declared unilaterally.”

Susan Landau, a Jewish resident of East Falls, urged Council avoid the issue.

“Why is City Council reaching out to get involved in supporting legislation that is divisive within the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities and has nothing to with the city of Philadelphia? Matters related to Israel and Palestine go well beyond the purview of this body.”

 

Contact staff writer Eric Mayes at (215) 893-5742 or emayes@phillytrib.com.

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