Darrell Clarke
Fox 29

Tough questions bubble up during City Council’s soda tax session

Darrell Clarke didn’t hold back this time.

After weeks of mostly silence on Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed sugary drinks tax, the City Council President offered thoughts last week that the 3-cent-per-ounce proposal might be too steep. He went even further today. At a Council hearing where members heard the mayoral administration’s support for the tax and floated ideas of their own, Clarke pressed Director of Finance Rob Dubow about the locations of Philadelphians most likely to drink soda.

“Consumption [is] primarily in low-income neighborhoods,” Clarke said. “I don’t know why it’s that difficult to say.”

Dubow had started the meeting introducing why the tax was necessary for the administration’s goals of universal Pre-K, community schools and pension crisis alleviation. He estimated the soda tax could bring in $95 million annually and that there would be a 55 percent drop in consumption. He said the administration’s estimation models accounted for the entirety of the tax to be passed onto consumers, though he said experts believed it was highly unlikely.

With a map showing how corner stores and low income neighborhoods displayed to his left, Clarke asked who Dubow expected would continue to drink soda. Dubow didn’t offer a full answer, and Clarke kept following up.

Dubow: “This is a tax people don’t have to pay if they don’t buy it. There will be people who continue to drink it.”

Clarke: “Where will the likely purchases be?”

Dubow: “That will depend on choices people make.”  

Clarke: “Where geographically will they continue to drink?”

Dubow added there would be a greater falloff in consumption in areas with the most consumption now. Clarke joked that Dubow would make a good politician.

Dubow insisted later in the meeting to Councilwoman Maria QuiñonesSánchez that his staff had looked through the entirety of the city’s $4.5 billion budget and found no way to replicate the $95 million in annual revenue his office estimates the tax will bring in. QuiñonesSánchez, who spoke at anti-soda tax demonstration last week, said she attended a senior center last week and saw no beverages that would be exempt from the soda tax. Health commissioner Thomas Farley responded, “There was no water?”    

QuiñonesSánchez later called the tax regressive and said, “There is this elitist view that the people we’re highlighting on this map have options.”

Throughout the session, council members discussed other ways of bringing in revenue. Subjects broached included delinquent real estate and, particularly for Councilman Allan Domb, raising the rates of court fees to keep up with inflation. Domb also suggested they consider taxing diet sodas as a way of reaching what he thinks could be a more affluent population.

“I think everybody loves the initiatives,” he said. “If we can broaden the base I think it’s going to make things a lot better.”

Curtis Jones Jr. showed the most open support of any Council member regarding the tax. He told a story about how if you looked at a map of recent murders in Philadelphia you’d find them in about the same 11 zip codes where you’d also find high diabetes rates and not enough opportunities for children.

“I’m down for saving those jobs and saving Pepsi and Coke,” he said, “but I’m sure down for saving those kids.”

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