City Council preview: Everything Philly government is (and isn’t) fighting about this fall

The construction tax debate is just the start.

Philadelphia City Council

Philadelphia City Council

Philadelphia City Council on Flickr
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Update 2:28 p.m., Sept. 14

A new season of City Council begins this week, and it’s gearing up to be an interesting one.

Next year will bring a fierce municipal election, so there’s the distinct awareness that, for some members of the legislative body, it could be their last. Elected officials are on the hunt for 11th-hour wins to bolster their sales pitches on the campaign trail. But they also want to avoid ruffling too many feathers in the process.

As the gavel rang on Thursday, councilmembers were already tangling with Mayor Jim Kenney over the fate of the construction tax and Councilwoman Cindy Bass had introduced a surprise bill calling to abolish the 10-year tax abatement. There’s also a few other bills on the slate that could shake things up a bit.

Here’s a look ahead at what to watch.

The construction tax/affordable housing battle

Before Council’s first session on Thursday, lawmakers reached a deal with Mayor Jim Kenney to officially scrap the 1 percent “construction tax” bill. The compromise? Kenney will earmark as much as $71 million over five years for building and preserving affordable housing.

The agreement came at the eleventh hour before Kenney’s deadline to veto the tax bill.

After months of feuding between housing advocates and the politically powerful building trades unions, Council last June narrowly passed a bill that would impose a 1 percent levy on certain new construction projects. The money collected would be put toward the Housing Trust Fund.

The bill sat unsigned on the mayor’s desk all summer, and there was speculation over whether he would veto. But it turns out a counter-proposal was in the works. Philly’s 10-year tax abatement — also the subject of increased scrutiny in Council — will start soon start bringing thousands of properties back onto the regular tax rolls. Kenney offered to divert the first year of those new tax revenues into the city’s affordable housing coffers.

“For that 11th year we would dedicate all new real estate tax revenue to affordable housing trust fund,” Jim Engler, Kenney’s newly promoted chief of staff, told reporters on Wednesday. “The city makes the full payment and there’s no negative impact on the school district. There are no new costs. This is revenue that is recurring and reliable.”

Some Council members who pushed the construction tax to its tight 9-8 victory made it immediately clear: Kenney’s proposal wasn’t enough.

Kenney’s initial  plan was to add almost $53 million over the next five years, based on an annually shifting number of properties coming back onto the tax roll.

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who co-sponsored the construction tax bill, said that investing less than $25 million per year would be “irresponsible.” (The construction tax would have provided at least $22 million a year, according to projections from the office of Council President Darrell Clarke, the bill’s other champion.) Engler countered that Council’s math on the construction tax is unrealistic.

The two camps landed on $71 million for the housing fund, in exchange for Council recalling the construction tax bill.

The administration was clearly trying not to make the public relations gaffe of vetoing a bill meant to increase affordable housing. And councilmembers mainly wanted to make constituents happy by providing more homes below the market rate. Kenney’s proposal does guarantee affordable housing dollars — at least for the time being.

But the symbolism in the battle lingers. Some advocates feel that developers profiting off the city’s real estate boom should be paying into the affordable housing fund — a dynamic absent in Kenney’s new arrangement. Moreover, they worry the abatement funding stream could dry up with the next mayor, whereas a tax-funded trust infusion would have more permanence.

Better work schedules, coming soon?

Councilwoman Helen Gym’s pitch to mandate a “fair workweek” law for retail and fast-food workers in Philly will also hit chambers in the coming session, likely to sharp opposition from the city’s business community.

Gym’s proposal is styled after similar bills that have passed in cities like New York and San Francisco to address workers’ concerns about chaotic scheduling that’s often driven by computer algorithms. There, this kind of legislation has successfully forced massive corporations to provide full- and part-time employees with more consistent hours.

Gym’s bill would require local branches of chains (i.e. Target, McDonald’s, et al.) to provide two weeks of work schedules in advance — and pay workers for cancelled shifts, among other benefits. According to Gym’s office, her legislation would impact 130,000 employees in the city, and 2 percent of the city’s restaurant workers, who often experience the most scheduling mayhem.

The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce has called the bill bad for business and indicated it will fight against the proposal.

Opposition notwithstanding, the bill already has eight co-sponsors, giving it a broad edge to pass the 17-person legislative body.

Plastic bag ban: Take 6

Councilman Mark Squilla tells Billy Penn that he plans to re-introduce a perennial idea to crack down on single-use plastic bags within the city limits.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before — in 2007, 2009, 2012, 2015 or 2017.

Whether the previous legislation aimed to do away with plastic bags outright or imposed a small fee for their distribution, industry lobbyists succeeded in thwarting various anti-plastic efforts during each go-round in Council. The state legislature has even tried to ban the ban itself, stripping local municipalities of the right to implement plastic bag restrictions. (This meta-ban was shot down by Gov. Tom Wolf last year.)

Meanwhile, the environmental impact remains staggering. Businesses dispense more than 900 million plastic bags each year, according to the Zero Litter and Waste Cabinet in Kenney’s office.

For the last few years, reusable bag enthusiast Squilla has been leading the plastic wars locally, but it’s unclear why the consistently-shot-down proposal would find its traction now, especially ahead of an election year.

“I also have some bedbug legislation,” Squilla added, referring to long-dormant recommendations that came out of his 2014 bed bug task force. Yes, Councilman, that’s definitely relevant.

Other fall resolutions

Some Council offices said they are recirculating tabled bills and proposed charter amendments from past sessions, while others provided scant details about upcoming legislation. “You’ll see,” teased At-Large Councilman Allan Domb.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown plans to present an update to modernize a 2011 bill to require landlords to test for lead paint in rentals to people with with young children.

Layla Jones, a spokesperson for Cindy Bass, said the councilwoman will soon introduce “a series of pieces of legislation to provide relief for those suffering from drug addiction.”

Councilman David Oh is planning another push for a charter change that would give councilmembers veto-power on the city’s new property reassessments, in cases where they exceed national cost-of-living standards. Oh has also been pushing to return the Philadelphia Parking Authority to local control.

Many legislators, spoken to around City Hall or on the phone over the summer, also pointed reporters to their non-binding resolutions.

Six-term Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said her office has four resolutions lined up for the fall, the biggest of which revolves around the 400-year anniversary of one of the first African slave ships shoring in the U.S.

“That’s going to be a big deal for us,” Blackwell said. “We’re going to create a lot of programs around that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of plastic bags distributed in Philadelphia each year. The correct figure is more than 900 million bag annually.