Philly’s coronavirus response

Hundreds laid off, no arts funding and every other reason people are protesting Kenney’s budget cuts

The pandemic has torn a half-billion dollar hole in Philly’s finances.

City employees staged a socially distant rally outside City Hall to protest planned layoffs

City employees staged a socially distant rally outside City Hall to protest planned layoffs

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Facing a gaping $649 million shortfall in Philadelphia’s budget, Mayor Jim Kenney is now defending himself from all sides over his proposed cost-saving cuts.

The revised plan introduced in early May hacks off a huge chunk of the proposed $5.2 billion budget Kenney’s administration put forth just two months earlier, slashing beloved programs, constricting departmental budgets and, most controversially, laying off a fleet of city workers.

City Council is reviewing Kenney’s proposed cuts as criticism mounts. The city’s next fiscal year begins July 1, by which time the legislative chamber is expected to pass an agreement on the final revisions back to the mayor’s desk.

But the changes are sweeping and complicated. Here’s an overview of which cuts are facing the most scrutiny, protest and pushback.

Layoffs are the biggest concern

The city employs over 30,000 full-time, part-time and seasonal workers. An estimated 400 will be effectively laid off as of June 1, although the Kenney administration has not yet provided a final number. The eliminations are slated to hit several departments, and include hundreds of seasonal workers — like those who usually run Philly’s shuttered public pools.

Who’s pushing back? Workers impacted by the cuts have taken to the streets — at a distance. On Tuesday, over 40 people from Philadelphia Municipal Workers United, an advocacy group for some city employees, gathered with masks on to demand Kenney seek alternative solutions to laying off workers. They propose hiking up taxes on big businesses, reinstating payments in lieu of taxes for large nonprofit institutions and implementing a personal property tax on the wealthy. PMWU also launched an online petition that has gathered more than 1,300 signatures.

What the mayor says: “[This is] one of the saddest things we’ve had to do, but based on the reality of our economic situation, that had to happen,” Kenney said at a news conference Tuesday.

Kenney’s administration has been reluctant to move on PILOTS — when a nonprofit makes voluntary municipal payments in lieu of taxes — for large institutions like Penn. Speaking Tuesday, the mayor also cited the state’s uniformity clause that prohibits taxing wealth brackets at different rates. PMWU’s alternative funding pitches are legally feasible to some extent, tax experts told the Inquirer. However, political resistance remains a more significant barrier.

Free Library’s staff and programming

Many of the employees targeted by the layoffs are seasonal assistants, facility guards and after-school program workers at the city’s 54 library branches. Erin Hoopes, a library supervisor and member of Philadelphia Municipal Workers United, said the layoffs will hit around 250 workers in the library system.

Who’s pushing back? The library advocacy efforts are rolled into PMWU’s actions. For now, Hoopes says she doesn’t see how the library can re-open its doors without the staff who have been laid off: “We were pushing before six day service, but I don’t even know how we’re to open our doors even five days at this point.”

What the mayor says: The Free Library’s overall funding has been trimmed by 18%, according to the revised budget, but it remains unclear how cuts would impact services, beyond the layoffs. Advocates on social media claim the cuts have immediate impact on existing operations, from after-school programming to book digitization.

$4 million in cultural funding = gone

One of the first proposals to raise alarm was the $4 million cut that would functionally eliminate the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. Hundreds of arts and cultural groups relied on grants from the office through the Philadelphia Cultural Fund. The proposed cuts would also spell doom for the Art in City Hall program.

Who is pushing back? The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance called the cuts “difficult and extremely distressing.” At least one councilmember, freshman Isaiah Thomas, has been vocal about keeping the arts funding intact.

What the mayor says: Kenney has repeatedly emphasized that the city’s priorities are to maintain health, safety and education. In his budget proposal, he noted that many arts organizations “have demonstrated outside fundraising capacity.”

Officials nervous about funding November election

The new budget also hits pause on proposed spending increases some departments were relying on to meet new demand. Exhibit A: the City Commissioners, Philadelphia’s three-seat body of election officials.

In the original budget for the coming fiscal year, Kenney proposed adding $10.2 million to the city’s $12.2 million elections budget, the Inquirer reported. Under his new plan, that 84% boost is gone — and the top election officials say they won’t be able to keep up.

Who’s pushing back? Testifying to City Council on Tuesday, Commissioner Lisa Deeley suggested the budget freeze would gravely impact the ability to fairly and safely hold the November election. The pandemic has resulted in more than 206,000 Philadelphia voters applying for mail-in ballots for the June primary, and Deeley said the commissioners anticipate over 400,000 for the general election in November. Processing another surge in ballots will require much more labor than is currently accounted for, she said.

What the mayor says: The Kenney administration thinks it budgeted plenty to get through the November election.

Millions less for affordable housing and renter protections

Also buried in the budget are millions in cuts to various affordable housing, anti-eviction and other home repair programs, WHYY’s PlanPhilly reported. The potential loss includes $14 million earmarked for the Housing Trust Fund, as well as a 75% cut to its $2.1 million budget for the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, a new program that provides lawyers for renters in landlord-tenant disputes.

Who is pushing back? Councilmember Helen Gym blasted the proposed cuts this week. She and other advocates say they would decimate housing programs during a grim time for vulnerable owners and renters. Gov. Tom Wolf’s extended moratorium on evictions and foreclosures ends July 10.

What the mayor says: Officials have indicated that federal housing grants could “backfill” some of the lost funds, but no specifics have been provided. A city spokesperson said the financial shuffling reflects a desire to keep people in their homes, as opposed to trying to develop new affordable housing right now.

RIP street sweeping

Kenney’s proposed budget also axes the $11 million needed to finance the expansion of the city’s street sweeping pilot. Realistically, that means trash-plagued Philadelphia will remain the only big city in the country to lack a comprehensive street sweeping program for at least another fiscal year.

Who is pushing back? Not any one particular group, but advocacy around clean streets and maintaining job-providing programs at the city level have been incorporated into protests around layoffs.

What the mayor says: When Kenney ran for mayor in 2015, he campaigned on making citywide street sweeping a reality. Not happening in this economic environment, he now says.

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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