Most people don’t follow the city budget process, but schools, housing, and police stand out

How should Philly spend taxpayer money? We want your opinion.

We asked people downtown to chat about the budget — but not many were interested to give their opinion. We're asking again below.

We asked people downtown to chat about the budget — but not many were interested to give their opinion. We're asking again below.

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Philadelphia’s budget season is here. More than any words from an elected official, how the city spends taxpayer money clarifies what municipal leaders’ priorities are.

As the debate continues over Mayor Jim Kenney’s $5.6 billion proposal for Fiscal Year 2023 (which starts in July), the concerns of elected officials, business groups, neighborhood associations, activists, and other organizations will be on display. But most Philadelphians likely won’t be following budget season at all.

Maybe that’s just “how it goes.” But is that how it should be?

Knowing just about every resident has an idea of some kind of change they’d like to see, I set out — traversing the Fashion District, Chinatown, and the area around City Hall — to ask passersby what I thought was a simple question: What’s one thing you think Philly should spend more money on?

Getting answers wasn’t easy.

Among the priorities that a few people were willing to share with me, three residents highlighted funding for schools, a section of the budget where deep disagreements have already emerged.

“Education for the urban youth, because we lack that. They closed a lot of rec centers down, activities for the kids. There’s nothing for the kids out here,” went one response.

Another resident suggested decreasing the police budget to aid schools, and reinvigorate investment in recreation centers and social services.

One person, a security guard who noted they were a “former car driver,” highlighted the Streets Department. Services and shelter for Philadelphians without homes were another priority they shared.

But most people I tried to hear from didn’t answer at all. Some people were turned off by the idea of talking to a reporter — and hey, that’s their prerogative — but for others, it was the subject matter.

After about two hours, I noticed a common pattern:

  • Step 1 — Introduce myself as a Billy Penn reporter, find someone who says they’re open to answering a question
  • Step 2 — Ask them what they think city should prioritize when crafting the budget
  • Step 3 — From there, watch folks say some variation of “never mind” or “I don’t know about all that,” and, with their interest un-piqued, keep it moving.

So why were people specifically disinterested in talking about city spending? It’s their money, after all.

A better effort to connect spending to action might be a way to get more people to tune into this year’s budget process, said City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, who has no say in budget allocations but is in charge of auditing the city’s finances.

“I think what elected leaders in government need to do a better job on, and this is what my office is working towards, is explaining the connection between the actual budget and what gets done in the city,” Rhynhart said.

Her office is sharing a new series of primers published online. Along those lines, City Council provides an online “Budget Center” that serves as a hub for scheduling news — which is subject to change — links for viewing, and past sessions.

And City Council is certainly interested in the budget, so we asked each member to lay out their fiscal priorities for this year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was one abiding concern across the board: public safety. Where public safety issues are listed below, it’s to indicate a program or plan specific to that representative. Investing in the city’s youth, equity and a fair provision of services across Philly, and addressing quality of life issues were other mainstays among elected officials.

I actually asked each council member to share one priority for the next fiscal year, but they piled on with several. For those who responded, we’ve listed a streamlined summary of their answers below.

Also, we want to hear from you:

What elected officials are eyeing in FY23

Councilmember David Oh

  • Supporting efforts to increase community police patrols and funding for enhanced technological capabilities like high definition cameras and drones.
  • Urging SEPTA – which receives an annual contribution from the city – to increase funding for uniformed transit police officers, not private security.
  • Funding local witness protection services.

Council Majority Leader Cherelle Parker

  • More funds to ensure more neighborhoods have community policing, aka PPD initiatives that see more officers walking a beat, aiming to become trusted figures in neighborhoods.
  • Additional funding to ensure the Streets Department and other agencies can address quality-of-life issues, specifically having enough License & Inspections agents to enforce legislation.
  • Money to establish a Black and Brown Barber Shops and Salons Relief Fund.

Councilmember Gilmore Richardson

  • Investing in workforce development so Philadelphians can have access to family supporting and sustaining careers.
  • Resourcing the city’s stated commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and prioritizing the needs of environmental justice communities.
  • Addressing public safety by continuing the Community Evening Resource Centers.

Councilmember Gym

  • Funding for an exponential growth in summer time and weekend activities for youth in the zip codes most impacted by gun violence.
  • Funds to ensure libraries remain open six days a week — which must include weekends — all year round.
  • Preserving and expanding eviction prevention, increasing right to counsel and housing counseling services in neighborhoods of need.

Councilmember Quiñones Sánchez

  • Using an equity lens across all operations departments to deploy city services where they are most needed, in historically underserved and marginalized neighborhoods, and planning for equitable service delivery across every department.

“For example, CLIP is needed in every neighborhood. So in Kensington, where there is especially high need due to the ongoing public health and safety crisis, we need a specific crew to ensure that other neighborhoods don’t lose essential services.”

Council President Clarke

  • Dramatically preventing and reducing gun violence in our city, through a “wide array of programs to prevent violence”
  • Reducing poverty in Philadelphia.

“We’ve invested over $10 million in a public-private Poverty Action Fund, with the goal of helping to lift 100,000 people out of poverty by the end of 2023.” – Joe Grace, Clarke’s communications director

Councilmember Domb

  • Forwarding public safety, including investments in Group Violence Intervention, which have proven to work across the country.
  • Creating educational opportunities in our schools that teach skillsets applicable for today and tomorrow’s economy – financial literacy, mentorship, entrepreneurship, and technology training.
  • Policies that allow businesses to grow in our city while attracting new businesses that want to locate here.

Councilmember Gauthier

  • Ensuring that last year’s $70 million investment in anti violence initiatives was not a one-time attempt, but a baseline to reference until violence decreases.
  • Focusing on how the City delivers services, which aren’t deployed evenly from neighborhood to neighborhood — with working class communities of color usually bearing the brunt of the harm this causes.

Councilmember Thomas

Investing in Philadelphia’s youth, through prioritizing the budgets of:

  • The School District
  • The Office of Children and Families
  • Parks and Recreation
  • The Streets Department

Councilmember Green

Councilmember Johnson

  • Combating gun violence — more $ for advocates, CBVP, staffing for data collection, and $250 million for violence prevention initiatives.
  • Getting yearly dedicated funds for the Marian Anderson museum.
  • Ensuring that upcoming property assessments don’t impose undue hardships on low-income homeowners, especially in Point Breeze and Grays Ferry.

Councilmember Jones

“As Chair of Public Safety, it [Jones’s priorities] would be these departments – Police, Fire, Courts, the Citizens Police Oversight Commission (CPOC), Witness Protection and Relocation, and adequate funding for Prisons as well as the modernization and expansion of the Forensic Lab to address case closures.”

Councilmember Bass

“Funding for anti-violence measures including Parks & Recreation and schools, as well as quality of life departments, Streets, Licenses & Inspection, and Health.”

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