The Challengers: Sherrie Cohen Would Be a Bulldog for City Services
All week, Citified is featuring Q&As with leading at-large City Council Democratic challengers on topics of their choosing. The prompt was simple: if elected, what’s a problem you would you prioritize, and how would you address it? To keep the conversation substantive and on-point, we asked the candidates to focus on a relatively narrow question (i.e., not “schools,” or “crime.”)
Four years ago, Sherrie Cohen made a run for City Council At-Large in the primary election and lost by only 1,755 votes. Tuesday, she’ll seek the same office, but with seemingly even more momentum. Everyone from former Gov. Ed Rendell to the urbanist PAC 5th Square to the national Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund has lined up behind her. She is also the only challenger in the race to score an endorsement from the city’s Democratic Party.
If elected, Cohen says she would be a bulldog for city services. For Citified’s Q&A, she chose to talk about two services especially close to her heart: libraries and pools.
Citified: You decided to talk about the city’s libraries and pools. Why?
Cohen: Libraries and pools are important city services that strengthen our communities. They are anchors of our communities, the rec centers that we have. Libraries are also a tremendous educational and cultural resource, and a great help for families where adults looking for jobs can go online at their libraries to apply for jobs, since most jobs you have to, these days, go online. And we still have a huge digital divide in our city, where so many families still do not have the Internet at home. There’s after-school programming in libraries where students can go and also await their parents coming home from work to pick them up. They’re just a tremendous resource and hub of our community life.
Citified: I’m guessing you also picked libraries to talk about because of your advocacy to keep them open at the beginning of Mayor Michael Nutter’s first term.
Cohen: Yes. A number of years ago, the mayor was going to close down 11 neighborhood libraries permanently due to a temporary budget shortfall. One of those library branches was the one closest to me, the Ogontz branch. It was the newest library in the system. It had just been completed in 1997. So we heard that a number of libraries were scheduled to close and we waited to hear who was on the list and, as it turned out, our library was on the list.
I was active in the Friends of the Ogontz Library Branch. We were planning programs to bring in children into the branch. … We started rallying and protesting at our branch, and everyone at the 10 other branches did as well. We formed a citywide coalition to save our libraries. … Also the mayor began holding forums presenting reasons why it was necessary that these libraries close. The outpouring of support for the libraries was incredible.
Citified: What was your role specifically? You’ve said before you helped to keep libraries open. How did you do that?
Cohen: I was very active both in my local friends group to save our specific branch, but also very active in the citywide coalition to save the libraries. Plus a few of us lawyers got together to to see if we could win a case in court to keep the libraries open. The libraries were [to be] closed on December 31st of that year, and then the judge issued her ruling the day before December 31st, which she ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and essentially told the mayor that he did not have the authority to close the libraries. So those 11 branches were saved are still standing today.
For many years … because of the budget cuts at that time, different branches were paired with one another so that each branch was just open five days a week instead of six. But now, very recently, with more funding returned to the library system, these branches are all back on a six-day-a-week schedule.
Citified: Back then, when Mayor Nutter proposed closing libraries, he was in a tough spot. The city was in the midst of a huge budget crisis. What would you have done instead to close the budget gap?
Cohen: One of the things we proposed is what eventually ended up happening, which is to have lesser hours at the branches until full service could be restored. This just goes to the point of creative solutions being available to preserve city services as opposed to an immediate reaction that these incredible community resources must be forever shuttered because of a temporary budget shortfall that we’re having. And the mayor in his last budget address stated that his decision to close the libraries was the public policy mistake that he regretted the most.
Citified: So that explains why you wanted to talk about libraries. What about pools?
Cohen: After the victory, which was a people’s victory, of preserving these neighborhood libraries, we then formed a citywide coalition for essential services. And first on our agenda was reopening the 29 neighborhood pools that had been closed that summer, and again we rallied at one pool site after another. It was the sweltering days in the summer where children would often be in the recreational center areas. When we had the rallies, the children would be in front of the empty pools sweating, showing how much they would have preferred being inside the pool. And we were benefitted by the interest of the media and the human interest angle of the story, showing these young children. For a relatively small amount of money, these pools could have been open and they would have had the benefit of that recreation in their community. And we rallied until we got a commitment from the administration that the pools would be reopened the following summer and they were.
Citified: Is there anything you would do right now to change the city’s libraries or pools?
Cohen: Yeah. Certainly our rec centers are in need of more capital funding to restore them, to improve them. Our library system is in need of more funding for more resources and more staff and more programs so that they can more fully live up to their potential to be the community centers that they sometimes are. … If there was enough funding for staff in every evening, there would be so many more community programs that would be taking place there.
Citified: So you want to increase funding. How would you pay for that?
Cohen: I am a believer in progressive taxation, where those with the ability to pay should be paying. I’m a supporter of the PILOT program, “payment in lieu of taxes,” where our large city institutions that do not pay property tax would be encouraged to make voluntary payments to the city. This was a program that was underway much more so when Gov. Rendell was mayor. I think there was a proposal before City Council recently to increase the use and occupancy tax because commercial property owners got a windfall from a reevaluation of their taxes under [Nutter’s property tax overhaul, known as the Actual Value Initiative]. And a reform of the use and occupancy tax would have brought more city revenue in due to that proposal. So I think that there’s ways to bring in resources to our city, which do not place the burden of the budget on the backs of low-income Philadelphians.
Citified: Libraries have evolved in the last few years, where they’ve really become a place to use the Internet to look up jobs, learn, do other things. How do you think the city’s libraries will look in, say, 25 years?
Cohen: I see our neighborhood libraries as community centers of learning and connection, where neighbors come together for community meetings and come together for adult education classes, vocational training, GED classes, learning, hobbies. I think libraries have shown incredible versatility by offering a lot of youth programs as well, and bringing in youth. I think there also will be a great need and desire to hold books in your hand as you page through and discover the world. At the same time, there’ll be increased availability of computers for people to use, but I think the public library that was started here in this city as a first public library in the nation has a long future ahead of it, and one that every member of the community has a part.
Citified: Would you support moving from a library system that includes physical books to one made up entirely of e-books? Some have argued that would be cheaper and maybe even better for the poor.
Cohen: No, I think both are important. I mean having access to Kindles where you can read e-books, I think is wonderful. But again, I want every young person to experience the joy of holding a book in their hand and feeling that they can travel the world through the photos that they see and the people they can meet, and I think books will be with us for years to come.
Citified: Is there any scenario under which you would cut library or pool funding?
Cohen: No. These are positive goods in our community, which need to preserved and expanded.
Citified: Even if the city was facing the most dire budget crisis?
Cohen: Libraries are all about learning and that is needed. Emphasizing and encouraging learning is what should be a priority of our government. We say today that education is the top issue. Libraries are a key part of a child’s learning.
One thing that the Nutter administration hadn’t looked at when they made the plan to close libraries was which of the school libraries, which of the neighboring schools did not actually have their own library and were using the public library. So when they made the decision to close libraries, many of these libraries were the functioning library of a school that no longer had a library. And today, years later, there are that many less school libraries, that many less librarians available for students. And that has made the role of the neighborhood library even more important than it was a few years ago.
But of course I would like to see school libraries restored, school libraries returned, as well as having a robust Free Library system that children can come to after school, and that all members of the community can enjoy a benefit from.