Council to Nutter: Find Your $105 Million Somewhere Else

Members challenge Mayor to find a school-funding solution that doesn't involve massive property tax hike.

Philadelphia City Council  | Photo Credit: City Council's Flickr page

Philadelphia City Council | Photo Credit: City Council’s Flickr page

Close, but no cigar, Mayor Michael Nutter.

That was the general message from Council members at their hearing Tuesday on Nutter’s five-year fiscal plan, the first budget hearing of the season.

Lawmakers said they expect to provide additional money to the city’s cash-starved school district, but not in the way the mayor has suggested. In response to a request from school officials for an extra $103 million, Nutter has proposed raising property taxes by 9 percent in order to send slightly more than that, $105 million, to the district.

“Our schools always come first, we’ve always been there. But I don’t think that raising these real estate taxes again is the way that we should try to get it,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. “People just can’t afford it. They’ll be very angry.”

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said the Nutter administration should comb through the budget for potential savings, using the city’s belt-tightening during the recession as a guide.

“We had our workforce give up a little bit, we had our residents give up a little bit, we had our business give up a little bit, and we turned the tide,” she said. “What does $103 million in shifting of priorities in this city budget, using the same methodology you used before, look like?”

Rob Dubow, the mayor’s finance director, said there is scant wiggle room in the budget and that any meaningful cuts would result in reduced city services.

“We don’t want to propose a tax increase,” he said. “We really couldn’t think of another viable option that would not damage our general fund.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers offered a few alternative ways to raise funds, such as soliciting payments from nonprofits or increasing the school district’s share of property tax revenues without raising taxes.

Council President Darrell Clarke called on city government to collaborate more with the school district in order to save money. For instance, he noted that 25 percent of the space in one Northwest Philadelphia school is not being used, and Councilman Curtis Jones‘ office is located a couple blocks away.

“It makes all the sense in the world for Councilman Jones to be in a position to actually to have his constituent service office in that school,” he said.

Under Nutter’s plan, the property tax would rise from from 1.34 percent to 1.47 percent. City officials said that would mean the median tax bill for homeowners would increase by $104 in the coming year.

By 2017, though, the Nutter administration said a typical homeowner could expect to see their property tax bill decrease by $287, compared to their 2015 bill, if Gov. Tom Wolf‘s budget comes to pass.

Wolf, a Democrat, wants to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in tax relief to Philadelphia, some of which would be used to lower property taxes for the city’s homeowners. In a GOP-controlled legislature, however, Wolf’s budget is far from a slam dunk.

All but one of City Council’s 16 members are running for reelection as they consider Nutter’s proposed property tax hike.

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