Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council consider racial equity in budget negotiations


Mayor Jim Kenney wants to change the way police respond to mental health crises, reduce prison costs and fund a health equity plan. He launched these initiatives et al in its $ 5.2 billion budget proposal as ways to improve racial equity in Philadelphia.

The city council has its own ideas.

Lawmakers want to improve equity by investing more in neighborhood programs, eviction diversion programs and violence prevention; rejecting Kenney’s proposed tax cuts for suburban commuters; and spend more on a targeted plan to help black and brown business owners.

Elected officials in Philadelphia and elsewhere have focused on racial inequalities in public policy over the past year with greater prominence than ever before, due to the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color and the protests after Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd. But they don’t agree on what to do with limited funding.

Council members came up with different ideas and expressed skepticism about Kenney’s promises. And while it is typical for the Council to push for increased spending in certain areas during budget negotiations, this year’s debate is largely focused on inequalities in a city that is 40% black and struggles with high poverty rates. high and a racial wealth gap.

“I have never heard so much emphasis on fairness and fairness and ensuring that all residents of the city of Philadelphia benefit from the recovery,” board member Curtis Jones Jr. said at the meeting. ‘a budget hearing this month.

Jones said promoting fairness was easier said than done as the city recovers from the pandemic and spends money on the $ 1.9 trillion federal stimulus package. For example, he said, economic development is not often concentrated in poor or black neighborhoods.

“Good news was coming to Navy Yard and South Philly, but not so much to places like Parkside, American Street, Hunting Park,” he said.

READ MORE: Philadelphia decides how to spend its billions. We want to know what your priorities are.

Jim Engler, Kenney’s chief of staff, said at the same hearing that the city now has a COVID-19 recovery office to oversee the distribution of the stimulus money. But it can be difficult to relate the money spent to specific results, and officials said change could take years.

“There are definitely big things we will be looking at over time: poverty by race, median income by race … homeownership rates,” city budget manager Marisa said. Waxman.

Waxman said this year’s process included a requirement that departments detail how their proposed budget would impact racial disparities. Kenney’s administration has also formed an equity committee and educated various groups, including city employees and other stakeholders.

City council is due to approve a spending plan by the end of June. Some members criticized Kenney’s proposal as insufficiently bold in terms of fairness, economic recovery and stimulus spending. These criticisms have come both from the progressive bloc in the Council and from other lawmakers. Several have expressed skepticism about Kenney’s plan to cut wages and corporate taxes, especially for commuters, a group whiter and wealthier than the city’s population.

Council member Kendra Brooks told administration officials during budget hearings that the tax cut “Would shift the tax burden from the suburbs to the city dwellers.” Waxman responded that the cuts would serve other needs, such as luring workers into city offices and reducing Philadelphia’s reliance on the volatile payroll tax.

“We continue to see tax cuts and it doesn’t affect working class Philadelphians,” Brooks said in an interview. “So that was my main concern as we plan to cut taxes for some, but we still can’t invest in the programs that would make a difference in how Philadelphia looks over the next five years.”

READ MORE: The pandemic has taken a big chunk of Philly’s tax base. What if commuters continue to work from home?

Board member Derek Green said he was disappointed to see “just a drop in the bucket” being used to support black and brown businesses. He would like more of stimulus funds to help business owners, more targeted tax changes for small businesses, and a more targeted approach to working with local Black or Maroon-owned businesses for purchases and contracts in the city.

“Budgets demonstrate your commitment to these goals and objectives more than words,” said Green.

Board member Jamie Gauthier wants more funding for anti-violence initiatives. Council member Helen Gym wants money allocated by Kenney for corporate and commuter tax cuts to be spent instead on neighborhood programs and eviction hijacking. And Brooks raised questions about $ 270 million for South Philadelphia FDR Park in the capital spending plan, saying parks in other parts of the city deserve the same kind investment.

“If we are talking about investing in racial equity in the city budget, we need to make sure that we don’t go back to the status quo,” Brooks said. “Because the status quo was already not working for the city’s black and brown residents.”

READ MORE: Who Decides Philly’s Budget? Here is how the process works.

The disagreements do not mean the city cannot meet its equity goals, said Molefi Kete Asante, professor at Temple University and director of the department of Africa and African American studies. He said it was a positive step that so many lawmakers want to focus on the issue.

“These are discussions of political resources, but they are not necessarily philosophically different,” he said.

the Budget negotiations also occur as residents and activists pay more attention to the process. It started last year amid protests for racial justice and when some pushed for cuts to police funding.

Shane Riggins, an organizer with Tax the Rich PHL and part of a coalition urging lawmakers to cut police funding and investing more in neighborhoods, said he feared authorities were simply “co-opting the language” of racial justice.

“I don’t really trust most of the politicians in the place right now, and I think the more pressure there is and the louder people can be, the more hope I have,” Riggins said. “If the city council says it is not happy with this, I would like it to be followed by legislation.”

Kenney administration officials have said they are open to change when negotiating with the Council – and their job isn’t limited to the budget. The city is also working with a consultancy firm so that each department draws up a plan to combat racial disparities. The first cohort of 10 ministries began this process in December. The Revenue Department, for example, is reviewing its fundraising strategies to determine if they are having a negative impact on communities of color, said Neferteri Sickout, the city’s head of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“It’s definitely going to take a while, but hopefully as we change internally we’ll start to see improved results externally,” Sickout said.

Asante, the Temple professor, said tying racial equity initiatives to the city budget can be a way to ensure there are actions and not just empty promises.

“It can’t just be rhetoric in the sense that people talk to no avail,” Asante said. “It must be exploitable. And when it’s actionable, we can see results. “

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