COVID-19 in Philly: City Council approves $85.4M in coronavirus relief spending

The Philadelphia Skyline from the 'Rocky Steps' at the Philly Art Museum. Photo by Steve Lange, courtesy of Flickr Commons.

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Mayor Jim Kenney got his wish for an extra $85 million in emergency funding to respond to the coronavirus pandemic in the city on Thursday.

Philadelphia City Council unanimously approved the transfer ordinance in an abbreviated session nearly all members attended remotely.

Council President Darrell Clarke left open the possibility that more funding may be needed as the pandemic drags on, and state and federal resources remain uncertain.

“Until we can get a better handle on that, it’s not clear how much money we’ll need to spend on a local level,” Clarke said in a telephone interview after the session.

The city’s revenue will take a hit, too, as most businesses remain shuttered, he said.

“Our revenues will be dropping dramatically,” Clarke said.

City Managing Director Brian Abernathy will oversee how the emergency funding is spent.

The “vast majority” of the $85 million will go toward maintaining essential services and healthcare to address the novel coronavirus, according to prepared responses provided to members of City Council about the funding.

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Payroll will eat up $20 million of the funding, of which a “significant piece” will go toward extra pay for essential city employees still working during the pandemic, according to the administration’s responses to members of council. Those employees are earning time and a half of their normal pay, but that incentive pay structure may change.

In addition, $2 million will go toward business relief and $500,000 for PHL COVID-19 Fund, the nonprofit fund primarily funded by philanthropy.

While Kenney requested the additional funds, members of council did not forget about themselves.

Tucked into the bill is $400,000 exclusively for members of City Council to use as they see fit in responding to the pandemic, which was included in a last-minute amendment last week.

Members of council can use the funding at their discretion for advertising purposes related to coronavirus relief efforts, including radio service announcements, billboard purchases and mailers to households.

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In a telephone interview after the session, Council President Darrell Clarke said the funding won’t be divvied up but spent collaboratively by members of council.

Legislators will use the funding to encourage social distancing recommendations via social media, among things, in order to reach pockets of the city failing to adequately follow the protocols, Clarke said

“We will be looking at some really nontraditional ways of doing this,” he said.

“You talk about opening businesses and making sure workers get back to work,” Clarke added. “If we don’t stop this curve, this spike, this surge then none of that’s going to matter.”

The Kenney administration will provide details on how it is spending the money every two weeks to a monitoring group made up of members of council, who also will oversee the spending by City Council for the virus relief efforts.

Social distancing protocols were more rigidly followed this week at City Council.

Clarke was the lone legislator inside the council’s chambers for the session.

The other 16 members participated remotely and the session was aired online and television. Legislators attended the session in person inside City Hall last week.

City Council also will forgo requirements for public comment mandated under the state’s Sunshine Act due to social distancing recommendations during the pandemic.

Clarke said during the session that social distancing regulations that prevent members of council from convening in-person make it “impossible to comply fully” with the Sunshine Act.

Speakers can still weigh in on legislation but must submit their request a day before a session, among other rules, and they will be called during the session to speak. Thursday’s public comment portion included one speaker.

City Council’s next scheduled session is April 16.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.