Philly City Council approves $4.8B budget full of cuts, layoffs

Philadelphia City Council met via video conference on Thursday to approve a $4.8 billion city budget. Clockwise from top left, Chief Clerk Michael Decker; Councilwoman Katherine Gilmore Richardson; Council President Darrell Clarke; a sign-language interpreter; Councilwoman Cherelle Parker; Councilman Curtis Jones; Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier; and Councilman Derek Green (The budget the mayor originally pitched was for $5.2 billion.

Voting against the spending plan were at-large Councilwoman Kendra Brooks, of the Working Families Party along with At-large Councilman David Oh and District 10 Councilman Brian O’Neill, both Republicans.

Council President Darrell Clarke, a Democrat, said the budget process was unlike any he had ever experienced due to the financial challenges stemming from the pandemic. Considering the city was in line for federal and state funding and grants to respond to the virus fallout, Clarke expected legislators will tinker with the budget during the fiscal year, which begins Wednesday.

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“It’s unlikely that we will not be back at some point during the next couple of months to address this budget again,” Clarke said.

Council members also passed a capital budget and five-year fiscal plan.

Tax increases

The budget for fiscal year 2021 included no property tax increase but hiked parking and business taxes to make up for a projected 6% drop in revenues compared to last year.

Parking taxes will rise (from 22.5% to 25%), as will the Wage and Net Profits Tax for non-residents. The budget wiped out a planned decrease for the Business Income and Receipts Tax and a discount for property owners who pay their property taxes early.

Budget cuts

Departments citywide will see their budgets reduced compared to last year, including the Free Library of Philadelphia (down 13%) and the District Attorney’s Office (down 14%). The reduced spending is expected to lead to an estimated 454 layoffs.

Protests in the city over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and police brutality across the country pushed officials to slash $14 million from the Philadelphia Police Department. Yet the 1.9% reduction in year-over-year funding was tiny compared to the cuts imposed on other departments and the police budget still amounted to the highest spending city department ($727 million).

The budget cuts to the police will lead to fewer officers during the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Wednesday; raised doubts about whether police reforms touted by city officials will receive funding, including training for implicit bias; and scaled back anti-violence initiatives as homicides were up 22% compared to this time last year.

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Yet Brooks contended the police department’s budget reduction included “no real cuts” and were “meaningless” because they merely shifted programs out of the department, including crossing guards and safety officers.

Brooks, a first-year council member, questioned whether the police department’s budget was justified for a department that “failed to historically make our communities safer.” She called on diverting funding into neighborhood initiatives, and anti-poverty and -violence programs.

“We cannot continue to pour our trust and our resources into institutions that have continued to exhibit racism and perpetuate violence against the most vulnerable communities,” Brooks said.

The Philadelphia Free Library will see the most layoffs out of any department — 204 temporary jobs.

Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the library, said in an email earlier this week that the budget cuts and layoffs will prevent the library from employing many temporary summer workers. But she noted the library will maintain service at all 54 branches.

“Like many other organizations in our city and around the world, the Free Library is making painful decisions about how to best provide its vital services during and after the COVID-19 pandemic,” Reardon said.

In addition, libraries will lose a day of service: Neighborhood libraries will see their six-day service dropped to five days a week; the Parkway Central Library and four regional libraries will lose Sunday service.

Due to budget cuts in other departments, recreation centers will see programming reduced, the city’s pre-kindergarten will not expand by 1,000 slots as planned but remain flat at 3,300 this September, and city pools won’t open this summer.

The budget included $20 million to The Housing Trust Fund, which pays for maintaining and creating affordable housing, and $350,000 to the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

Members of council also earmarked themselves $25 million to spend on reducing poverty through a series of initiatives.

A demand for more transparency

At-large Councilman Allan Domb, a Democrat, slammed the Kenney administration for failing to be transparent during the budget process and has been on a four-year “spending spree,” which has jeopardized funding for affordable housing, arts and cultural programs, and parks and recreation.

Domb said he was putting Kenney “on notice” that the City Council will seek quarterly updates to better account for city spending and investments.

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