Philadelphia City Council members on Thursday took steps to approve Mayor Jim Kenney’s request for $85 million to respond to the coronavirus crisis, but only after adding a late provision that would give them $400,000 to spend as they see fit.
Tacked on as an amendment to the emergency spending bill, Council approved the provision in a closed meeting, its first since the pandemic shut down the city government.
The city’s coronavirus response has so far been handled by the executive branch, but Council President Darrell L. Clarke told reporters after the meeting that the $400,000 was necessary to “get the word out about this coronavirus” and encourage residents to practice social distancing. As of Thursday, Philadelphia had reported 475 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with 40 patients hospitalized and one death.
“Council will be using a series of different initiatives to ensure we get information out to individuals, using social media, using public service announcements,” Clarke said. Council members "all have their niches in terms of their ability to get the word out. You are going to see a very aggressive social media campaign, one like you probably have never seen before.”
On the same conference call, Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said residents may be more likely to heed the guidance from the city — such as limiting contact and intermingling — if the messaging comes directly from their representatives on Council.
“I can tell you that in districts like mine, people are not listening," she said. "We’ve had situations at parks, people hanging out in front of houses.”
In a memorandum sent to Council members, Clarke’s office said the $400,000 would be used for mailings with details about testing locations, unemployment benefits, meal pickup locations offered by the School District, and other information.
Council also asked to have updates every two weeks on the city’s spending in response to the pandemic.
Kenney said Thursday that he was OK with Council spending money to share information because the city needs to get “as much information as possible out there." He also called “appropriate” its request to monitor spending.
Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the $85 million could be used to secure facilities for quarantine space, or to buy protective gear, medical equipment, or vehicles needed to respond to the pandemic.
The funds will be redirected from unspent money in the budget to Abernathy’s office, which oversees operational departments, although Abernathy said it was difficult to predict how exactly the money will be spent.
“I can’t tell you today that I’m not going to need something different tomorrow, because that is likely to happen," he said at a news conference Thursday. “I need to have the flexibility to respond to the crisis in real time.”
In a written explanation to Council members, the administration did project some likely expenses: $3 million for N95 masks; $2 million for IT needs; $2 million in relief for small businesses; and $500,000 to help nonprofits through the PHL COVID-19 Fund established last week. The city also estimated that it would spend an additional $20 million per pay period in salaries and benefits during the pandemic; essential workers are being paid 50% more than their base salary.
Local businesses have already submitted grant or loan applications for more than $10 million from the city, Sánchez said. Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker said 1,093 of the 1,760 requests for aid were from businesses with annual profits below $500,000 that would qualify for “micro-loans.”
Lawmakers plan to return to work next week to give the spending bill final approval. Clarke said technology would likely be in place to hold that meeting remotely.
Despite meeting in person as usual on Thursday, Council took steps to enforce social distancing practices, including preventing members of the public or media from joining lawmakers in Council chambers. At least one member was wearing gloves during the meeting. Public comment was collected online prior to Thursday’s meetings.
Although members of the public could watch the meeting on TV or online, Council members did not explain the amendment adding $400,000 for their own use as they approved it. Clarke later acknowledged that the process may have lacked transparency.
“We were trying to move this process as expeditiously as possible, so that could have potentially been an oversight,” he said. “A little different times for us, and every now and then we don’t necessarily get it completely right.”