In an eleventh-hour negotiation this week, City Council and Mayor Jim Kenney agreed to add millions in the city’s next budget to combat quality-of-life issues — from removing abandoned cars and repairing streetlights, to cracking down on illegal dumping.
Under the new deal, the budget will include $2 million to tow abandoned vehicles, $2 million to improve streetlights, and $1 million to combat short dumping, plus boosts for other basic city services that have suffered during the pandemic.
City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who pushed for more funding to address neighborhood conditions, cited research that links quality-of-life issues to violent crime.
“We know that having these conditions exist in neighborhoods is a contributing factor to gun violence,” Gauthier said. “Community members have asked us to take away abandoned vehicles because people were storing guns or drugs in those vehicles. Or shut down blighted properties that are havens for drug activities and connected to shootings.”
The police department has struggled to staff its quality-of-life unit, reassigning some officers to crime-fighting duties amid a broader staff shortage and rise in violent crime. A contract dispute between the city and a company responsible for replacing streetlights led to months of deferred maintenance and numerous bulb outages.
As a result, abandoned vehicle and streetlight outage complaints grew to supplant illegal dumping as the most common complaints fielded by 311 over the past year.
Gauthier said these issues were brought into the spotlight during budget season by news reports and lawmakers’ advocacy.
“This is an issue that resonates with so many people living in our neighborhoods across Philadelphia,” Gauthier said. “People feel these things in our neighborhoods, but to have it validated by the media is a different thing. It shone a light on where we are with city services, and some of the inequities in terms of which neighborhoods are impacted.”
While streetlight outages have declined as the city has resumed its maintenance contract, a May 311 report ranked abandoned automobiles and dumping as the top two complaints in the city by far. Data from this month show similar trends.
Critics and neighborhood advocates said the last-minute infusion is a good start, but questions linger about whether the money will be used effectively to improve conditions in poor and high-crime neighborhoods.
In May, former Mayor John F. Street testified before City Council about his administration’s campaign to remove a glut of abandoned autos — a 40-day car sweep with a goal of taking 40,000 abandoned vehicles off the street became a signature of his first term.
Street testified that the only way to tackle the problem is with large-scale actions, rather than removing a few vehicles at a time. He also emphasized that staffing and logistics were the bigger hurdles than paying for a broad sweep.
“The amount of money that it would take to get these cars off the street in an organized way isn’t as significant as a pimple on an elephant’s butt financially,” Street told Council.
In an interview with The Inquirer, Street said the $2 million proposed by the administration could be enough to make a big difference, but not without a comprehensive plan.
“If the mayor is determined to get the old cars off the street, those cars could be gone by Labor Day,” Street said. “This is a matter of will.”
Kenney spokesperson Kevin Lessard said the city has towed 1,300 abandoned vehicles since April, while also streamlining operations.
Budget documents indicate the $2 million for abandoned cars will go to the Managing Director’s Office rather than the police department. Officials say those funds would allow the city’s not-yet-implemented fleet of public safety officers to help with abandoned-car removal — a task that has historically been performed by law enforcement. Lessard said officials are negotiating with the police union this summer in hopes of outsourcing the workload to civilians.
The budget amendment reached late Wednesday also added money for other cleaning and greening programs: $1 million for pothole repairs, $1 million to clean and seal or demolish vacant buildings, and $1.8 million for tree planting.
» READ MORE: How potholes are formed and fixed in Philly
However, the city notably faces more stubborn obstacles than just funding to address many of these issues — notably a crisis in public-sector staffing.
The Inquirer reported last month that a third of the city’s building inspectors have quit their jobs since 2019, even as concerns about dangerous building conditions and shoddy construction practices have increased. The city has since struggled to fill already funded roles.
City Council seemed to acknowledged some of those concerns in its last-minute amendments, issuing $3.2 million to buy new vehicles for inspectors, who often had to use their own cars to drive to sites.