With tax revenue rebounding to pre-pandemic levels and city coffers headed toward an all-time high thanks to federal aid, City Council on Wednesday pushed Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration to more aggressively address pressing needs like public safety and struggling city services in the next budget.
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier wants the city to spend more on repurposing vacant properties that become drug havens. Councilmember Isaiah Thomas says the city should boost its support for the African American Museum. Councilmember Helen Gym is calling for a substantial increase in funding for the Free Library.
And many members want the city to spend its federal pandemic relief funding more quickly than Kenney proposed in the $5.6 billion budget plan he unveiled last week.
Lawmakers sounded off on Kenney’s proposal in the first of a monthlong series of hearings on the city’s tax and spending plans.
Kenney’s proposal increases spending by 5.5%, includes no tax rate changes, and largely maintains the city government’s status quo.
Wednesday’s meeting of the Committee of the Whole, which includes all councilmembers, set the tone for the coming three months of budget negotiations, with lawmakers urging the administration to be less cautious with spending at a time when the city is seeing record levels of gun violence and many neighborhoods are still struggling to recover from the pandemic.
Although many members of Council agree that Kenney’s proposal isn’t bold enough, some are pulling in opposite directions on issues like taxation and police funding.
Those discussions are likely to come later in the Council budget calendar, as department heads come before the committee one by one.
Wednesday’s hearing was focused on big-picture questions about the city budget, and lawmakers repeatedly questioned Kenney’s proposal to leave unspent more than $800 million of the $1.4 billion in aid it’s receiving from the American Rescue Plan approved by Congress last year. The administration spent just $250 million of the federal support this year, even though Council approved a $575 million allocation, and Kenney has proposed that the city only tap $335 million more next year.
“We need to use more federal stimulus spending now, and do it with a sense of urgency,” said Council Majority Leader Cherelle Parker, who wants to see the city hire more police officers as part of her community policing initiative.
Finance Director Rob Dubow said the administration wants to spread out the federal aid because the city is projected to lose $1.5 billion in tax revenue over the five-year fiscal plan approved last year due to the lingering economic effects of the pandemic.
“We want to make sure that we’re making investments. We want to make sure that they last,” Dubow said. “We don’t want to do things where we invest in them one year and then they’re gone.”
State legislation requires the city to prove annually that it has a plan to maintain balanced budgets for five years, and Dubow’s focus on the city’s fiscal roadmap led Council President Darrell L. Clarke to joke that Dubow is known by some as “five-year Rob.”
Dubow embraced the label and noted that in the final year of the proposed five-year plan, the administration projects a budget cushion of just $60 million in unspent money, leaving little room for the city to respond to emergencies.
“Because I’m ‘five-year Rob’ and I have to take an eagle-eyed view of where our finances are, that $60 million at the end of the plan does kind of constrain what we can do,” Dubow said.
But that message didn’t satisfy councilmembers who have heard from constituents as services crumbled during the pandemic and the city failed to reverse the historic rate of shootings and homicides.
“How can we say that right now is not the moment that we need to invest significant dollars?” asked Thomas, who also called for more spending on libraries and the Department of Licenses & Inspections.