It was her daughter’s prom weekend, and Kendra Brooks had finally sat down to relax on Saturday night. Then her phone started dinging. Shots fired. South Street. A crowd of hundreds. A dozen people hit. Maybe more.
Panic set in. Are the kids safe?
Brooks, an at-large City Council member, learned quickly that her two teenagers were fine — in other parts of the city. But that pang of terror she felt when a mass shooting happened last weekend was so familiar. It brings Brooks to tears when she realizes how many thousands of Philadelphia parents feel it often, too.
“It’s like this constant cycle of fear,” she said. “And my responsibility is heightened, because my responsibility is not just to my children. It’s to the city, and it’s to everyone’s children.”
That is the grim context under which Philadelphia City Council and Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration are undertaking budget negotiations, their annual chance to shape how the city spends money to tackle even seemingly intractable problems like gun violence.
In addition to an increase to the police budget, Kenney’s $5.6 billion spending plan includes what his administration says is a $184 million investment in antiviolence strategies outside law enforcement. That nine-figure number includes grants to grassroots organizations and funding to expand social programs that engage potential shooters.
The administration’s broad definition of antiviolence also includes initiatives that were launched amid pushes for police and prison reform, as well as the restoration of funding to city agencies that saw cuts during the pandemic. The true amount of new spending on antiviolence programs isn’t clear-cut and is subject to change.
Negotiations over the budget are intensifying ahead of the June 30 deadline and as the nation’s attention is on gun violence after a series of mass shootings. The process comes as a two-year surge of shootings — which resulted in the city’s deadliest year on record — shows little sign of abating. Three died on South Street, and 11 more were wounded. A pregnant woman was fatally shot in the head. A 9-year-old boy and his father were killed in a drive-by. All in the last two weeks.
Stemming the bloodshed was a cornerstone of the budget deal-making last year, when Council and the administration agreed to allocate what they said was $155 million to antiviolence programs outside policing. Most of the funding was not new. About $25 million was added during negotiations, mostly for grants to grassroots organizations. Of that, $10 million hasn’t been disbursed.
This year, Brooks, a member of the progressive Working Families Party, and many of her colleagues on Council, say the mayor’s plan doesn’t meet the moment. Some members, like Majority Leader Cherelle Parker, want more funding for beat cops and police recruiting. Some want new programs for teens and weekend hours at recreation centers. Some want to address quality-of-life issues like trash and street lighting, arguing peace is possible when neighborhoods feel whole.
And some just want to see a more urgent tone that says the city is putting its full weight behind tackling the problem.
“I don’t think that we’ve done enough,” said Councilmember Cindy Bass, who represents a Northwest Philadelphia district. “This needs to be an all-hands-on-deck, emergency situation.”
City spokesperson Kevin Lessard said in a statement that the administration understands the totality of its efforts is “not currently yielding the results any of us want,” but said the city is “doing everything in our power not only to stop it but to try to continue to better understand why the violence continues.”
“We are addressing this issue from every angle we can to make our neighborhoods safer,” he said, “and doing so in an intentional way without deepening the historical impacts of systemically racist policies like over-policing and using incarceration as our only measure.”
What’s in the plan
The large umbrella of funding that the administration is classifying as antiviolence is similar to what Kenney and Council agreed to last year. At that time, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s office found that just $33 million, or about 21% of the $155 million, would go toward intervention efforts likely to have an effect within one to three years.
Rhynhart, a frequent Kenney critic who is seen as a potential candidate to succeed him, said in an interview that she remains concerned the spending isn’t focused on the neighborhoods experiencing the highest rates of gun violence. And she said the administration hasn’t been transparent about how it’s evaluating the programs funded last year.
“We don’t need something repackaged,” she said of this year’s budget proposal. “We need urgent authenticity to address this issue. We need to be scaling up intervention work. This is not the time to be sitting back and not being bold about this.”
The administration argues it’s playing both the short and the long games by funding initiatives that get to the root causes of gun violence — like poverty and addiction — as well as intervention programs that have short-term impacts.
Erica Atwood, who heads the city’s Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice and Public Safety, said she’s focused on making sure city agencies, along with state and federal partners, are working in harmony.
”I’ve got a flame-thrower, and I’m burning down all the silos,” she said. “And we’re having a conversation of, how do we work as a collective unit? And how do we build an ecosystem around this work that is sustainable?”
The proposed budget sustains a handful of programs the city believes will yield results. Under the plan, an additional $2 million would expand the Group Violence Intervention and Community Crisis Intervention programs, both of which target people most likely to shoot or be shot. The aim is to connect those people with jobs, behavioral health treatment, or other services.
The proposal would also allocate $2 million to launch a pilot of READI (Rapid Employment and Development Initiative), a work initiative pioneered in Chicago that’s aimed at crime prevention. Philadelphia’s test version of the program was supposed to launch last year, but it has been repeatedly delayed. Atwood said the administration is trying to balance speed with ensuring programs are culturally and logistically sound at launch, saying, “We cannot experiment with those who are at the highest risk.”
And the mayor’s plan would steer another $22 million to neighborhood-based grassroots organizations. But of that, just $12 million is new — the city did not yet disburse about $10 million from last year, saying the groups receive only 20% of the grant up front, and the remainder is reimbursed as expenses are incurred.
Lessard said the $10 million rolling over into next year is already earmarked for specific groups and will be disbursed to them once their program implementation is complete in the coming fiscal year.
Rickey Duncan, whose organization NoMo (New Options, More Opportunities) Philadelphia was awarded a $1 million grant, said it wasn’t clear from the outset that most of the funding would be reimbursed, not awarded upfront. He said the money is still welcome and has allowed him to dramatically expand his programming and serve more youth — but that he also had to take on debt to do so and doesn’t know if he can sustain the programs because he doesn’t have a long-term funding plan from the city.
He said he’d apply for money from the city again, but only because he is desperate for the support. The city is in pain, he said, and he has made commitments to young people that he intends to keep.
“I have no choice,” he said.
Atwood conceded the rollout could have been smoother. But she said the city pulled off “a bit of a miracle” in awarding millions of dollars to community groups in a matter of months.
What’s not in the plan
At-large Councilmember Helen Gym, a leader in the city’s progressive movement, said she expects a “big push” by Council before the budget’s passage to ensure the spending plan reflects a “more purposeful approach” that’s targeted to neighborhoods experiencing the highest rates of gun violence.
She said in an interview that the proposed budget is spread too thin, sustaining a variety of programs and agencies rather than prioritizing “transformative” approaches.
“You can’t just say, ‘We’re going to spend $184 million,’” she said. “We need to be focused on outcomes in neighborhoods most affected by gun violence. The residents, the youth in those neighborhoods, they will tell us if what we’re doing is working.”
Gym, who also is seen as a potential candidate to succeed Kenney in the mayor’s office, is one of several members of Council who want the administration to take a more youth-focused, prevention-based approach.
She said that includes spending more to keep all libraries and recreation centers open for longer hours, including on weekends. The Free Library of Philadelphia and the Department of Parks and Recreation would each get a funding bump under the mayor’s proposal — but the heads of both agencies have said they don’t have the staffing to stay open through weekends.
Even if they did, expanding hours would be costly.
Kelly Richards, the president and director of the library system, told Council the library’s proposed $10.4 million increase would allow the system to merely “stabilize” service at five days a week — some libraries are only open four hours a day, a few days a week — and that it would cost an additional $3.25 million to staff a sixth day for about nine months. Kathryn Ott Lovell, who heads Parks and Rec, said it would cost an additional $11.8 million annually to open all recreation centers on weekends.
At-large Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said that funding is a no-brainer and said the city should tap surplus funds to cover the costs. In an interview, he cited a recent Inquirer report that quoted two teenagers who said the first time they carjacked someone, they did it because they were bored. Thomas, a high school basketball coach, said the city should scale up its funding of free summer programs and the like.
“This is the bare minimum,” he said. “I’m frustrated. We should be fighting for the best technology for our kids, real 2022 issues. I’m stuck fighting in 1998 right now.”
Despite the frustration, Brooks said she’s still optimistic she and her colleagues will pass a budget that prioritizes the neighborhoods most affected by gun violence and addresses the “widespread trauma that we see in communities.”
“There’s strength in numbers,” she said. “The more of us who unite together and say, ‘This is what our city needs,’ the more likely we are able to get a budget that reflects the needs of our communities.”