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Inquirer Poll: What Philly voters think of Mayor Jim Kenney, crime, and the soda tax

Philadelphia registered voters think the most pressing issue is crime, followed by poverty and education. They don't like the soda tax, but give Mayor Kenney good grades for his job approval. And they think members of City Council should have term limits.

Inquirer poll
Inquirer pollRead moreIllustration by Jon Snyder / Staff Artist

Crime. Poverty. Education.

Those are Philadelphia’s most intractable problems, and have long defied easy policy solutions. And voters still consider them the most pressing issues facing the city, according to a new Inquirer Poll.

Just one month before a highly competitive May 21 primary election for mayor and City Council, those concerns diverged from other campaign topics that have drawn the most heat and attention: taxes, corruption, gentrification, and proposals to open supervised injection sites for people addicted to heroin.

The poll, conducted for The Inquirer by SurveyUSA, collected opinions from 865 registered Philadelphia voters between April 17 and 23. Asked which issue among seven city officials should focus on most, 37 percent named crime, with 21 percent choosing poverty and 15 percent mentioning education. Gentrification, immigration, corruption, taxes, and “other” registered in single digits.

Other findings:

  1. In the first independent poll to measure opinion on the so-called soda tax on sweetened beverages, 62 percent of respondents call it a failure, and 55 percent say it should be repealed. However, voters like the pre-K programs it funds; by a ratio of 3-1, they say a different tax should pay for them.

  2. Mayor Jim Kenney gets good marks for his job performance: 48 percent of registered voters approve, while 31 percent disapprove. An equal number of conservatives and liberals (21 percent) “strongly approve” of Kenney. Geographically, he is most popular in Center City.

  3. Twenty-one percent of respondents say they are better off today than when Kenney was elected four years ago; 29 percent say they are worse off; and 43 percent say they are in the same shape as they were in 2015.

SurveyUSA canvassed voters by telephone and mobile-device questionnaires. Respondents reflect the city’s makeup by race, age, income, education, and other demographic categories. The poll is subject to a sampling margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

Concern about crime was remarkably consistent across racial and ethnic groups and neighborhoods.

“When I do turn on the news, someone is being killed, or someone is being robbed,” said Laura Fletcher, 51, a Democrat from West Philadelphia, who has been unemployed for a month and participated in the poll. Her nephew was killed in 2017 in Mount Airy, and police have yet to make an arrest.

Forty-five percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats rank crime as Priority One.

“These shootings — there’s three and four reports a day. Every day you see more,” said respondent Raymond Knapp, 75, a Republican who is retired and lives in the Northeast. “That’s what makes everything else worse.”

The number of homicides has increased in recent years, and 351 people were killed in Philadelphia last year, the highest number since 2007, according to the Police Department. Crime levels remain higher than in other cities, and gun violence plagues some areas.

However, crime overall is down significantly — 11 percent from when Kenney took office. Other violent crimes, including rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults, are down to levels not seen in decades.

But Philadelphia still has the highest percentage of people living in poverty of any U.S. big city, a concern among many voters.

"It seems a little difficult for people to find a job and keep a job. I see a lot of people on drugs without hope,” respondent Alisha Amon, 35, a Democrat in Fairhill, the city’s poorest neighborhood, told The Inquirer. “If [only] there were more programs for people to get jobs.”

Voters broadly approve of the mayor’s performance — but not his policies

Kenney shows the power of Democratic incumbency in Philadelphia: Forty-eight percent of registered voters polled say they approve or strongly approve of the job Kenney has done as mayor, while 31 percent disapprove or strongly disapprove.

But voters disapprove of Kenney’s signature achievement: the soda tax that pays for pre-K and other programs. Sixty-two percent of the respondents call the levy, imposed in 2017, a failure, while 26 consider it a success; the rest say it is too soon to say.

A majority of voters (55 percent) say the tax should be eliminated, and 17 percent say it should be reduced. A quarter say it should stay the same or be raised.

Voters also largely disagree with the Kenney-supported plan for a nonprofit to open a supervised injection site, where people addicted to opioids could use illegal drugs surrounded by medical and health services to help them in case of overdose.

Sixty-seven percent reject that idea while 22 percent support it. Eleven percent are unsure.

“I don’t think it’s right. You can’t even smoke marijuana legally, but people can shoot up legally?” said Amon.

“I live near Kensington and Allegheny, and I can’t even walk there with my kids because people all look like they are falling asleep,” she said. She supports addiction treatment, perhaps neighborhood health centers, but not a place to legally use drugs.

Despite the charged political atmosphere around immigration, Kenney’s “sanctuary city” policy of refusing to provide information to the federal government about some people in the country illegally finds strong support. Fifty-nine percent say it should continue; 34 percent say it should end.

Voters support limits on Council power

In Philadelphia, the mayor can serve only two consecutive four-year terms, but City Council members have no term limits. Some challengers are for them, but there’s little appetite among incumbents on Council to change the system, which would require voter approval to amend the City Charter.

Sixty-four percent of survey respondents say Council members should have term limits. Eighteen percent say the system should stay the way it is. Seven percent say neither the mayor nor Council members should have term limits, and 3 percent say only Council, but not the mayor, should face limits.

Councilman Allan Domb introduced a bill this year to limit members of Council to two consecutive terms.

“Even if people don’t like a politician, they keep reelecting them,” registered Democrat Lisa Rosen, a fund-raising consultant who lives in Washington Square West, told The Inquirer. “They always have an advantage, they have name recognition, they have a bully pulpit. … Their campaigns are subsidized in office, but when they get comfortable, they aren’t accountable for what they do.”

Rosen and other respondents also say Council members should have less power over land deals. Currently, district Council members have final say — sometimes called councilmanic prerogative — over most land-use decisions in the neighborhoods they represent, including zoning and sales of vacant land.

Council members argue this lets them protect constituents from adverse development. Critics have said the power is often abused or inhibits a neighborhood’s growth.

Fifty-seven percent of voters in the poll say Council’s power over land purchases in their district should be reduced or eliminated. Nineteen percent prefer it to stay as it is and 10 percent think it should be expanded.

Normally a wonky issue, councilmanic prerogative has become a campaign issue this year, with several candidates vowing to end or limit the practice. In January, the city halted sales of most public vacant lots after The Inquirer reported on real estate developers netting big profits buying city-owned land below market prices and flipping it, with the help of district Council members.

Voters say tax abatement is bad for Philly

Philadelphia began the tax abatement in 2000 to spark development. It lets owners of new or renovated residential and commercial properties avoid paying property taxes on the improvements for 10 years. The abatement has been credited with spurring development, but critics say it’s done its job and drains resources needed for education and affordable housing.

Denise Blocker sees condos going up all over the city and calls it an injustice that the owners don’t have to pay property taxes while she scrapes together what she can each year. Blocker, who is 60 and supporting a son and a niece on less than $40,000 a year, says the 10-year tax abatement is bad for Philadelphia.

“Everybody should have to pay,” said Blocker, a Democrat who lives in North Philadelphia. “Ten years is a long time. … You look at all the gentrification. ... If you can afford to build a new apartment building, you should be able to afford to pay the taxes on it.”

Overall, 57 percent of the voters in the Inquirer Poll agree. Twenty-five percent approve of the abatement.

According to the poll, older people who have lived in the city longer are more opposed to the abatement than newer, younger residents. Thirty percent of respondents 50 or younger think the abatement is good for the city, compared with 18 percent of those 50 or older.

Despite the argument that the tax takes money away from schools, the percentage of parents who favor the abatement is higher than the percentage of non-parents who favor it.

Staff writers Chris Brennan, Andrew Seidman, and Chris Palmer contributed to this article.

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