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Helen Gym’s plans for Philly are long on ambition, short on specifics | Editorial

Questions about how to fund billions in new spending have apparently irked Gym, but voters deserve answers.

Mayoral candidate Helen Gym should be honest about her big spending agenda before Democratic voters go to the polls on May 16.
Mayoral candidate Helen Gym should be honest about her big spending agenda before Democratic voters go to the polls on May 16.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

If elected mayor, Helen Gym has an ambitious agenda for Philadelphia. In fact, she said she wants “to change the way people live in this city.”

Gym’s long list of proposals includes guaranteed jobs for people under 30 and spending $10 billion to modernize public school buildings. But as with much of Gym’s campaign, her grandiose ideas are long on rhetoric but short on details.

When she was asked about the cost of the guaranteed jobs program, she said: “I think there are significant dollars that are currently available, but we don’t have a commitment or a plan right now.”

So, Gym’s guaranteed jobs may not be guaranteed.

Her answer also lacked clarity when asked how the perennially underfunded Philadelphia School District — with its $4 billion annual budget — would pay for the $10 billion for building renovations.

She told Inquirer reporter Anna Orso the city could borrow to finance some of the capital costs and steer a higher percentage of property taxes to the School District, leaving less money for other city services. A campaign spokesperson told this board that “much of the funding is not expected to require borrowing.”

So, maybe Gym will borrow the money, or maybe not.

Gym’s spokesperson added the city’s final cost depends on additional state and federal funding. In other words, how to pay for her signature education program is still to be determined.

So, will Gym raise taxes?

Her spokesperson said: “To the extent you are asking whether Helen will make sure we can pay for the things we need to actually make this city livable for every child and family, the answer is yes.”

Questions about how to fund billions in new spending apparently irked Gym, who tweeted: “Suddenly everyone wants a McKinsey study on where to find every penny?”

That would be nice. After all, Gym herself boasted, “I don’t accept half-assed ideas to fix big problems.”

» READ MORE: Mayoral candidates need real plans to fix the city’s troubled schools | Editorial

Taxpayers deserve to know where the money will come from when a mayoral candidate makes promises like Herbert Hoover’s “chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage.”

No doubt many schools need repair. The typical Philadelphia public school building is 75 years old and many lack air-conditioning. Several have closed because of asbestos.

But any plan to renovate schools must include rightsizing a district that has lost thousands of students and has many half-empty buildings.

Consider three high schools within a few miles of each other. The district spent $66 million to open a new West Philadelphia High School in 2011. The school was built to hold 900 students, but the enrollment is just 500.

Two miles away sits Overbrook High School, which opened in 1924 and has capacity for 2,000 students and an enrollment of around 400. Three miles from West Philly High is John Bartram High School, which opened in 1939. The school was designed to hold 2,750 students and has around 500.

Could Gym make tough choices about closing or merging schools given the teachers’ union is her biggest backer? Hard to say without a plan.

Gym should be honest about her big spending agenda before voters go to the polls on May 16. Philadelphia does not have unlimited funds. Under Mayor Jim Kenney, the city’s budget increased 50% to $6 billion with little to show for the spending spree.

History shows that answering the tax question is essential. In one of the most memorable examples, former Mayor Frank Rizzo promised to keep taxes down during his reelection campaign in 1975 but then pushed through a giant hike in the wage tax that contributed to the loss of thousands of jobs.

The city tried to tax and spend its way to prosperity in the 1970s and ‘80s and nearly went bankrupt. Despite 25 years of fiscal sanity before Kenney was elected, Philadelphia remains one of the most heavily taxed cities in the country. The city’s tax burden continues to contribute to its slow job growth, which, in turn, is linked to its high poverty rate.

Gym’s record is one of opposing tax cuts and proposing new taxes. She voted against reducing the wage tax and opposed cuts to business and parking taxes.

She led the effort to scale back the tax abatement program that helped spur development. Gym and two other Council members proposed a wealth tax that critics said may prompt wealthy individuals to move out of the city.

More broadly, Gym’s responses when pressed on issues raise questions about how she would govern as mayor.

» READ MORE: Philly’s onerous tax system is a job killer. Here’s what the mayoral candidates say they’ll do about it. | Editorial

During a recent mayoral forum, when candidate Jeff Brown challenged Gym’s knowledge of business and real estate, she said he “sounds like an angry man right now” and “has no respect for women.”

At another mayoral forum, former Mayor Michael Nutter asked Gym what she meant when she said, “When I walk into the room, systems of oppression fall and new systems of opportunity come up.”

“I’m obviously not taking credit and saying that I’m gonna do all this stuff, but yeah, is that my attitude when I come into a room? Absolutely,” she said, inserting an expletive after the first two syllables of the last word.

Being mayor of Philadelphia requires a thick skin and the ability to work with City Council, state lawmakers, and business leaders. But Gym’s record is one of confrontation.

Former Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez, a fellow progressive, said Gym “doesn’t play nice in the sandbox.”

In 2021, then-Councilmember Gym and education activists protested inside the state Capitol, where she was handcuffed and detained.

Mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker, who served as a state representative, said such hostility does not work in Harrisburg. “You can’t … roll around on the floor, use a bullhorn, shout at the senators, and tell them they’re morally bankrupt,” she said. “Then say, by the way, ‘I need you to help me.’”

This could pose a problem for Gym’s education plan, which hinges on increased state funding after a court ruling found Pennsylvania’s method of paying for public schools unconstitutional. Similar rulings in other states show increased funding is not automatic, and Harrisburg lawmakers will surely remember Gym’s antics.

The same goes for the city’s business leaders. Consider Gym’s shabby treatment of Comcast, a major employer and one of the few Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Philadelphia.

In 2020, as education advocates demanded Comcast do more to ensure all students have internet access, Gym led protesters in a chant outside the cable giant’s headquarters, calling Comcast “trash.”

After a private equity firm that bought Hahnemann University Hospital went bankrupt, Gym unleashed a litany of broadsides during a 2019 gathering of political progressives that did nothing to save the hospital from closing: “Stop private equity from bankrupting our health system and profiting off selling our hospitals … that message is not just to Trump, that’s to our Democratic governor and our legislators as well.”

Gym is an effective hell-raiser. But Philadelphia needs a mayor who is a troubleshooter, not a troublemaker. Leading and building consensus in a diverse city doesn’t work with a bullhorn. And rule one for any big spending plans is to show your work.