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Council committee approves bill that would help schools

A bill sponsored by Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez would raise an extra $30 million for schools through a hike in a business tax.

Masterman sophomore Ensar Tota joins hundreds of student protesters outside City Hall. (ED HILLE / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Masterman sophomore Ensar Tota joins hundreds of student protesters outside City Hall. (ED HILLE / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )Read more

AS THOUSANDS of students, parents and teachers marched down North Broad Street to City Hall yesterday calling for more school funding, a City Council committee approved an alternative plan to raise money for the cash-strapped school district.

Council's Committee on Finance approved a bill sponsored by Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez that would raise an extra $30 million for schools through the use-and-occupancy tax levied on businesses - two days after Mayor Nutter's proposed tax hikes on booze and cigarettes for the same reason.

Council is skeptical that state enabling legislation that would allow for Nutter's new tax measure will come through in time to pass a budget by June 30.

"We don't know what is going to do, but we can't wait for Harrisburg to decide at the end of June," Quinones-Sanchez said.

The Nutter administration and the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill.

"We do not want to increase the U&O again after having increased it substantially last year," city Finance Director Rob Dubow said. "The increase proposed in this bill would amount to close to doubling the amount of the tax in just two years. We believe that would send a bad message to businesses."

Under the Actual Value Initiative, large commercial properties are set to see substantial decreases to their tax bills, and Quinones-Sanchez said her bill could help collect some of that revenue. With $320 million in business and wage-tax cuts to occur over the course of the five-year plan, Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. said, big commercial properties could stomach an increase in the U&O tax.

Nutter proposed on Wednesday a 5 percent increase on the liquor-by-the-drink tax and a $2-per-pack cigarette tax to raise $22 million and $45 million, respectively, but he needs the state to enable those taxes to pass.

The uncertainty of what will happen in Harrisburg has some members concerned.

"At least with this legislation, we have control over it," Councilman Bill Greenlee said.

Several students testified yesterday before Council as thousands chanted "save our schools" outside City Hall.

"We are walking out to tell City Council and Gov. Corbett that we deserve better and the time for action is now," said Sharron Snyder, a junior at Benjamin Franklin High School. "We are fed up with the budget cuts. We are fed up with more money going to prisons than to schools. We are fed up having to fight for an education we deserve."

The school district has asked the city for $60 million and for more than $100 million from both the state and the teachers' union to help close a $304 million budget gap.

Quinones-Sanchez's bill also provides relief to small businesses that would be hit hard under AVI by exempting the first $2,000 from the tax - a measure Nutter supports. Sixty-nine percent of businesses would benefit under her proposed 1.4 percent U&O tax rate. Instead, Nutter wants a revenue-neutral .92 percent rate and $10 million set aside for small businesses.