As the Philadelphia School Reform Commission prepares to vote on a doomsday budget with massive cuts, a state senator Tuesday announced legislation that would funnel more funds to the schools by giving the city new powers to crack down on delinquent taxpayers.
State Sen. Mike Stack (D., Phila.) said the legislative package he will introduce this week in Harrisburg - with support from Mayor Nutter - would require the city to garnish up to 10 percent of the wages of delinquent taxpayers, give local governments authority to attach bank accounts to collect unpaid taxes without going to court, and allow municipalities to put liens on property anywhere in the state that is owned by delinquent taxpayers.
Stack's proposals are the latest ideas for helping the district plug a $304 million shortfall it will face July 1. His bills join others in the legislative hopper, including one that would tax cigarettes in Philadelphia by $2 a pack and raise the city's liquor-by-the-drink tax from 10 percent to 15 percent.
In an interview, Stack pointed out that the city was owed $249 million in delinquent property taxes alone.
"Let's first collect the taxes that are already owed," said Stack, who represents Northeast Philadelphia, Bridesburg, Kensington, and Port Richmond, and has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate.
In addition to unpaid property taxes, Stack's five-bill package would give the city power to go after $91.5 million in delinquent business income and receipts taxes, and $47 million in late city-wage taxes.
"It is wrong that delinquent property and business owners are playing a big part in the starvation of Philadelphia school students and teachers," Stack said. "It is equally wrong that the city lacks the legal muscle to take action against the negligent people who are robbing our students of a quality education."
Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said the measures "were referenced in an early February announcement by the Revenue Department as part of a new Delinquent Tax Collection Strategy. It calls for a city investment of roughly $25 million in capital funds and an additional $15 million in new operating funds to create a range of enforcement tools to help Revenue do its work."
He said the strategy also called for legislative changes at both the city and state levels and that Stack "had introduced this package on our behalf."
If approved by the legislature, the measures could produce an additional $20 million the first year, Stack estimated.
"I think we will collect even more revenue based on the fact we are sounding the horn, and people will know it's time to pay the piper," he said.
If approved, Stack's proposals would allow all Pennsylvania municipalities to place a lien on properties for unpaid taxes and add the cost of collection to any lien attached to a delinquent property or business.
The wage-garnishment provision would give Philadelphia the power other municipalities already have under state law to go after delinquent property and business owners.
His plan to allow Philadelphia to put liens for delinquent taxes on properties outside the city limits is similar to a bill State Rep. Cherelle Parker (D., Phila.) introducted in the House that targets deadbeats' suburban properties.
Stack said his bills would help the city address longstanding problems with collecting taxes and "send a powerful message that Philadelphia is getting its house in order."
Senate Republican spokesman Erik Arneson said he had not had an opportunity to review Stack's proposals in detail, but added: "Clearly, those who owe back taxes should pay those taxes. To the extent that existing tools may be insufficient to accomplish that goal, that's an issue the General Assembly should dive into."
Stack unveiled his proposals outside Lincoln High School in Mayfair with Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
"We're glad to see Sen. Stack and other elected officials proposing sustainable education funding that will end the current practice of taking programs away from our children," Jordan said.
To plug the massive shortfall projected to hit the district, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has asked for $60 million in extra funding from the city and $120 million from the state. The district also is seeking more than $100 million in givebacks from the PFT.
Hite welcomed Stack's support and said he was grateful elected officials were taking the district's plight seriously.
"Just like in all the other cases, I'm especially appreciative that Sen. Stark is also trying to find ways to generate more revenue for the school district," Hite said in an interview.
Nutter has announced plans to raise $95 million for the schools in 2013-14 through a package that included imposing a new cigarette tax, raising the city's drink tax, and a strategy to crack down on delinquent tax collections.
The mayor estimated his total package could generate $135 million in the second year.
Both the cigarette and drink taxes require approval from Harrisburg and City Council.
Council last week introduced two bills from Nutter to raise the liquor tax and create the cigarette tax, although Council President Darrell L. Clarke said the bills would be meaningless unless the state approves enabling legislation, which has not been introduced.
Despite the flurry of proposals, the district has no guarantee it will receive more money from the city or the state.
And facing a May 31 legal deadline for acting on a new budget, the School Reform Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on a $2.7 billion spending plan that Hite has said would be catastrophic for city schools.
"We have proposed a budget that is based on what we know we will have," Hite said.
He said the SRC can amend the budget if the revenue picture changes. Both Council and the state legislature have June 30 budget deadlines.
Hite and the district have laid out a scenario in which there could be 3,000 layoffs, including some teachers. Schools could open in the fall without new books, paper, clubs, counselors, librarians, music teachers or secretaries.
Class sizes would be larger, but schools would have no aides to help manage them or support staff to monitor lunchrooms and playgrounds.
A rally protesting the cutbacks is scheduled outside the district's headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. an hour before the SRC's 5:30 p.m. meeting.
Students are taking action, too. A letter-writing campaign led by students from Central High School delivered more than 2,000 missives to City Hall for Council last week and sent more than 500 to Gov. Corbett.
"I think Harrisburg often forgets about the students," said Jacquelyn Mancinelli, an English teacher who has worked with the teens.
"The students are just so invested in this," she said. "They know this could really be devastating for them."