Mayor Nutter, with his proposal to bail out city schools through a soda tax facing stiff opposition in City Council, appealed directly to his constituents Wednesday evening in a televised address aimed at pressuring Council members.
"Tonight I am asking Philadelphians to come together in one loud, rallying cry," Nutter said in a speech telecast on 6ABC and CBS3. "We want a vote for students, a vote for the young people of our city. It's time to take a stand."
The district, facing a $629 million deficit created by poor planning and reduced federal and state funding, has already passed a budget that included more than 3,400 layoffs, cuts to music, arts, and special education, and elimination of yellow school bus service for public and private schools.
School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has asked Nutter for $102 million to avoid these cuts, which originally included elimination of full-day kindergarten.
Nutter has proposed a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages, the so-called soda tax, which would generate $60 million this year. Alternatively, he submitted legislation for a 10 percent property-tax hike, to raise $95 million.
The mayor says he prefers the soda tax.
He urged Philadelphians to make their feelings known for today's decisive committee hearing on the budget, 9 a.m. in Room 400 of City Hall. And he prodded Council to act.
"Take on one of these proposals or a combination, but do something," Nutter said in his address, warning that only with "new dollars on the table" does the city have any hope from inducing more funding from the state legislature.
After his six-minute speech, Nutter met with reporters and said he was not surprised by the level of opposition his plan is facing.
" 'Big Soda' has poured a ton of money into this effort to scare and intimidate elected officials and members of the public," Nutter said.
He said the "doomsday scenarios" were similar to ones predicted when the city taxed liquor by the drink in the mid-1990s, and when the city enacted smoke-free rules for restaurants and bars several years later.
"This is the same old tired story," he said of the warnings about the proposed tax on sugary drinks. "Nobody's going to die of thirst in Philadelphia."
City Council members appeared Wednesday to have rejected the property-tax option and were still resisting the soda tax. Council members don't want to hike property taxes after raising them by 10 percent last year. They also are sympathetic to the beverage industry's protests about being targeted as an industry and distrustful of the district's spending.
Instead, Council was looking at depleting the city's cash reserves by up to $30 million and cutting its own budget, coupled with other measures, for a maximum of about $50 million.
Nutter called that proposal "a bad idea" and warned that it would wipe out a new class of 120 police recruits, eliminate much-needed probation officer positions formerly funded by federal stimulus dollars, and prevent a full city pool season.
Council President Anna C. Verna, after a meeting with Nutter Wednesday evening before his speech, declared any proposal for a property-tax hike "dead."
But Verna said there was still negotiation to be done over a proposed tax on sugary beverages, perhaps at a lesser rate than the 2-cents tax that would increase the price of a two-liter bottle of soda by $1.35.
She was joined in that meeting by Democratic Majority Leader Marian B. Tasco, Majority Whip Darrell L. Clarke, and Republican Minority Whip Frank Rizzo.
No consensus emerged from the meeting.
"This is still in discussions back and forth," Verna said on her way out.
Those talks were expected to go late into the night and continue in the morning. "It's shuttle diplomacy," Tasco said.
Council has to approve its budget in committee Thursday morning if it hopes to meet its schedule of approving the budget by June 23. That's already a week beyond Council's summer break.
Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who has advocated finding some type of funding solution for the schools, on Wednesday admonished his colleagues against inaction.
"Everybody's saying no to this, no to that, but what are you proposing to do to save the schools?" he asked. Jones said that if Council opted not to raise money, but to take money that would result in reduction of the city's resources, then members must face the responsibility of cuts that Nutter would have to make.
"Legislators have the luxury of being for reducing taxes and supporting schools without having the burden of figuring out how to do it," Jones said.
The budget must be passed before June 30.
Nutter bemoaned the attention being paid to whether or not sodas should be taxed.
"I just wish that there was as much time and effort and excitement around supporting public education as there was whether or not somebody can get a soda," the mayor told reporters.