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Fizz from both sides as soda-tax vote nears

Mayor Nutter and the beverage industry are tumbling toward a decisive City Council budget vote Thursday on the proposed sugary-drinks tax, with a few wild-card votes being hotly courted and both sides employing controversial tactics.

Mayor Nutter and the beverage industry are tumbling toward a decisive City Council budget vote Thursday on the proposed sugary-drinks tax, with a few wild-card votes being hotly courted and both sides employing controversial tactics.

A coalition of Teamsters, corner-store merchants, beverage bottlers, and restaurant owners has spared no resource to defeat Nutter's proposed tax, flooding the airwaves and filling newspapers with anti-sugar-tax ads and keeping the pressure on Council, where Nutter still appears to lack majority support for his measure.

Nutter also has pulled out the stops, drawing the industry's ire by asking social-service organizations to support the drinks tax at Thursday's Council hearing.

The proposed tax on all sugar-sweetened drinks originally was a hefty two cents per ounce, but the working number is now as low as 1/2 or 3/4 cents per ounce - still 32 to 48 cents on a 64-ounce bottle of Coke or Pepsi.

Last week, beverage mogul and philanthropist Harold Honickman instantly became the face of the coalition when he showed up on the Council floor to make his case.

Honickman - who has been identified at different points as the city's richest inhabitant, with a net worth estimated at up to $850 million - had practically earned himself a seat at the bargaining table between Council and Nutter during the preceding two weeks by offering a beverage industry donation of $10 million over the next two years for city health and recreation programs.

"I was looking for a way to really help the city in developing proper nutrition, proper education, proper exercise programs - that to me is a much more meaningful solution than what Michael is trying to do," said Honickman, whose Canada Dry Delaware Valley Bottling Co. in Pennsauken supplies about 19 percent of the city's beverage market.

Honickman said he first made his pitch to Nutter but got no response during budget talks.

"I was surprised," said Nutter, who originally hoped to generate $77 million annually with the 2-cent tax, and is now talking about $9 million to $14 million in 2010-11 for the lesser versions. "It seemed a little strange in the middle of this fiscal and . . . public-health issue, that out of nowhere an offer of money was made, essentially to make this go away. I don't operate like that, and our government doesn't operate like that."

Honickman said Nutter did not respond to his offer, so he went to the one member of Council he knew well - Majority Whip Darrell L. Clarke.

"I felt it was important that we inform City Council of what we were trying to accomplish," Honickman said.

Clarke said Honickman's offer was never contingent on Council's vote.

"But for the efforts of private entities, we would not be able to open the city pools in any way this summer," said Clarke.

Honickman's offer involved the Pew Charitable Trusts. Rebecca W. Rimel, Pew's president and chief executive, said Honickman had offered to contribute to the Pew Fund for Health and Human Services, through which Pew has funneled $170 million to nonprofits in the region since 1971.

Rimel said Pew "will have no role in this policy debate, it's not appropriate."

Zack Stalberg, president of the government watchdog organization Committee of Seventy, said, "It seems like buying your way out of the tax."

Honickman called the characterization of his offer "ridiculous" and offered his own criticism of Nutter's efforts to generate support.

On Friday, Dainette Mintz, the city's deputy managing director in charge of homelessness, sent an e-mail encouraging city-funded social-service providers to show up at Thursday's Council hearing to support the tax.

"The city may not have enough cash on hand to meet all of its contractual obligations over the next six months," her note read.

Honickman called the note a "veiled threat" to contractors beholden to the city for their funding.

"I think it's a disgrace what he's doing," Honickman said.

Stalberg said the Mintz e-mail was "on the line" of propriety. "You've got one branch of government that controls these vendors using its influence to pack the chamber."

Nutter's spokesman, Doug Oliver, said the administration was not pressuring anyone, and "it's not unusual at all to reach out to the stakeholder groups."

Six recipients of the e-mail defended Mintz.

David C. Buffum, president and chief executive of Trevor's Campaign/Freedom Village, said that "Dainette's request . . . was totally appropriate." He said that administrations going back to that of W. Wilson Goode had done the same thing, that the city and providers were "allies," and that the request did not involve "strong-arm tactics."

Nutter himself is putting on a full-court press. In his office, he's making personal pitches - he has a 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew there, surrounded by 24 sugar packets to show visitors how much is in one bottle.

He's working Council, though it appears he has only seven of the nine necessary votes right now.

A property-tax increase, a $300 commercial trash fee, and a new tax on cigars, tobacco, and smokeless tobacco products are up for a final vote Thursday.

Nutter has a formidable adversary in Honickman, who along with his wife, Lynne, has channeled millions to causes from homelessness to breast-cancer treatment to the Barnes Foundation.

At one point Thursday, Honickman, who said he had never been to Council before, was waiting to see Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell outside her office, which is just down the hall from Council chambers.

Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who supports Nutter on the soda tax, was talking with Honickman, and noticed two people also waiting. They told him they were homeless and hungry. Honickman gave them $25, made a call, and found them shelter.

"That's when I knew," Jones said, "that he really had game."