Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Karen Heller: Council's sweet nothings

Nutter's sugary-drinks levy never had a chance. Neither did taxpayers.

Council members (from left) Frank DiCicco, James F. Kenney, and Darrell L. Clarke during the meeting at which Council passed a $3.9 billion budget and a 9.9 percent property-tax increase.
Council members (from left) Frank DiCicco, James F. Kenney, and Darrell L. Clarke during the meeting at which Council passed a $3.9 billion budget and a 9.9 percent property-tax increase.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Did you receive a 10 percent raise this year? Bummer, because City Council just jacked up Philadelphia property taxes 10 percent - correction, 9.9 percent, reverting to used-car-salesman tactics. Enjoy!

In a week that defied logic, Philadelphians voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to blow up the utterly broken abomination known as the Board of Revision of Taxes because of its inaccurate property assessments. TWO DAYS LATER - pardon the shouting, must be the sugary beverage talking - City Council voted to raise taxes DURING A RECESSION WITH CITY UNEMPLOYMENT SPIKED AT MORE THAN 11 PERCENT.

Philadelphia: The City That Taxes You Back.

Now, you might think the august members of Council would have felt a little sheepish or pained or even a tad apologetic about this, given that the vote took place weeks before the legislative body's three-month paid summer vacation from legislating. (Well, except for Frank Rizzo, who got a head start and was in Aruba, missing the vote.)

But you would be wrong.

"We have passed today a reasonable and responsible budget," Council Democratic Whip Darrell L. Clarke said Thursday. "I think we've done a responsible thing today." WELL, ONLY IN LIGHT OF THE FACT THAT COUNCIL CONSIDERED A 12.2 PERCENT TAX HIKE.

Members were busy knocking Mayor Nutter for his strong-arm tactics in the run-up to his failed sugary-beverage tax that included threatening the layoff of already overworked and underpaid social-service providers - a shoot-the-puppy scenario - while mobilizing District Council 33's blue-collar workers, who, it so happens, are in the midst of negotiating a new contract with him.

The mayor was upset that instead of approving his sugar tax on top of a Cherry Coke, Council opted to drain $20 million out of cash reserves, though Nutter had warned that "we're two or three snowstorms and a bad court judgment away from having no money."

And whatever love remained in City Hall, all that goodwill built up over 17 one-on-one dinners between the mayor and each Council member, bled out of the building.

"Council is unfortunately proposing to spend money that is not really there," Nutter said after the $3.9 billion budget was passed. "We will literally run out of money over the course of fiscal year 2011."

In a command performance, Nutter spoke of doom and gloom, a reduced police and fire force, shuttered libraries, and - stop me if you've heard this before.

Those of us who cannot remember the inanity of city politics are condemned to repeat it.

I went to City Council Thursday to watch the tempest in a soda bottle. Surely no soda was bottled that morning, given how many Coca-Cola employees appeared in their red-shirt finery. I had hoped for a full-out camp color war, but, alas, there were only a few Pepsi people sporting bright blue.

For all the industry's effervescent fervor, the tax vote was shelved. The truth was the mayor never had a majority of votes to support the measure, even after the initiative evaporated from 2 cents an ounce to half a penny, barely an incentive to stop drinking the stuff even in the city's poorest neighborhoods, where 70 percent of children are obese or overweight.

Council members and beverage supporters bellyached about the cynicism of a tax sold as both a health initiative and a revenue stream that then was drastically reduced, sort of a civic twist on the argument of whether it tastes great or is less filling.

Bottling tycoon and leading philanthropist Harold Honickman, previously a stranger in their midst, strolled the halls like a pro surrounded by a phalanx of hired guns. Maybe we could get more of his ilk to show up - Comcast's Brian Roberts or Urban Outfitters' Richard Hayne - though, apparently, a tax is what it takes.

The soft-drink industry played hardball. To fight the tax, it flooded the zone with ads and advocates. Think of all the good that money might have done had it been funneled instead into libraries and pools, cops and fire companies.

In the midst of all the fizz, the industry put a $10 million offer on the table, not paid directly to the city, but routed through the Pew Charitable Trusts to help tackle obesity through nutrition and recreation programs. An Inquirer editorial nailed it: "Instead of pay to play, it's pay to go away."

The tax went away. Where's the money?

Then again, that's still not money going into city coffers. There are still contracts to be negotiated. Police already received costly raises in their contract; the three other unions most likely expect the same, especially the mayor's good friends in District Council 33, who supported the sugary-beverage tax that never was.

As for Nutter's pronouncement that the city is two or three snowstorms and a bad court judgment away from having no money, with our luck we'll have four snowstorms in February, and the property-tax hike coming two days after a mandate to abolish the BRT seems like a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen.

These are hard times in which, it seems, THE TAXPAYERS DO ALL THE HARD WORK.

It's enough to make you reach for a drink. Though not the sugary, soda variety.