In its final meeting before summer recess, City Council passed a controversial property-tax hike Thursday and looked ahead to redrawing the city's political map, a process that could dominate the coming months and be no less contentious.
Council does not gather again until Sept. 8, but in the meantime it must sort out the once-a-decade task of shifting the 10 councilmanic districts to account for population changes.
In the past, redistricting has proved one of the most combative jobs facing Council. This time, redistricting follows a difficult and at times chaotic battle to help plug the School District of Philadelphia's $629 million budget gap.
Last week, after meeting and negotiating for a full day, Council members agreed to give the schools about $53 million extra, mostly raised with a one-year, 3.85 percent property-tax hike.
The plan was approved on first and second readings by identical 11-6 votes, with Council President Anna C. Verna, and members Jannie L. Blackwell, Brian P. O'Neill, Frank DiCicco, Joan Krajewski, and Frank Rizzo opposed.
Verna said Thursday that homeowners already were squeezed by last year's 10 percent property-tax hike, which was necessary to balance the city budget.
"When does it stop?" she asked. "There are many people in my district who are saying they can't afford it, and I'm inclined to agree with them."
In the past, city taxes have covered about 30 percent of the School District budget, which amounts to about $2.7 billion in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Council also unanimously passed the city's $3.4 billion budget Thursday. The budget season had been rather quiet until the district lodged its last-minute request for more from the city after the May primary.
Council opened redistricting Thursday by approving a nonbinding resolution sponsored by Blondell Reynolds Brown and Maria Quiñones Sánchez calling for public hearings and "an open and transparent process."
"The community had no say in 2001, and that made us a very contentious body," Brown said. "When you look at the map and where the losses and gains happened, it's imperative that we have community input."
The City Charter gives Council six months to redraw the districts after census data are released. The city solicitor initially said the deadline this year would be Sept. 24, but later revised it to Sept. 9.
If Council misses the deadline, members won't be paid until they have a resolution; that happened in 1991 and 2001.
Ideally, the 10 districts would have as close to the same number of residents as possible. Based on an overall population of slightly more than 1.5 million, each district should have about 152,600 people.
Since the 2000 census, four districts in the western part of the city have lost population, and the Northeast, Center City, and Delaware River neighborhoods have grown.
The Eighth District, in Northwest Philadelphia, lost 9 percent of its population, the biggest loss in the city. The First District, stretching along the Delaware from South Philadelphia to Port Richmond, climbed by nearly 10 percent.
In a memo to Council members, Verna warned that the large population shifts on opposite ends of the city meant that simply tweaking the borders would not be enough.
"There will be no avoiding significant redrawing of the map," she wrote.
The process could be complicated by two other factors - four district Council members are leaving office and their successors undoubtedly will want some say in how the districts are shaped.
There also could be some effort to make two heavily gerrymandered districts - the Fifth and Seventh - more compact.
In the past, the Seventh's winding composition has been seen as an effort to dilute the influence of Hispanics, but Sánchez now faces sure reelection to her second term there in the fall.
She said she was less concerned about capturing more Hispanic voters than keeping common neighborhoods in the same district.
"We want to protect neighborhoods and communities of interest," she said. "So, getting there gets me a more compact district, not necessarily a more Hispanic one."
Center City west of Broad Street also is cut into two districts, although that was seen as a way to share the deep fund-raising pool of a wealthy neighborhood.
Many residents there are unhappy about the arrangement. Stephen Huntington of the Center City Residents Association asked Council Thursday to hold hearings in the neighborhoods.
He called for Center City's Eighth Ward to be placed in one district "so that we can look to one Council representative to address the concerns of our neighborhood and so we can speak with a unified voice at the ballot box."
Verna has appointed a committee on redistricting that includes herself, O'Neill, Sánchez, Darrell L. Clarke, and Marian B. Tasco.
Ellen Kaplan, policy director of the government watchdog group Committee of Seventy, urged Council Thursday to share meeting transcripts, proposed maps, and any other information online.
She said Council needs to reform the process, create a citizens commission, and extend the six-month deadline.
The time frame, Kaplan said, "is very tight and is almost designed to exclude the public from participating in this process."