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It's déjà vu all over again as Council starts year

PHILADELPHIA City Council members, returning from their winter break Thursday, might look at the issues they'll be facing in the coming months and feel a sense of déjà vu.

PHILADELPHIA City Council members, returning from their winter break Thursday, might look at the issues they'll be facing in the coming months and feel a sense of déjà vu.

At the top of the list? Finding money for a school district that has ping-ponged from one financial crisis to another in recent years.

In 2012 and 2013, the district came to Council in the spring for help filling huge deficits, touching off weeks of contentious debate between Council and Mayor Nutter.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke predicted that this year would be different.

"Whatever we come up with, it has to be a long-term solution," he said. "I'm really opposed to this kind of crisis management."

The surest way to prevent another eleventh-hour scramble for school dollars would be to extend the city's extra 1 percent sales tax and devote most of the money raised to the schools.

State lawmakers, who had to give the city permission to continue charging a higher sales tax than the rest of the state, laid out that plan last spring, but Clarke called it a "bad deal."

He would rather split the extra 1 percent sales tax - expected to generate more than $140 million this year - evenly between the schools and the underfunded pension system for city employees.

Nutter said he, too, would like to split the money evenly, but only if the state allows the city to enact a $2-a-pack cigarette tax that would generate millions more for the schools.

That could leave Council playing a game of chicken with the legislature, holding back approval of the sales-tax extension while lobbying in Harrisburg for an even split and a cigarette tax.

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez said the mayor needs to give Council a deadline for passing the sales-tax extension so School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. can know "what he's getting."

"It has to be about what we can control," she said.

Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald, would not address the issue of a deadline for Council, but did urge the members to pass the extension.

"The clock is ticking on that," he said.

The city also has yet to fulfill its 2013 promise to give the schools an extra $60 million. After months of wrangling, Nutter and Clarke agreed on a plan for the district to sell shuttered schools to raise the money.

If the district can't sell enough buildings by the end of the fiscal year, though, the two branches are likely to be haggling again about how to make up that shortfall.

Another priority this winter, Clarke said, is ending the city's standoff with AFSCME District Councils 33 and 47, the two municipal worker unions that have not had new contracts since 2009.

Council normally would have little say in contract negotiations, but Clarke pledged last year to bring the sides together after protesting union members shouted down Nutter's annual budget address.

"I'm not taking sides," Clarke said Wednesday. "But it makes no sense for us to be in a fifth year with no contracts."

Nutter recently signaled improved relations with D.C. 47 under its newly elected president, Frederick Wright. Nutter said he was "optimistic" that an agreement could be reached soon with D.C. 47, which represents white-collar city workers.

Council also may be grappling soon with Nutter's plan to sell the Philadelphia Gas Works to a private buyer and funnel the proceeds into the pension system. The administration is expected to select a final bidder for PGW by early February.

Councilman James F. Kenney said there was no appetite among his colleagues to sell, especially given the natural gas boom in Pennsylvania in recent years.

"There's no reason we should be turning this over to a private concern for their benefit," he said. "The time to sell a gas works is not when natural gas is becoming the celebrity energy resource in the country."

McDonald, the mayor's spokesman, noted that Council has not seen an offer from the final bidder. "What's the number? What are the terms of the deal?" McDonald said. "We're not there yet."

Nutter and Clarke also have yet to agree on a plan to sell the city-owned garage beneath John F. Kennedy Plaza and refurbish LOVE Park.

Clarke objected to using city money to fund the park's rehab, and proposed selling concession rights to raise the cash. Critics said Clarke's plan, which includes restaurants on the plaza, threatened to turn the park into a food court.

Until Nutter and Clarke can agree, a deal to sell the garage to a Chicago company for nearly $30 million remains on hold.