MAYOR NUTTER eased into the property-tax-hike bombshell: He thanked political mentors who believed in "a wide-eyed kid from West Philly." He asked for a moment of silence for "exemplary public servants" who died in the past year. He talked of good times and tough choices. He buttered up all 16 Council members, giving individual shout-outs for legislative accomplishments.
"I'd like to take a few moments to thank all of you for what you have done to keep us moving in the right direction," Nutter said near the start of his 45-minute budget address before City Council yesterday. "First and foremost, Council President Darrell Clarke: I'd like to thank you for your diligent leadership."
Nutter also acknowledged that he made a mistake early in his tenure when he proposed closing some libraries during a recession.
"I want to commend City Council for actions it took to protect library service," Nutter said. "City Council was right."
And so it went for a while, what seemed like a delicate dance, perhaps an olive branch from Nutter to a Council with which he so often clashed during the past seven years.
Then Nutter got down to the meat of the matter, delivering the bad news with his trademark unapologetic and unflinching political style. He laid it on the line: a proposal to increase property taxes by 9.3 percent to generate the $103 million requested by the cash-starved School District of Philadelphia.
"Let me say very clearly: I don't want to raise your taxes, but I do want to educate our children," Nutter said. "I don't want the next generation of Philadelphians living under the burdens of poverty and violence, without the opportunity to succeed, and that's why, now more than ever, investing in education, in our city's future, is the right thing to do. And if I have to make a choice between raising revenue or educating our children, I'm going to choose our kids every time."
Nutter spoke to the sound of crickets. No applause, no nods of approval. Council members - 15 of whom are up for re-election this year - sat stoically.
After his speech, Council members used many creative phrases to explain their opposition.
"I think it's important that we support the mayor in an effort to solve a problem, but we shouldn't create another problem in an attempt to solve a problem," said Councilman David Oh, an at-large Republican.
"I don't stand with [Nutter] on that," said Jannie Blackwell, a Democrat who represents the 3rd District. "I thought the rest of his presentation was good, but I don't believe we're for a tax increase."
"Throughout my councilmanic district I have had neighborhoods that have been significantly impacted by AVI," said Democratic Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, referring to last year's Actual Value Initiative property reassessment that resulted in higher taxes for homeowners in Johnson's 2nd District.
"So, to go back to them and ask for a 9 percent tax increase on their property taxes is a heavy lift," Johnson said.
Democratic Councilman Mark Squilla was more blunt.
"I think that's not the right way to go," said Squilla, adding that more than 82 percent of his constituents in the 1st District received a tax increase as a result of AVI.
"We need to look at other avenues, and I think we can do it either by looking at the delinquent-tax issue a little harder - grabbing additional revenue from that - and looking to grow our tax base so we can create more revenue without having a monster tax increase," Squilla said.
Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said the mayor's tax-increase request is "a heavy lift, in light of two tax increases and AVI. However, we're not discounting it and saying it won't happen. But we will absolutely pursue other options to get them the resources they need."
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, an at-large Democrat, said she agrees that schools need more money, but how to get it is up for debate.
"This is the beginning of the budget process, and we all know, typically, where we start is not where we end up," she said.
Mayoral candidate state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams said: "I'm not sure that a property-tax increase is what property-tax owners believe they can support at the present time. So, I hope to work with the governor, in Harrisburg, to provide additional relief to Philadelphia, along with other proposals that I have presented most recently," Williams said, referring to the education plan he released Wednesday.
School District Superintendent William Hite exited Council's chambers sounding pleased.
"We are extremely grateful and excited about the focus on education," he said. "It's one thing to focus on [education], it's another thing to support it, it's another thing to have a funding mechanism to do that. I think that both the governor and the mayor are very serious about . . . helping education . . . "
Joe Grace, director of public policy for the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, said that although the chamber has traditionally supported new school funding, the it has yet to take a position on the mayor's request.