Philadelphia City Council will soon begin vetting Mayor Nutter's proposed budget, but debate on the most controversial part, a 9.3 percent property-tax hike to fund city schools, will have to wait until after the May 19 primary election.
Council President Darrell L. Clarke has scheduled the first hearing on school funding for May 26, guaranteeing that Council members - all of whom are up for reelection - will not have to air the politically sensitive issue before the primary.
Some say that's problematic for voters.
"This is probably the number-one issue that Philadelphia voters are concerned about," said Democratic at-large candidate Paul Steinke. "And they're putting off the hearings until after the primary election day. That doesn't sound right to me. . . . It deprives voters of the opportunity to hear from their elected officials."
The tax increase, which officials say would bring in $105 million and create a sustainable revenue stream for the district, is the centerpiece of Nutter's final budget but will be a hard sell to Council.
Council will begin budget hearings March 31. That is later than usual. In the last five years, the first budget hearings have been held as early as March 10 and as late as March 25.
The hearing on school funding is often one of the last. But that hearing, too, will be later this year than in past budget cycles.
Clarke's spokeswoman, Jane Roh, said the date was picked with the input of School District officials. She said the budget hearings are starting later because the Mayor's Office asked for more time to provide Council with its "detail books," which give department-by-department specifics.
Mark McDonald, Nutter's spokesman, said that was not the case. He said the books would be given to Council at the normal time, and added that the first hearings are on the city's five-year plan and capital budget - broad topics the books don't pertain to.
"For whatever reason they're doing what they're doing, detail books don't explain a start date of March 19 last year and March 31 this year," McDonald said.
Frank Rizzo Jr., a former member of Council who is running for an at-large seat as a Democrat, said that regardless of whether the timing was a coincidence or "by design," having the hearing after the election benefits the incumbents.
"If there is anybody that is going to be offended, it's better to offend someone after the election rather than before it," he said.
Roh declined to comment on whether Council deliberately delayed the hearing.
David Thornburgh, executive director of the government watchdog group Committee of Seventy, said that having a later hearing could be beneficial because there might be more clarity surrounding Gov. Wolf's budget proposal, which calls for an additional $159 million in funding for city schools.
But Helen Gym, a school activist and Democratic at-large Council candidate, echoed the concerns about waiting until after the election.
"We need to know," she said, "where our Council people are going to be on the most important public issue. . . . And it is a problem when that conversation largely will happen after the primary."