As two months of budget hearings kicked off Tuesday, City Council wasted no time pushing back on Mayor Nutter's central proposal to rake in $103 million for the city's schools by raising property taxes.
Council's directive: Bring us another option.
"Five, six years ago, we sat here and we had the economic doomsday," Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said, recalling the depths of the recession. "We had our workforce give up a little bit. We had our residents give up a little bit. We had our business give up a little bit. . . . What does $103 million in shifting of priorities in this city budget, using the same methodologies used before, look like?"
Nutter has pitched a 9.34 percent property tax increase as sustainable revenue that will bolster a school district crippled by years of short-term financial fixes.
On Tuesday, at a hearing on the city's five-year plan, many Council members said that they do expect to provide extra funds for schools, but that a tax hike is at best unsavory and at worst out of the question. All but one of the 17 members of Council are seeking reelection this year.
While the tax hike isn't likely to come to a head for weeks - the hearing on the school budget is not until May 26, a week after the primary - several Council members on Tuesday suggested other options such as seeking funds from nonprofits, doing a better job of going after delinquent taxpayers, or slashing elsewhere in the mayor's $3.95 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
City officials said they had considered other options but none were viable. And they pushed back at the notion that the city could have done more to bring in state dollars from Harrisburg, where the Republican-controlled legislature has shown little interest in sending more education funding to Philadelphia public schools.
"Why hasn't an effort to work with Harrisburg been successful?" Councilman David Oh asked a panel of three city officials.
Everett Gillison, Nutter's chief of staff, revealed a wide smirk.
"I'm sorry, Councilman," Gillison said to Oh, who is one of three Republicans on Council. "I'm just intrigued by who is asking the question."
Oh went on to defend the legislature, saying it is difficult to ask that body to approve additional funding for "the same broken school" system.
To which Nutter's chief financial officer, Rob Dubow, replied that Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has launched an aggressive plan to improve the district.
Others on Council expressed concern about the property tax in light of the city's plan to reassess home values in targeted areas in 2016, and to begin annual citywide reassessments in 2017.
"There's a possibility if we reassess certain areas up, plus the 9.3 percent [proposed] tax, some people are going to be hit with a 10, 15, maybe 20 percent tax increase," Councilman Mark Squilla said. "Don't you think again that we should fix the assessment process first before we even try to go in and change any type of rate on the real estate taxes?"
Also Tuesday, Council President Darrell L. Clarke called on the administration to tailor testimony during the next two months of budget hearings to address what he identified as three Council priorities: closing the income gap, supporting the city's youth, and improving the city's neighborhoods.
Jennifer Crandall, the mayor's deputy press secretary, said those were also priorities of the administration.