Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Racial equity takes center stage in Philly budget negotiations

Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council have homed in on racial inequities in public policy during budget negotiations with a greater emphasis than ever before.

Philadelphia Mayor Kenney outside City Hall during racial justice protests last June. Kenney and City Council have homed in on racial inequities in public policy during budget negotiations with a greater emphasis than ever before.
Philadelphia Mayor Kenney outside City Hall during racial justice protests last June. Kenney and City Council have homed in on racial inequities in public policy during budget negotiations with a greater emphasis than ever before.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Mayor Jim Kenney wants to change how police respond to mental health crises, reduce fees at prisons, and fund a health equity plan. He pitched those initiatives and others in his $5.2 billion proposed budget as ways to improve racial equity in Philadelphia.

City Council has its own ideas.

Lawmakers want to improve equity by investing more in neighborhood programs, eviction diversion programs, and violence prevention; rejecting Kenney’s proposed tax cuts for suburban commuters; and spending more on a targeted plan to help Black and brown business owners.

Elected officials in Philadelphia and elsewhere have homed in on racial inequities in public policy over the last year with a greater emphasis than ever before, driven by the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color and protests after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. But they disagree on what to do with limited funding.

Councilmembers have offered different ideas and voiced skepticism about Kenney’s promises. And while it’s typical for Council to push for more spending in certain areas during budget negotiations, this year’s debate is largely focused on inequality in a city that is 40% Black and struggles with a high poverty rate and racial wealth gap.

“I have never heard as much emphasis placed on equity and fairness and making sure that all residents of the city of Philadelphia benefit from the recovery,” Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. said at a budget hearing this month.

Jones said furthering equity is easier said than done as the city recovers from the pandemic and spends money from the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package. For example, he said, economic development isn’t often concentrated in poor or Black neighborhoods.

“Good news was coming to the Navy Yard and South Philly, but not so much to places like Parkside, American Street, Hunting Park,” he said.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia is deciding how to spend its billions. We want to know what your priorities are.

Jim Engler, Kenney’s chief of staff, said at the same hearing that the city now has a COVID-19 Recovery Office to oversee the distribution of stimulus money. But it can be difficult to link money spent to specific outcomes, and officials said meaningful change could take years.

“There’s certainly big things we will look at over time: poverty by race, median income by race ... home ownership rates,” city Budget Director Marisa Waxman said.

Waxman said this year’s process included a requirement that departments detail how their proposed budget would impact racial disparities. The Kenney administration also formed an equity committee and did outreach to different groups, including city employees and other stakeholders.

City Council must approve a spending plan by the end of June. Some members have criticized Kenney’s proposal as insufficiently bold on equity, economic recovery, and spending the stimulus. Those critiques have come from both Council’s progressive bloc and other lawmakers. Several voiced skepticism about Kenney’s plan to cut wage and business taxes, especially for suburban commuters, a group that is whiter and wealthier than the city’s population.

Councilmember Kendra Brooks told administration officials during budget hearings that the tax cut would “shift tax burden from suburbanites to city residents.” Waxman replied that the cuts would serve other needs, like luring workers back to city offices and reducing Philadelphia’s reliance on the volatile wage tax.

“We keep seeing tax cuts and it’s not affecting working-class Philadelphians,” Brooks said in an interview. “So that was my major concern as we plan on cutting taxes for some, but we still can’t invest in the programs that would make a difference in what Philadelphia looks like for the next five years.”

» READ MORE: The pandemic took a big bite out of Philly’s tax base. What happens if suburbanites keep working from home?

Councilmember Derek Green said he was disappointed to see “only a drop in the bucket” go toward supporting Black and brown businesses. He would like more of the stimulus money to help business owners, more targeted tax changes for small businesses, and a more focused approach to working with Black- or brown-owned local businesses for city purchases and contracts.

“Budgets demonstrate your commitment to those goals and objectives more so than words,” Green said.

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier wants more funding for antiviolence initiatives. Councilmember Helen Gym wants the money Kenney allocated for business and commuter tax cuts to go into neighborhood programs instead, and to eviction diversion. And Brooks raised questions about $270 million for South Philadelphia’s FDR Park in the capital spending plan, saying parks in other parts of the city deserve the same kind of investment.

“If we’re talking about making investments with racial equity in the city budget, we’ve got to make sure that we’re not going back to the status quo,” Brooks said. “Because the status quo was already not working for Black and brown residents in the city.”

» READ MORE: Who decides Philly’s budget? Here’s how the process works.

The disagreements don’t mean the city can’t achieve its equity goals, said Molefi Kete Asante, a professor at Temple University and chair of the department of Africology and African American studies. He said it’s a positive step that so many lawmakers want to focus on the issue at all.

“These are discussions of political resources, but they are not necessarily philosophically different,” he said.

The budget negotiations also come as residents and activists pay more attention to the process. That started last year amid the racial justice protests and as some pushed for reduced police funding.

Shane Riggins, an organizer with Tax the Rich PHL and part of a coalition pressing lawmakers to cut police funding and invest more in neighborhoods, said he’s worried officials will simply “co-opt the language” of racial justice.

“I don’t really put any faith into most politicians that are in place right now, and I think that the more pressure and the louder people can be, the more hopeful I get,” Riggins said. “If City Council is saying that they are not satisfied with this, I’d like to see that followed up with some legislation.”

Kenney administration officials said they are open to changes as they negotiate with Council — and their work isn’t limited to the budget. The city is also working with a consulting firm to have each department make a plan for addressing racial disparities. The first cohort of 10 departments began that process in December. The Revenue Department, for example, is looking at its collection strategies to determine if they have a negative impact on communities of color, said Neferteri Sickout, the city’s chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer.

“It’s definitely going to take time, but hopefully as we change internally we’ll start seeing improved outcomes externally,” Sickout said.

Asante, the Temple professor, said tying racial equity initiatives to the city budget can be a way to ensure there is action and not just empty promises.

“It cannot just be rhetoric in the sense of people just talking with no result,” Asante said. “It has to be actionable. And when it’s actionable then we can see results.”