economic development

A New College For Philadelphia

This is a post that's been a long time coming. Here is part of its history.

During the Mayoral primary campaign, YPP hosted a post by a young woman named Renata Neal. Renata grew up in Germantown, and attends West Chester University through the Core Philly Scholarship program. Her mother worked as a volunteer for Chaka Fattah's mayoral campaign, and Renata likewise voiced her support since Fattah had helped create the program.

But one of the questions that came out of that post was why a talented young Philadelphian had to leave the city of Philadelphia to get an affordable education at a public university. Philadelphia has many prestigious and wonderful colleges and universities -- but most of them are private, which makes their tuition steep, especially for first-generation college students who are unwilling to take on debt or who can't easily navigate the scholarship system. Temple, which like Penn State is a public/private commonwealth university, has undergraduate tuition twice that of West Chester. If Renata, who as a young, full-time student had been offered scholarships, had to look elsewhere -- what opportunities were there for nontraditional students, finishing their degrees part-time, or trying to return to school after a long absence?

Mark Cohen noted then that he was working with the state university system to try to bring a new four-year state university to the city of Philadelphia. I've had this in my mind ever since then. And I think it's a wonderful idea -- for college students like Renata, for students nothing like Renata, for our schools, for our neighborhoods, and for our city. What's more, it's a project that in principle all of our elected officials, from city office to Congress, can work to make happen. If you want to know more, read after the jump.

City workers' contract, the BPT, and other priorities: what's best for the city’s economy?

Doron Taussig and Tom Namako at the City Paper put together a cover story (as of last Thursday) that takes the form of a to-do list addressed to Mayoral presumptive Michael Nutter. Great minds think a like apparently as their article hit some of the same marks as my post about the future of Philadelphia’s economy and Michael Nutter.

One point they hit that really seems worth emphasizing is the renegotiation of city worker contracts that will occur next spring. The lines have already been drawn in that battle: the city will not have a whole lot of money to spend on all its needs and city workers don’t want to make any more concessions on health care.

The CP article describes the coming conflict efficiently:

Within five years, the city of Philadelphia will be spending more than one of every four of its tax dollars on what used to be called 'fringe benefits'" — pensions and health care. You can't afford to maintain this rate, and if you don't win some concessions, your hands will be tied by budgetary constraints for your entire first term. But the unions have said they don't intend to accept any benefit cuts — good bennies are practically the point of a public-sector job — and the last thing you want in your first half-year is a public-sector strike that shuts down the city you promised to make work better. The situation is so dire that it's been compared to what Gov. Ed Rendell faced when he first took office, when Philly was on the verge of bankruptcy...One other thing worth mentioning here: Philadelphia's public-sector employees' generous health and pension plans are not necessarily a bad thing. The City of Philadelphia is the biggest employer in the city of Philadelphia. It behooves you to keep 27,778 public employees and 33,500 retirees comfortable.

The authors go on to list a number of other important priorities including violence, addressing prison overcrowding, SEPTA, DHS, ethics, and of course tax cuts:

There are two changes to the city's tax structure that you've backed. One was reducing the business-privilege tax (BPT), a move you tried to make while on council until Street vetoed it. The other is reassessing property taxes, so that properties are assessed according to what they would sell for if a For Sale sign went up today, rather than decades ago.

Now that you're mayor, it would appear that these proposals' time has come. But two things could stand in their way: those upcoming union negotiations, and City Council. There's only so much money the city has to spend every year, and this year, the unions get a shot at it first. If they persuade you to spend more money on them, says tax advocate Brett Mandel, it might be hard to cut business taxes....Passing the BPT cuts, at least, seems doable: It takes nine votes to pass a bill, and eight of the members who voted in favor of cutting the BPT in 2004 remain on council. That means you need to persuade just one of possibly four new council members: Bill Green, Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Curtis Jones or (maybe) David Oh to back the idea. Take them to dinner, compliment their outfits, give them some money for area recreation centers — you remember how this is done, right?

I am somewhat biased in this conversation as I now dating a city worker (well, I have always been dating him, but Joel just became a Library trainee). Aside from the income he brings into our household, his job is important to me because it provides me with healthcare (yea domestic partnership!). I gotta tell you, I really don’t want him to lose his job. And I think you all know how I feel about business tax cuts.

Looking at the situation objectively though, and I guess this is what is what I was trying to articulate in my earlier post about Nutter and the economy, the contract fight is a great opportunity to dissect our collective priorities for the expenditure of city funds.

Do we as citizens and voters support job and benefit cuts for city workers if the money saved will go toward something that enhances our economy and creates a net gain of jobs? Is that really the choice that will be presented to us? What value and services do we as citizens get from city workers?

Messing with the livelihood of the largest pool of employees in the city is a BIG deal. Seems to me like we as a general populace need some tools to better understand what is going on.

As the CP article points out, and as many folks here have pointed out, Michael Nutter has a lot of problems to deal with when he becomes Mayor, and he won’t be able to address them all right away. In that context it is up to us to set expectations accordingly and begin to articulate which things are most important to deal with first, and be able to explain why.

That starts with identifying the issues that will be forced to the forefront (probably this one and and gun violence would be my guess) and all of us (on and offline) listing our priorities beyond those.

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