HelenGym's blog

Monday RoundUp: Budget chaos, gambling free for all, immigration and health care, the BRT usual – and city leaders are where?

It’s all budgets all the time with the news that a veto-proof agreement may have been crafted. The compromise however leaves a lot of areas hanging:

Education: The compromise blows a major hole in the education budget as reported by Dan Hardy, confirming rumors that have been swirling for months (edit: a bit of hyperbole there - rumors have been swirling for a few weeks, not months). The School District is expected to be at least $140 million short – a move that one District insider said months ago would be "the end of the world." Hardest hit are likely to be pre-school and help for students looking to return to school and get their diplomas. The SRC meanwhile has chosen to postpone its September meeting dates without explanation. Explaining to the public how you didn’t really have a Plan B is such a chore. Read more at the Public School Notebook.

PICA punts on Plan C: Speaking of a lack of plans, the city buys time when PICA declines to weigh in on Plan C, saving the Mayor an embarrassing rejection as one Councilman notes. But it does highlight a widespread lack of faith in the alternative the Mayor has submitted.

Look on the Bright Side: Now we can play poker to really class up those slots barns! Although it looks like neighborhood bars may not get their video poker, the state believes its second highest revenue generator – expanded gambling through table games – is still the magic bullet to plug holes. Sort of. Actually only briefly. $200 million this year and a 40% drop in revenues next year (casino industry estimates by the way, and we know how reliable those are). Meanwhile, with the political gambling contributions ban eliminated, it’s a virtual free for all for the casino industry to ensure table games are as individually profitable as they are likely.

In other news, the Inky puts another foot on the BRT’s keister with a series of stories on the new tax assessments. Patrick Kerkstra notes that it’s "business as usual" for one city block where some assessments tripled. Meanwhile the BRT follows incompetence with – what else? More incompetence!

Among the findings:

Hundreds of the new commercial numbers were thrown off by mistakes littering the BRT's property records, including incorrectly sized lots and buildings that don't exist. At Seventh and Arch Streets, for example, the BRT calculated a new value of $5.2 million on what the agency thought was a huge, 200-space parking lot. But there is no such lot, just a narrow walkway next to the Federal Detention Center.

Instead of trying to figure out a property's real worth, the BRT's assessors slapped the same percentage increases on thousands of parcels across the city. More than 500 would get the same 40 percent increase - properties as different as a $6 million shopping center on Castor Avenue and a long-empty hoagie shop in North Philadelphia.

More than 6,000 commercial properties - a quarter of the total - are missing entirely, left undone as the BRT rushed to send the AVI numbers to impatient city officials last spring.

Apparent glitches in the BRT's computer models produced some bizarre results. Parking lots in a drug-ravaged section of Frankford, for example, were valued at a steep $140 per square foot - more pricey than many lots in Center City.

The most telling line:

Mayor Nutter, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.

And finally, Michael Smerconish, who when googling past columns of his, I came across the unfortunate nature of his Philly Mag profile. I do not advise.

Anyway, he takes on the Joe Wilson-immigrant reform-Obama health care controversy, even though not a one links logically to the another.

Now for the record, Smerconish actually published a column about his diversifying of America paranoia:

I know I'm not alone in my belief that today's immigrants - those here both legally and illegally - are not assimilating the way my forefathers did when they arrived.

And before I'm shouted down as a xenophobe, hear me out. My intent isn't to amplify the shrill debate surrounding illegal immigration. What I'm interested in is defending the tradition to which my grandparents adhered: the one that led them to a new name and a better life in this country.

I fear we are leaving it behind.

Leaving aside the philly.com comment stream, and they are particularly colorful whenever immigration is raised – Smerconish nevertheless raises sensible points about why the far right’s call to completely deny undocumented people from receiving health care is bad policy:

  1. It would require the undoing of the 1986 Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act requiring care for anyone who visits an emergency room.
  2. It would require doctors and caregivers to function as immigration agents first, and health care professionals second.
  3. It wouldn’t keep with our national rep to deny health care to people who were gunshot victims, or giving birth, or in a car accident, or suffering from a communicable disease, say.
  4. And it doesn’t help the fact that what health care professionals are more concerned about are insurance protections than verifying legal status.

Smerconish omits one other important reality, and that’s the fact that so many families in the U.S. are of mixed immigration status. Back in 1999, the Urban Institute reported that as many as one in ten American families had at least one family member who was undocumented. A more recent Pew study shows that 75% of the children of undocumented immigrants are U.S. citizens. So it kinda makes it complicated when you start trying to deny citizen kids health care check-ups for school when their parents don't have the right paperwork.

In the end, though, Obama’s health care reform bill is meant to address health insurance plans and medical coverage in general. It’s not meant to rewrite every single law that deals with health care. And although Smerconish raises some good points, it’s just plain misdirection to raise the 1986 law and try to hang it on the president’s neck.

Philadelphia Weekly reports on violence against Asian students in schools

Via Philebrity:

This week’s Philadelphia Weekly has a crushing story about violence heaped on Asian students in many Philadelphia public schools:

Dozens of the alleged incidents are relatively minor—name-calling, verbal threats, petty robberies, random punches in the head while walking down stairwells, and general intimidation. But according to [South Philadelphia High School student Wei] Chen, at least six times last school year those minor incidents escalated into massive rumbles where outnumbered Asian students were pummeled by packs of teens, sending several of the victims to hospitals. Like the day last October when a group of around 30 kids allegedly attacked five Chinese students after school in the Snyder Avenue subway station, one block from school.

And there's this:

Where administrators or the School District intervened, improvements in student relations improved and the violence decreased—the number of overall violence in the district decreased by 17 percent last school year. But the culture of violence against Asian immigrants has existed for so long at some public schools that students almost accept that random beat downs are a part of life . . .

“They don’t even know you,” says Chen, who barely spoke English when he emigrated from China to Philadelphia in January 2007. “They just hit because you’re Asian.”

Let's think about that: At some public schools students almost accept that random beat downs are a part of life.

What it takes to be the next SRC Commissioner

Because you know, (effectively) ousted Commissioner Heidi Ramirez – who was the SRC’s first Latina member, was described as the SRC's "most qualified" member, had a doctorate in education, devoted her professional career to improving urban schools, and asked (gasp!) questions about needs, costs, budgets and performance assessments of programs during public meetings – really just didn’t cut it.

According to the Public School Notebook, this is the kind of Commissioner the state believes the SRC really needs:

  1. Male
  2. Attorney (Cozen O’Connor)
  3. PA finance chair for McCain/Palin 2008
  4. PA Chair Bush/Cheney 2000
  5. former SEPTA board chair (and we know how pleasantly they’ve acted in a school financial crisis)
  6. Education involvement: Two year stint as Chair of Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools, 1999-2001.

In a joint announcement with Sen. Pileggi, Gov. Rendell gave this reason for why David Girard-DiCarlo should sit on the District’s top oversight body:

"He is committed to making public education better."

At least someone can define a floor.

Is Foxwoods Going Down?

Because the news out of Connecticut just isn’t looking good:

On the brink of default, the Mashantucket Pequots are seeking to restructure $2.3 billion worth of debt, a senior adviser to the tribe said in interviews this week.

The debt is $1 billion more than the tribe's Foxwoods Resort Casino - North America's largest casino and once the world's most profitable - can sustain, the adviser said. . . .

In a letter distributed by e-mail last week, Michael Thomas, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council, updated tribal members on the seriousness of the situation.

”Earnings are down considerably and there are no signs of immediate improvement,” he wrote. “... These are dire financial times for our Tribe.”

According to Bloomberg News, Foxwoods could be the largest tribal casino to default. So what to do?

Thomas – who faces tribal election this fall – apparently issued a letter saying he could give two cents about corporate rules and Malaysian investors and says he’ll pay his tribal members no matter how much debt he owes. And just to make super sure, Thomas states that he’s even passed a resolution calling upon the tribe to – and yes, this is a quote – put their "last borrowed dollars" into a lock box.

”Foxwoods is here to support our people not Wall Street,” he wrote. “Those who put the interests of bankers and bond holders ahead of our tribal community will have to answer to me. To make sure, I have introduced a resolution to take our last borrowed dollars and put them in a lock box only to be used for Government and Incentive.”

Now that’s a plan!

Horsetrading, politics and the future of our schools

Going on the offensive, Sen. Dominic Pileggi called out the Governor on the horsetrading of SRC Commissioner Heidi Ramirez' position:

More than a month ago, Gov. Rendell approached Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) with a question.

A spot was coming open on the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, Rendell told Pileggi. Was Pileggi interested in recommending someone for him to consider appointing?

"I told him I would think about it," Pileggi said. "I told him I would see who was interested in serving, someone who I thought would add to the board."

The spot in question belonged to Heidi Ramirez, who shocked the school community Wednesday by resigning her seat. Rendell has said Ramirez told him she felt she no longer fit on a board that rarely questions the policies of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Pileggi's version varies dramatically from the interview the Governor gave to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook earlier this week after Ramirez announced her resignation:

Gov. Rendell said in an interview shortly after her announcement that he had a replacement in mind that had been suggested by Republican Senate leader Dominic Pileggi. However, he insisted that he did not ask her to resign, and in fact told her that he would support her if she stayed -- and he added that, in any case, he couldn't force her out.

"I tried to talk her out of resigning on a couple of occasions, because I thought she was a great appointment," the governor said in a phone interview. "I felt she offered something to the board that nobody else did." He said he told her he'd be "pleased" if she decided to stay, but felt that her mind was made up.

Whatever the real story may be, what we do know is that Heidi Ramirez was in no position to resign a month ago when the Governor was peddling her position for political favors.

The City shouldn't be left off the hook either. Mayor Nutter had to be called in order to get a comment on the record about Ramirez' departure. No one from the City made a public statement about her resignation even though the two people from the Mayor's Education office were present at Ramirez' announcement.

A call for the Mayor and Police Chief to step back on anti-immigrant program

This morning dozens of community members along with several elected officials held a press conference with Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition to encourage the Mayor and Police Chief to reject participation in a federal immigrant tracking program called "Secure Communities."

The program would require police officers to contact ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement which is solely responsible for detention and deportation in immigration matters) as soon as individuals were booked through a federal fingerprinting process. This program is the most recent in a series of ICE programs that make local police the contact point between immigrants and ICE agents.

In other cities, the program has led to serious concerns around selective enforcement and racial profiling, expensive re-direction of personnel resources, and an increase in detention.

Upheaval for schools: Commissioner Heidi Ramirez to step down

Was the Commission’s most vocal member forced out for asking too many questions?

Update 7 p.m.: The Notebook reports that Gov. Rendell has confirmed that he has received a name from Sen. Pileggi for an appointment to the SRC. The Gov. professed not to know the political affiliation of the individual.

Update 6:15 p.m.: With tears in her eyes, Heidi Ramirez announced her resignation from the SRC stating that her vision was now "inconsistent" with that of the District. After the announcement, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman notably waited to be the last one to stand for Dr. Ramirez' ovation and rolled her eyes before standing.

Sources inside and outside the School District have informed me that School Reform Commissioner Heidi Ramirez will announce her intention to resign from the SRC. The announcement is expected this afternoon when the SRC convenes.

The announcement follows months of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s public critiques and complaints of Dr. Ramirez’ inquiries into areas such as the budget and contracts. It also follows Gov. Rendell’s decision in the spring to put Ramirez’s re-nomination in limbo and open angling by Harrisburg legislators to get Republican representation on the SRC. One can only guess that Dr. Ramirez, whom Governor Rendell once praised as "the most qualified" member of the SRC for her education background, got no backing from state or city officials.

Which leads you to wonder: Was the Commission’s most vocal member – arguably its most expert and engaged member – forced out for asking too many questions and expecting a modicum of accountability from District leadership? If so, what does that mean for the future of our schools and $3 billion of public money. If asking questions isn’t the job of an oversight body, then what is?

Read the full story at the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

New York Times on Philly's Media Future

Local indy media – particularly the Philadelphia Public School Notebookgot big props in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. Calling it "notably well written" and a place that "breaks stories," the Times also highlights editor Paul Socolar:

Its editor, Paul Socolar, may be something like the journalist of the future. He is earnest, dedicated to a cause, foundation-financed and, to this point, read by a narrow audience. I=2 0accompanied him to a press briefing for the rollout of the Philadelphia school district’s $3.2 billion budget. He quickly imbibed a thick handout filled with charts and long columns of numbers and jotted down questions, which seemed a bit sharper and harder to answer than those asked by the reporters from the city’s two dailies.

Having known Paul for 15 years, it’s well-deserved kudos to one of the city’s most humble, hard-working and principled journalists and to a paper that’s filling in what traditional media has too often ceded – solid beat coverage with an investigative and spirited mission. Plan Philly and Media Mobilizing Project also earn mentions for coverage in areas where big media has lapsed, namely development and immigration.

But clearly the “star” of the story is PNI’s Brian Tierney, and not always in the most flattering of ways (note: “gentleman’s club” congressional testimony not particularly emblematic of his diplomatic skills).

Another Free Pass on the Parking Authority

It’s hard to imagine the City of Philadelphia in more dire financial straits than now. On the line are thousands of jobs, potential increases in taxes for residents, closure and reduction of city services . . . we know the picture.

And then there’s one agency that’s just rolling in money – the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which has seen revenues double over the past few years and anticipates even more of a windfall with the obnoxious new parking meter rates throughout the city. Now this $200 million agency – which calls itself the most efficient Parking Authority in the nation – is supposed to turn over all its profits to both the City and the School District, but the funny thing is that they have a hard time finding profits because . . um well . . . BECAUSE.

So in the fall of 2007 some parents took up this issue and the media did what it does best – a kick ass expose on the waste and excess spending and hoarding of cash of this agency – and politicians did their thing which was to bluster and call for an audit, so 18 months later the City Controller's office finally releases this document at the end of July. And here’s how it opens:

The procedures performed were agreed to by CCO [Philadelphia City Controller’s Office]. The sufficiency of these procedures is the sole responsibility of CCO, and therefore, we make no representation regarding the sufficiency of the procedures for the purpose for which this report has been requested or for any other purpose. . . Our procedures did not constitute an audit, review, or compilation of the information provided and, accordingly, we do not express an opinion or provide any other form of assurance on the completeness or accuracy of the information.

So to be clear the public, in some fashion, paid for this audit right? And while there are some interesting things in there, as laid out in this Inky article and this completely unanalytical Daily News article (didja guys read the document or did you just reprint the Controller’s press release?), the real news is how little the Controller’s office found.

For example, it gave the Parking Authority a free pass on salaries. The accountants initially looked at information from the International Parking Institute, but claimed that because of the PPA’s vast responsibilities there was no comparable organization for them to review. So guess where they decided to make their salary comparison? The School District of Philadelphia!

The accountants chose the top three executive positions at the School District, which for the record is a $3 billion agency with 260+ schools, 60+ charters, 10,000+ teachers alone, which serves meals, buses kids all over the city, runs afterschool and summer programs, provides social/behavioral and mental health services, tests and educates and has responsibility for over 200,000 children (including the charters) in the city. Incidentally, the top three positions at the School District - which includes the CEO and the Chief Counsel - have been flagged in the past as being overpaid as well, despite the scope of their responsibilities.

Meanwhile, at the PPA, the Executive Director makes more than the Governor and the PPA Board Chair earns $75,000 a year for a couple of hours a month. Both the Inky and Daily News investigations in 2007 flagged the fact that more than 20 managers at the PPA earned over $100,000 a year with an overload of executives at the top. The accountants themselves note that they saw no staffing plans for the PPA and didn’t do a desk or performance audit.

Nevertheless, here's their conclusion:

Given the magnitude and responsibility of PPA’s executives and the size of operations, in our judgment PPA’s salaries are within a competitive range.

And, again, the public paid for this in some way right?

What the report didn’t even look at was something that Parents United for Public Education has consistently raised as a serious concern: the amount of money the PPA hoards in unrestricted cash reserves and cash reserves designated for future expenses.

In 2007 when we did our analysis, we found between $40-50 million was hoarded in some sort of “reserve” account, more than a quarter of the agency’ operating revenue. By comparison, the Government Finance Officers Association recommends that government agencies keep the fund balances between 5-15% of operating revenue.

Parents United also found discrepancies around workers compensation, with the agency claiming $11 million in reserve for self insurance for workers comp even though they had a certificate showing that they were already covered through their own insurance for workers comp. When political pressure helped bring a settlement to the campaign in December 2007, the PPA dipped into its self insurance reserves to meet the funding request from the City.

But hey, when your document doesn't even count as a "review" and some media focus on the fact that the PPA can't account for free parking badges for airport employees, who cares about $40-50 mil?

Some media have characterized the report as "blasting" the Parking Authority. But to be clear, the report has made its requisite political rounds for more than three weeks and was distributed, not "leaked," to the media. Meanwhile, the Authority reacts in mock defense and has said it will get back to the Controller in six months or so when it will write a full response to the Controller's findings (maybe a few airport badges can be returned?). But it's hard to look at that back and forth and, at this point, take it as much more than perfunctory media campiness.

At the end of the day, the Parking Authority - despite all the exposure, despite its known wealth in times of fiscal crisis - is getting yet another free pass to continue along its merry way. In 2007, Parents United accepted the political compromise given to us by a then-incoming Mayor because we believed City leadership wouldn’t let this agency continue to get away with it.

18 months later, looks like things are about the same as they ever were.

Hey Foxwoods: We got our lease. Where's yours?


Grand Opening of the No Slots Spot
street front office
718 Market Street
Home of the No Casino in the Heart of Our City Coalition and Casino Free Philadelphia

No Slots Spot

As the casino issue heats up in Philadelphia , it only seemed fitting that the struggle locate itself where it seems most appropriate - across the street from the greedy and inept Foxwoods/PREIT project. Asian Americans United and Casino Free Philadelphia have joined up to open the street level office, which will serve as the home of the No Casino in the Heart of Our City Coalition and Casino Free.

Nine months after a "done deal" on Market East was announced, there's little to show but scaffolding. Meanwhile, yesterday, Common Cause PA announced that more than $18 million has flowed from the gambling industry and its legal entities into the pockets of local politicians. It's a serious indictment of a state that, according to Common Cause, is one of the worst offenders in the country because of the lack of campaign donation limits and the failure of politicians to fully disclose their gambling contributions.

So in recognition of that and in celebration of the No Slots Spot, Asian Americans United and the No Casino in the Heart of Our City Coalition hosts the Anti-Casino Circus, because "when it comes to bringing slots to Philly, it's not a democratic process, it's a circus." (Props to AAU artist Kathy Shimizu for the artwork and the AAU team for tomorrow's acts.) The event is kid-friendly: skits galore, acrobats, jugglers, cotton candy too! And you'll support the effort to stop slots in Philly. For more information, contact Asian Americans United: 215-925-1538.

In brief: Yoo on trial?; Surprise! Casinos need parking

Ahhh, the lowly brief. When I was a reporter in Mansfield, OH, it was always a struggle to define your artistic style by finding the right cut-off point for the AP wire story, or in limiting your words to fit the news hole while your overcaffeinated news editor yelled at you. Then again, less is often more.

Take these two examples today:

  • On John Yoo:

    A convicted terrorist can sue a former Bush administration lawyer for drafting the legal theories that led to his alleged torture, ruled a federal judge . . . The order by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White of San Francisco is the first time a government lawyer has been held potentially liable for the abuse of detainees.

  • And on the Foxwoods fiasco:
  • [Councilman Frank] DiCicco was peeved that Rendell recently met with representatives of Foxwoods Casino to discuss concerns that Foxwoods' planned Center City site did not have enough parking. This after Foxwoods testified before Council that it had ample parking, and Mayor Nutter extolled the virtue of a site so close to public transit. . . . "I'm not happy that I was not included in those discussions," DiCicco said.

Foxwoods Casino Countdown: 3 . . .2 . . . 1

It’s hard to believe that today marks nine months to the day since a line-up of politicos from the Governor on down stood end to end in City Hall and declared the heart of Philadelphia as their target for the flailing casino industry. Employing every tactic in the book (including political threats and gaming board maneuvers), with a hearty dose of environmental racism toward Chinatown, Rendell and city leaders made it seem like there was no done deal like this done deal.

But after nine months, where have things gone?

The casino, in Dan’s colorful imagery, has now lurched to Strawbridge’s, its third attempted site, where it sits fallow today. No plans. No drawings. Nothing "on the back of a napkin" as Mayor Nutter said last fall, to show what this thing will look like, what it will offer Philadelphians, and how it will contribute to a desperate economy.

Is it telling that despite seeking PR for its support of last weekend’s International Championship bike race, Foxwoods gave up its promotional table to Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center – perhaps because there’s nothing to promote?

Is it telling that last week’s City Council session came and went with barely a mention of Foxwoods’ zoning permit for Strawbridge’s that has sat for over a month, while owners squabble?

And is it telling that with only two more Council sessions to go, neither Foxwoods nor the City has anything to show for all their boasting and posturing of a December 2009 opening.

At the same time, a number of things have happened that bodes poorly for Foxwoods:

A surprising grade for Schools Chief: C

It's not a poll, but it is a surprise to hear the lukewarm enthusiasm for Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's one year anniversary.

A YEAR AGO today, Arlene Ackerman logged her first official day as superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, bringing with her a résumé that includes superintendencies in San Francisco and Washington.

On that day, Ackerman told the Daily News that she was going to shake up the nation's eighth-largest school district by holding adults accountable, by scrutinizing contracts, by bringing equity to school funding and by making her administration family-friendly.

"When people say they want change, they don't often know what change looks like," she said last year. "Change is OK until it hits home, and it's going to hit home right away," pledged Ackerman, 62.

But just what difference a year has made under Ackerman's leadership could keep a debate team busy for another year.

In a district with more than 160,000 students and 10,700 teachers, some are singing the lifelong educator's praises. Others, not so much.

Fervent responses were given when the Daily News asked a cross-section of 12 city education watchers to grade the superintendent's performance in six areas: school safety, government relations, community relations, vision, finances and school improvement.

Overall, Ackerman received five C's and one B.

Key to breaking the old boys' network: Being delightful

I have to admit when I saw Ray's post on women in politics a couple of weeks ago, I was stumped at how to respond. I tried a couple of brainstorms, some of them railing at the overimportance of politics, some exhibiting frustration with powerful women today, and plenty about the nature of Philly's political system - particularly for women of color. But when I saw the cover of today's Daily News, I suddenly realized what was wrong.

We women just need to revel in our gender delightfulness:

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, local Democratic Party chairman, said that he's not holding women back.

"I think they're delightful in office," Brady said of female elected officials. "They're great legislators. I never did, never will discourage them."

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