Concerned Philadelphians had a chance to voice their concerns about the city budget face-to-face with City Council this Wednesday evening at Main Campus’ Walk Auditorium.
In the first of what will be a series of public meetings to be held around the city in the coming months, City Council provided a forum for public discussion on the budget recently released by the Nutter administration, and in particular the $2.4 billion shortfall which the city government says will affect Philadelphia over the next five years and may lead to cuts in services and tax increases in the near future.
These meetings are a key part of the Nutter administration’s attempt to increase transparency and community involvement in the trying fiscal decisions the city faces and are in part a response to the public outcry following the original budget.
Council members Darrell Clarke and Maria Quinones Sanchez, who represent Main Campus’ district, hosted the event.
Citizens from across the city attended, as well as members of Nutter’s staff and most City Council members, including council President Anna Verna.
Several Temple students, most of whom were part of Temple College Democrats, attended as well.
“We’ve been following everything going on with the budget since last November [when Mayor Nutter originally announced the need for service cuts],” said College Democrats President Elizabeth Hanson. “Last semester we were heavily involved with the Presidential election, but now with the budget crisis and city elections coming up on May 19, we’re mostly focusing on local government.”
Hanson also is an intern for the Temple Youth VOICES Project, an outreach program that encourages local high school students to involve themselves in civic action.
“We try to educate young people and get them engaged in Philadelphia government, to organize themselves and to make sure that their voices are heard,” says Hanson.
Devin Young, a West Catholic High School student who is in the VOICES program, came to the meeting with sign to protest against potential service cuts in the budget and said he was concerned about the prospect of changes or cuts in basic city services and also about the prospect of increased property taxes.
“I really don’t approve of certain tax increases,” he said, “I hear they might start charging a dollar a bag or five dollars a week for trash collection – that’s outrageous.”
In a prepared statement, a representative for the mayor reported an estimated quarter billion dollar deficit in the next year for the city and a $2.4 billion deficit for the next five years. The pressing issue, the representative said, is what to do to “close the gap” in the budget between total expenses and estimated tax revenue and to decide which taxes to raise or which services to cut.
City Council left the floor open for citizen panels, which took turns addressing Council on the issues. Citizens including block captains, retirees, non-profit group representatives, health care specialists and advocates for the homeless all made statements, almost always relaying the same message – that cuts to services city residents depend upon and tax hikes, which will endanger the city’s poorest are unacceptable.
One citizen, who was concerned about real estate taxes and the decline in solid waste pickup, asked, “How are we expected to accept tax raises and cuts to services? And what about the money from Obama’s stimulus package? When is that supposed to come?”
Another suggested sending a task force of Philadelphia citizens to Washington, D.C. to lobby the federal government for aid and several others argued against cutting services related to housing, education and city maintenance.
Two rehabilitated drug abusers in attendance argued against cuts to the city’s Department of Human Services programs, providing accounts of how the drug and alcohol recovery programs there helped them to recover and reconnect with their families.
City Council already voted on the budget, but the audience seemed to appreciate the opportunity to address them.
People applauded Council several times and many who read statements personally thanked the members for their efforts to create transparency.
For more information about city council’s upcoming public meetings or for more information about the new city budget, go to www.phila.gov and click on the link for the City Council.
Peter Hayakawa can be reached at email@example.com.