Nutter urging city contractors to support soda tax

As it gears up for a final push to get its soda tax proposal passed, the Nutter Administration is urging non-profits and other agencies with city contracts to express support for the proposal.

In an e-mail obtained by “It's Our Money,” a top city housing official tells agencies that a low fund balance might cause the city to run out of money to pay vendors.

“A large percentage of the City's revenue is not realized until the beginning of each calendar year (January) and, in practical terms, the City may not have enough cash on hand to meet all of its contractual obligations over the next six months,” says the e-mail.

In addition to the concerns about the fund balance, the e-mail also warns of a potential repeat of last year, when the state budget was passed more than 100 days late, and says that such a delay could further deplete the city's resources.

The e-mail ends by calling for a “collective effort” to support the soda tax and urges vendors to show up at Council Council on Thursday to make themselves heard.

Sent on Friday afternoon and signed by Dainette Mintz, executive director of the Office of Supportive Housing, the e-mail went to more than a dozen housing-related organizations with city contracts.

City spokesperson Maura Kennedy says the administration sent the e-mail to inform providers about the shortfall in the current budget. She says it's important that the city warn vendors about the low fund balance and the potential impact it could have on services.

“We want to make sure that city vendors are aware of what this budget could mean for their communities,” says Kennedy. “We want to make it very real to people that a low fund balance could have repercussions. We don't want it to be a surprise for anyone.”

Already, officials at two major provider agencies -- the United Way and the Philadelphia Health Management Corporation (PHMC) -- have passed along the message. The United Way included the note in an e-mail newsletter, and PHMC sent the e-mail to other non-profits that it provides city funds, though the latter agency made clear through a spokesperson that the organization has no position on the soda tax.

“It was never our intention to suggest a particular stance by PMHC,” said Kelley Elliot, communications manager for the agency. “As the city's [after school program fund] intermediary, we wanted to pass along the information to providers. We wanted to let people know the stance of the administration.”

The e-mail has raised the eyebrows of some non-profit executives. One such individual, who requested anonymity to protect relationships with city officials, says the e-mail gives the impression that agencies with city contracts needed to support the administration -- or else.

“It does raise issues about what will be the effect on individual non-profits if they do or don't endorse,” he says. “The people who give you contracts are asking you to support the soda tax. How do you say no?”

The e-mail also puts non-profits in a difficult political position, because many agencies rely on both the Mayor and City Council for funding.

“You have a mayor supporting it and a City Council not supporting it. So, if I am playing the political game, who do I want to satisfy? We seem to have a weak mayor and a strong City Council. Why would I want to upset the people who seem to be calling the shots? It's an uncomfortable place to be."

Zack Stalberg, executive director of the reform group Committee of Seventy, says the e-mail raises questions about the city's relationship with outside contractors.

“I think it is questionable,” says Stalberg. “It's one thing for the mayor to seek public support and it's another for a member of the executive branch to essentially send the message to city vendors that they need to show up or their revenue could be threatened.”

Council passed a budget last Thursday without the soda tax. Nutter hopes to revive the proposal by this week's Council session.

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