Saturday, December 20, 2014

POSTED: Wednesday, April 18, 2012, 4:41 PM
Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art's official site
THE PHILADELPHIA Museum of Art has dough.
It enjoys a $360 million endowment. A dozen top employees make six-figure salaries, including museum CEO Timothy Rub, who brings home $450,000 annually.
The city still chips in, though. It gives the museum more than $2 million a year for security and upkeep of its city-owned buildings, in addition to money for capital projects.
So you wouldn't think taxpayers would need to foot the bill for the museum's utilities. But they do. The city pays about $3.4 million each year for the museum's electric, gas, steam and water bills.
This isn't uniqu e. In fact, the city spends about $4.4 million annually for the utility bills of nonprofits like the Art Museum.
The nonprofits that get this hookup include big institutions like the Mann Center, whose utilities cost taxpayers about $111,000 annually, as well as little-known groups like the Holmesburg Fish & Game gun club.
Recipients of this luxury argue that the city is making a wise investment. While not all nonprofits enjoy the break, at least 50 lucky institutions do.
How do you get lucky? There's no city policy guiding who gets free utilities and who doesn't. Many of the arrangements were made decades ago by long-gone administrations, so it's hard to say for sure. But consider the case of one North Philadelphia homeowners association.
Residents of the privately owned Jefferson Manor Townhouses share a quad, parking spaces and a few alleys. The city has been picking up the tab for this shared area's utilities since 1988, when former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. signed a bill transferring the property to the city. The bills cost taxpayers about $4,000 each year.
Paula Taylor Peebles, then-president of the Jefferson Manor Community Development Corporation, says that the city began paying the utilities simply because homeowners didn't want to. She says that the late Sam Evans, a political kingmaker, fought for the hookup.
Zack Stalberg, president of the government watchdog Committee of Seventy, says that the city should adopt a clear policy about paying for utilities. Otherwise, taxpayers won't be protected.
"I know it's hard to believe, in Philadelphia, that there would be cronyism and favoritism and special deals," he says, "but that's what tends to happen when you don't have a very clear policy."
Critics also question whether the city can afford to keep footing these bills.
Laura Otten, director of La Salle University's Nonprofit Center, whose mission is to empower local nonprofits, says that she is "a little bit outraged and a lot surprised" by the fact that the city pays millions for institutions' utility bills.
"How many more police officers, firefighters could that put on the street?" she asks.
Otten argues that the breaks could give an unfair advantage to politically connected institutions.
But Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner of Parks & Recreation, defends many of the breaks. He argues that in several cases the city is paying for utilities because nonprofits are spending serious dough to maintain city buildings.
"The Boys & Girls Club up in Tacony Creek Park, they've made a quarter-million dollars in capital improvements into a city-owned building," he says.
Focht also points out that the Art Museum raises private money to maintain its city-owned properties, which it leases for free.
Art Museum president Gail Harrity argues that the city is using its money well. She also says that the museum is taking care of some city-owned art collections.
"The museum's economic impact on the city is vast," she says. "On average, for every dollar invested or spent in the museum, there's a four-dollar return in revenue for the city."
Focht admits that he doesn't know if the deals negotiated before his tenure "would stand up against criteria that may be imposed today." He says that as old agreements have come up for renewal, Parks & Rec has pushed nonprofits to start picking up the tab.
Robert Allen, a Parks & Rec director, says that some Council members have gotten involved in the past when the city has moved to make nonprofits pay utility bills.
Last year, Mayor Nutter charged a task force headed by former mayoral candidate Tom Knox with examining city facilities. One of its goals is to come up with a policy governing the breaks for nonprofits.
"What we're trying to do now is find out why we're doing it, and who deserves it and who doesn't," Knox says.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has dough.

It enjoys a $360 million endowment. A dozen top employees make six-figure salaries, including museum CEO Timothy Rub, who brings home $450,000 annually.

Holly Otterbein @ 4:41 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, April 16, 2012, 10:48 AM
Councilman Henon

FOR MANY YEARS, if you wanted to make a request for a city service in Philadelphia — a pothole filled, or a streetlight fixed — you either navigated the city bureaucracy to figure out which department to call or went through your district Council member. This system was confusing and allowed political favoritism to creep into basic municipal services.

The city’s 3-1-1 nonemergency call center, launched in 2009, was supposed to help take the politics out of services and simplify the process by creating a single point of entry.

But things are still pretty complicated.

Doron Taussig @ 10:48 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Wednesday, April 11, 2012, 5:30 PM

Today, City Council held a hearing on the budgets of some of the biggest (and most high-profile) departments in the city: police, prisons and fire.

From 5:30 to 8:00 p.m., Council is scheduled to take public testimony, which means that citizens can sound off on the budget at City Hall.

For those of you who are thinking about having your say about the public safety budgets discussed today, we whipped up a few basic graphs detailing that spending. 

Holly Otterbein @ 5:30 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Wednesday, April 11, 2012, 2:56 PM

By day, Watusi Pub II is an unassuming, dilapidated property at the corner of 45th and Locust. By night, residents say it’s a full-fledged nuisance bar.

Several neighbors told us the music blasts until after 2 a.m. They said outside the bar, rowdy patrons scream at each other, or into their phones.

Basel Syrawan, who lives next door to the bar, said he’s learned to deal with the noise. He puts on some music and tries to drown out the pulsing bass. But yeah, he said, it’s a problem.

Juliana Reyes @ 2:56 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Wednesday, April 11, 2012, 11:03 AM
Raccoons are a frequent complaint from Philly residents. (Photo by (Kovalev Sergey/ShutterStock)

This year, the Nutter administration and City Council have tackled a few quality-of-life issues that seriously bug citizens. For instance, the city recently introduced a plan to crack down on illegal signs in neighborhoods.

But community members feel that the city has a lot more work to do around quality-of-life problems. In this week's podcast, reporters Holly Otterbein and Juliana Reyes discuss vacant properties, stray animals, litter and other issues that are bothering citizens. They also talk about what folks can do when the city refuses to address neighborhood problems — and how apps might make a difference in those circumstances.

Listen here.

Holly Otterbein and Juliana Reyes @ 11:03 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, April 9, 2012, 10:54 AM
A look at some recent tweets done in Philadelphia Councilman Jim Kenney's name.

Holly went on Newsworks Tonight to discuss the story she wrote with William Bender about Councilman Jim Kenney's $28K contract for social media services. Check out the interview over here.

Doron Taussig @ 10:54 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, April 9, 2012, 10:43 AM
Councilman Green

"WE envision a tax structure that is fair and simple, real-estate taxes that reflect the true value of property, lower taxes on personal income, and an elimination of onerous business taxes on sales and profits."

That's a quote from the Final Report of the Philadelphia Tax Reform Commission - a report published in 2003, nine years and two major tax reports ago.

In 2003 and again in 2009, business leaders, experts and others spent time studying and analyzing the city's tax structure; both groups issued reports remarkably similar in their agreement that Philadelphia's taxes are too high, badly structured and unfair. They agreed that the city should correctly value its property to enable it to collect more in taxes as values increase, as well as reduce business and wage taxes, because those taxes create a disincentive for companies to locate here.

Doron Taussig @ 10:43 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Wednesday, April 4, 2012, 10:07 AM

TEN-YEAR-OLDS can tweet on their own.

But Councilman Jim Kenney apparently needs help. Professional help.

The at-large councilman is spending $28,800 in taxpayer money this fiscal year for the Center City-based company ChatterBlast to perfect his "social-media strategy." The company monitors his Twitter and Facebook pages, and has posted on Kenney's campaign-funded website.

Holly Otterbein and William Bender @ 10:07 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
About this blog
Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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