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Inquirer Daily News

Archive: March, 2012

POSTED: Friday, March 30, 2012, 10:44 AM

WE the people began talking about property taxes by taking an anonymous survey of our board. Each member who owns property wrote down the market values of our homes, and what we pay in property taxes.

One owner of a $100,000 home pays $5,000 in taxes, while the owner of a $300,000 home pays $3,000; an owner of a $350,000 home pays $6,700.

Our experiment confirmed that Philly's property-tax system is a joke. How much you pay in taxes is based on the city's estimated "value" of your property, but those values are have been set over the years by a dysfunctional, often politically motivated system out of touch with reality. Which is why the Nutter administration is reassessing all the properties in the city, in order to tax the full correct value. This will make all of our property taxes fairer.

People's Board @ 10:44 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Wednesday, March 28, 2012, 11:03 AM
The fence on East Hewson Street.

A FEW MONTHS ago we told you the strange story of some Fishtown folks who had fenced off the sidewalk adjacent to their property, essentially making the sidewalk part of their side yard. The sidewalk had been fenced off for years, neighbors said, and it still is. The neighbors were upset, and wondered how someone could take control of what they thought was public property.

It turns out that this particular sidewalk isn't public property. The city turned the street that it's on, East Hewson Street, into private property years ago. Yes, the city can give a street to private property owners. It has done so many times.

The Streets Department originally told us that the property owners didn't have a permit to block the sidewalk, and issued them a violation. But when we followed up recently, spokeswoman Keisha McCarty-Skelton said that the street was actually private property, and if residents want to annex the sidewalk, they can. The violation has been pulled.

Juliana Reyes @ 11:03 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, March 26, 2012, 6:26 PM
City Council doesn't hold a hearing about its own budget. (Courtesy of Bas Slabbers/NewsWorks)

 This week, City Council will begin holding hearings about specific aspects of the city budget. Over the next few months, every single thing the city spends money on could potentially come under the microscope. Every single thing except one.
City Council's own budget.
There is no budget hearing focused on Council's budget. No one gets to ask questions about the taxpayer money lawmakers spend on themselves.
On this week's It's Our Money podcast, we don't solve this problem. But we do tell you almost everything we know about Council's budget: How much the total budget is, which Council members spend the most on staff, how much Council spends on contracts, etc.

This week, City Council began holding hearings about specific aspects of the city budget. Over the next few months, every single thing the city spends money on could potentially come under the microscope. Every single thing except one.

City Council's own budget.

Doron Taussig and Holly Otterbein @ 6:26 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, March 26, 2012, 2:46 PM
Critics say that without Mayor Nutter's "budget detail," residents aren’t able to ask educated questions at budget hearings. (Akira Suwa/Staff Photographer)

On March 15, when scores of residents testified at Council’s first hearing on Mayor Nutter’s budget, something was missing.
Citizens didn’t have access to Nutter’s “budget detail,” a document thousands of pages long that provides specifics on every dime the city plans to spend next fiscal year. In excruciating detail, it spells out the objectives of each department, employees’ salaries and benefits, overtime costs, contractors, equipment funding and more.
Critics say that without it, residents aren’t able to ask educated questions at budget hearings. 
“Being able to take a look at the budget is a basic tool of democracy,” says Christie Balka, advocacy director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth. “To not provide it in a timely manner seems so inconsistent with all the good-government efforts of this administration.”
Zack Stalberg, president of the good-government group Committee of Seventy, says the budget detail should be available before budget hearings.
“The public and the media that's trying to interpret this stuff have the right to see it in advance,” he says. “There’s a lot of things that can be hidden in a budget of that size.”
Mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald says the budget detail will be publicly available by April 2, when hearings begin on city departments’ finances. He also points out that two budget documents are already online — the city’s five-year financial plan and its budget-in-brief. 
Neither is as substantial as the budget detail, however.
Council also doesn’t currently have access to the budget detail, according to Jane Roh, spokeswoman for Council President Darrell Clarke. She expects Council to get it by Wednesday. Council is also holding a budget hearing on the city’s five-year plan today.
Balka wonders how Council members “can do their jobs” without the document.
So why won’t the Nutter administration unleash its budget detail already?
“The fact is the enormous document has not yet been sent to the printer,” says McDonald.

On March 14, when scores of residents testified at Council's first hearing on Mayor Nutter's budget, something was missing.

Citizens didn't have access to Nutter's "budget detail," a document thousands of pages long that provides specifics on every dime the city plans to spend next fiscal year. In excruciating detail, it spells out the objectives of each department, employees’ benefits, overtime costs, contractors, equipment funding and more.

Holly Otterbein @ 2:46 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Friday, March 23, 2012, 11:12 AM
(Courtesy of scrapetv.com)

This is the sixth of the "Philadelphian Horror Story" series, in which we tell you about the monsters lurking in the city's budget.

City Council’s budget is as mysterious as Bigfoot.

During several weeks of hearings each year, Council asks questions about every part of the city’s budget, from the prison system to the School District. But it never holds a hearing about its own budget, and Council President Darrell Clarke doesn’t plan on changing this tradition anytime soon.

Holly Otterbein and Doron Taussig @ 11:12 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Thursday, March 22, 2012, 7:51 AM
ONE thing emerged yesterday from City Council's hearings on the impact of state cuts to the homeless, mental health and other human services: Local pols and advocates agree about how lamentable this situation is.
Not so clear: ideas for how the city will deal with the fallout.
The cuts, which will deprive Philadelphia of $42 million, are being sold by the Corbett administration as new efficiencies in the state budgeting process. Gov. Corbett proposes combining several individual streams of funding - for homeless, mental- health programs, etc. - into one "block grant" for each municipality to distribute where it's needed most.
This gives municipalities flexibility, with less paperwork, hence the efficiencies.
Overall, block granting is a reasonable reform. The Corbett administration, however, is doing it in an unreasonable way, by packaging the reform with a 20 percent budget cut.
In other words, this is just a Trojan horse for cuts that will impact the mentally ill, the homeless, children with intellectual disabilities, youth aging out of the child-welfare system, and kids in after-school programs.
Such cuts put cities and municipalities behind the eight ball, since they have to confront the fallout at ground level, amid their own strained budgets.
Such cuts are also not new: Almost every year, our city and others bemoan how casually the state is intent on shredding the social-safety net. And yet, the state continues the shredding.
So we're not holding out much hope for Council members and the mayor's idea for combating these cuts. They advocate that Philadelphians need to raise our voices, let the state know how damaging these cuts are, and how angry we'll get if they go through. But the Corbett administration has shown little concern for the state's safety net.
A more promising idea was floated by Councilman Jim Kenney, who recalled meeting with rural legislators angry about Corbett's proposed agricultural cuts, and suggested building an unorthodox alliance with them.
We think the city should go even further, and look to alliances with the surrounding counties not only for advocating against the cuts, but to find solutions to the social problems they're forced to confront. In fact, a structure exists that could make this easy: the Metropolitan Caucus formed by Mayor Nutter in 2009.
Another is the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, which testified yesterday in Council. CCAP's efforts helped create the Marcellus Shale gas fee that Corbett reluctantly signed, and they believe their success stemmed from the fact that they appealed to lawmakers of different ideologies, from all over the state.
The state cuts aren't just a Philly problem, but the city can take the lead in marshaling the many cities and towns that all stand to lose from Corbett's cuts.

One thing emerged Tuesday from City Council's hearings on the impact of state cuts to the homeless, mental health and other human services: Local pols and advocates agree about how lamentable this situation is.

 Not so clear: ideas for how the city will deal with the fallout.

POSTED: Wednesday, March 21, 2012, 9:44 AM

If you're riding SEPTA's Regional Rail, here's hoping you're light and limber - and prepared to make a small leap to the platform at your stop. Disgruntled riders of the Trenton line have told us that their commute regularly involves minor acrobatics.

Here's what's going on: Most station platforms are old and aren't level with SEPTA's new trains. To deal with this, SEPTA installed boxes called "step-ups" to the platforms so passengers can step right off the train without a big drop.

But the box system doesn't always work. Sometimes, several Trenton line riders told us, the train doesn't line up perfectly with the step-ups. In those cases, the only way off the train is to jump. If you're lucky (or if you ask), a conductor will help you take the deep step down.

Juliana Reyes @ 9:44 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Tuesday, March 20, 2012, 3:06 PM

Should tax-exempt nonprofits pay something for city services? Or do nonprofits provide benefits to the community that outweigh their use of city services?

Weigh on the issue, which I wrote about today, in this poll.

Holly Otterbein @ 3:06 PM  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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