Back Channels: Councilman Bill Green discusses city's challenges

Councilman Bill Green, who has been pushing reforms, includes the schools prominently among the daunting challenges ahead. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)

Last week's agreement to cut the business-privilege tax by about $70 million a year isn't just a win for the business community. It's a sign of the growing effectiveness of freshman Councilman Bill Green, who, along with colleagues such as Maria Quinones Sãnchez, has been pushing that reform and many others. A few days before the tax cut was moved out of Council's Finance Committee, Green discussed the problems facing the city, tax and education reform, impediments to change, and other things to help Philadelphia "become a growing city with a declining poverty rate, instead of the other way around."

The problem: "In the last year, we praised ourselves for increasing our population by 8,000. The city grew. Well, the city grew by 8,000 but the poverty rate grew by 4 percent. That means 60,000 [more] people are in poverty than were 10 years ago.

"So we're growing, and the people in poverty are growing. That's a trend that is not sustainable, given our tax base and infrastructure, unless we have jobs in the urban core. . . .

"So we have to up our game at getting jobs here by changing our tax structure to stop disincentivizing people from being here, and we've got to up our game with respect to education by increasing the skill set available to . . . people who create jobs."

After the BPT cut: "That's one step. We have to follow through . . . by lowering the net-income tax, every year, by $23 million a year, for 10 years until we don't have it. . . .

"You're not a successful city if you have a net-income tax. There are only four in the country with one. . . . If we were looking at this from, how do we set up a tax system? We wouldn't have it. The cities that have it are Washington and New York, which are the world's financial and political capitals, and Detroit and Philadelphia. . . . If it worked, if it was successful, there would be more than four cities that have a net-income tax."

Education reform: "If we were building a school system with $2.8 billion from scratch, what would it look like? . . . We really have to start with a . . . Louisiana recovery school district type model, and . . . unlimited expansion of charter schools. . . .

"The recovery school district is statewide. It takes the worst X percent of schools - it probably would need to be 20 percent in Philadelphia - and . . . basically focuses on underperforming schools. And usually makes them charter operated. . . . The success has been tremendous. Because if the charter operators aren't working, they quickly move them. There are no politics involved. It's the state Department of Education that makes the decisions and that's it. . . .

"Part of the problem now is you have a school district that is managing great magnet schools, some great neighborhood schools, and some horribly run schools. You can't do all of that well. You need more of a hyper-focus, and I think we need a separate entity with just a hyper-focus on our worst performing schools. . . .

"I would create the recovery school district, I would eliminate the School Reform Commission, and I would have the mayor appoint the school board so that there's local accountability for the public school system."

Charter schools: "Put charter schools on a level playing field with successful neighborhood public schools.

"Sadie Alexander is the perfect example. . . . It's run by Penn, with the ability to run it outside the rules that normally apply to public schools. So the hours are different, the school year is longer. . . . That's been extraordinarily successful, to the point where so many people with children have moved in there's now a waiting list to get into that public school.

"And housing prices on one side of the street, in the [school] catchment area, and on the other side of the street, outside the catchment area, are $100,000 different because people are willing to pay for a free quality public education for their child - no matter where it is. It doesn't have to be Bucks or Montgomery County.

"We have to create a bunch of catchment areas in areas with good housing stock that create demand for people to live in the city. . . . "

Increasing productivity: "We can go paperless. We can eliminate the need for records clerks, largely. We can do it through attrition, because 40 percent of the city's workforce is of retirement age in the next five years. . . .

"Increasing police presence on the street by 20 percent without increasing manpower is what comes from going paperless. I mean, it has great benefits. . . . Even though it doesn't necessarily have to save us dollars in L&I or Health or Sanitation, it can increase street presence, resulting in more citations because we're on the street, not [in the office] filling out paperwork . . . "

Impediments to change: "I think fundamentally what we're lacking, and what we need to try and get to in the next four years . . . is a bias for action. We just don't - we don't do - I don't know how else to say it. . . . "

Working with Mayor Nutter: "We always had a shared goal of the city improving, but it's certainly clear to both of us now that we're not competitors, that we're on the same team, and I really look forward to us working together to achieve what we agree on. We won't agree on everything, like with any person, but we're both working very hard to have a positive, proactive, and productive relationship to achieve what we agree on."

The incoming Council: "It's exciting. . . . In the last four years we'll have had nine new councilmen. It creates a tremendous opportunity for change because you've got a bunch of people without a vested interest in the status quo. . . .

"So I'm really hopeful that we can make some significant progress on some of these issues, and to the extent we can make progress we can really start a debate about what's important for the city, how we actually grow - and shrink the poverty rate instead of the other way around - and have discussions that are really going to frame the debate in 2015. . . . If we end up with a race in 2015 for mayor where everybody's agreeing with these principles that I'm fighting for because there's now a common understanding that they're good for the city, then I've already won that race."

Then you'd stay out of that race?


Good. The city needs leaders with a bias for action. For the next four years. And more.


Contact Kevin Ferris at or 215-854-5305.