Building trades sends fiery letter ahead of construction tax vote

In an attempt to squash a tax on new construction to fund affordable housing, the building trades union sent a fiery letter to City Council members today saying it would support “radically altering or eliminating” the city’s ten-year tax abatement over the new levy.

Council’s finance committee is expected to vote later Wednesday afternoon on advancing the one-percent tax on new construction. The letter, written by John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, head of the city’s electrician’s union, circulated hours before the vote and pledged that the union would pay for an audit, going back five years, of “every abated property in the city and every contractor operating in the city to check their licenses, permits, the number of minority workers they’ve hired.”

Dougherty also took the opportunity to defend the trades’ hiring of minority workers, a major concern that council has raised in recent years and to go on the attack on the issue.

“What we find ironic is that the Building Trade receives very few hiring recommendations for kids of color from members of City Council. In fact, the requests from Council members for us to host fund-raisers for them or make campaign contributions to them outnumber recommendations of qualified minority kids by a margin of 50 to 1. Conversely, the Trades constantly recruits kids of color into our unions.”

Council President Darrell L. Clarke did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the letter.

A Council official said the letter would not affect Council’s decision on the tax. “It’ll help secure votes,” the source said, “We had a couple of people that were iffy but don’t like to be bullied.”

Dougherty said the tax, which has the support of the Building Industry Association, could deter Amazon and other businesses from coming to Philadelphia.

“We also take issue with the terrible timing of this antibusiness tax proposal, given that the city, with significant assistance from the Trades, is on the short-list for Amazon’s second national headquarters,” Dougherty said. “This onerous tax proposal at this crucial time essentially tells Amazon that we’re not interested in their business. Dumb.”

Proponents of the bill have projected that the one percent tax, which would be levied on all new construction, excluding not-for-profit developers, could raise more than $20 million a year for affordable housing. As the city experiences one of its biggest development booms in history, affordable housing has started disappearing.

The money would go into a trust fund that developers — non profit or private — could use to build housing or rental units for people making up to $105,000 per year (120 percent of the area median income for the region). The money could also fund down payments and closing costs.

The tax is the product of about a year of negotiations among politicians, housing advocates and developers.

On Wednesday about 100 members of the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities protested against the bill outside City Hall, arguing it won’t help the city’s neediest because families making up to $105,000 could benefit from the funds.

The hearing is scheduled for later this afternoon. If passed, Council will vote on the bill later this month.