As the fight over Philadelphia’s controversial sweetened-beverage tax continues, a surprising voice has entered the fray on behalf of consumers and soda employees who claim they are being ignored by the city.
“Our ridiculous, one-term mayor doesn’t care about Philadelphia,” proclaimed outspoken SportsRadio 94.1 WIP host Howard Eskin.
The long-time sports talker, broadcasting from the Shoprite on Bristol Road Bensalem last Saturday, painted a doom-and-gloom scenario for city businesses and consumers thanks to Mayor Kenney’s controversial 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax being levied on sugary beverages.
“Stores are closing, people are losing jobs,” Eskin declared, without providing any supporting details, as he handed out free soda to shoppers stopping to listen to him berate Kenney as a “bully” who doesn’t care about working class people.
One one side, supporters say revenue generated by the tax is working to fund rapid growth at pre-K centers across the city, as well as helping the city rebuild parks and recreation centers. Eighty percent of the revenue from the tax is devoted to these projects, with the city saying the number will rise to 97 percent starting in fiscal 2020.
Critics claim the tax is driving customers to grocery stores in the suburbs, hurting city-owned grocery and convenience stores and costing soda employees their jobs. Some supermarkets and distributors have claimed beverage sales are down as much as 50 percent, while other businesses, however, have reported smaller impacts.
Eskin’s disapproval of the mayor isn’t exactly breaking news. During the 2016 Philadelphia mayoral election, Eskin blasted then-candidate Kenney on WIP while promoting himself as a write-in candidate (after missing the official deadline to appear on the ballot). Eskin eventually earned just 25 votes.
Eskin, who has been outspoken in his opposition to the beverage tax since it was proposed last year, is also being supported by the Pennsylvania Foods Merchants Association (PFMA), a statewide trade association that represents the interests of supermarkets, convenience stores and vendors. The group has been mounting an “Ax the Bev Tax” campaign in an attempt to put pressure on elected officials by encouraging angry customers to call and complain to their elected representatives.
“We not only advertise on his program, we advertise on other time slots in WIP and on other radio stations as part of a broader education campaign,” said Dave McCorkle, president and CEO of the PFMA. “The mayor has the bully pulpit of his office.”
— AxTheBevTax (@AxTheBevTax) April 11, 2017
Not surprisingly, Kenney’s administration disagrees with Eskin’s assessment of the tax, insisting that soda companies and supermarket owners have been overreacting about the impact of the new levy. They also question the legitimacy of the numbers about layoffs and sales drops that have been presented publicly, citing the millions of dollars spent fighting the tax by groups such as the PMFA.
“There’s been no independent verification of those numbers, it’s all self-reported,” said city spokesman Mike Dunn, who noted that Wharton economist Robert Inman and others have said the true impact of the tax can’t properly be measured until at least a year has gone by.
Contrary to the doom-and-gloom scenarios painted by Eskin and others, the city says very few business have reported large impacts due to the tax, which they report has brought in $12.3 million over its first two months. It is too early to know if Philadelphia will meet its annual revenue goal of $90 million to sustain the program.
But that hasn’t stopped Eskin from railing week after week against it, emboldened by the angry callers and soda-tax opponents he meets during his weekly show. He plans on broadcasting his Saturday show from local supermarkets owned by tax opponents Jeff Brown (Shoprite) and Pat Burns (Fresh Grocer) over the next couple of months until the start of the Eagles season, when he’ll return to broadcasting from the Borgata in Atlantic City.
“Maybe in some way, my voice can help,” Eskin said. “Kenney and his people hope all this goes away. I'm going to do all I can to make sure it doesn't go away.”
Daniel Grace, the secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 830 which represents employees of the three main soda distributors, said he appreciates that Eskin has lent his voice to help his embattled workers. Layoffs of Pepsi employees announced in March will be completed by the end of the month, and Grace said it will claim somewhere between 80 and 100 jobs.
“If the business keeps declining, the company will be coming back to the table,” Grace said, adding that Coke is planning to sit down with representatives of the union very soon.
Back in March, Canada Dry said it laid off 35 workers, including managers, sales representatives and drivers, after reporting that sales were down 45 percent in Philadelphia. Grace claims that despite the job losses, the Kenney administration hasn’t reached out to him or his members to try and work out a solution.
"Amazingly enough, not one person on the mayor’s staff has contacted us to see if there’s anything the city can do,” Grace said.
Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Kenney, disagreed with Grace, noting that members of the administration met in person with the Teamsters last year when the tax was being considered. Richie Lazer, the deputy mayor of labor for the city, reached out last month to check-in, but the call ended up being canceled due to a conflict. Hitt says the union has agreed to reschedule, but a date has yet to be set.
Publicly, Kenney himself has shown little sympathy for soda companies that the administration claims have been marginally impacted by the beverage tax.
“They are so committed to stopping this tax from spreading to other cities, that they are not only passing the tax they should be paying onto their customer, they are actually willing to threaten working men and women's jobs rather than marginally reduce their seven figure bonuses,” Kenney said in an emailed statement back in February.
The American Beverage Association, along with several Philadelphia residents and businesses, lost a suit against the tax after a Common Pleas Court judge ruled the tax was legal, paving the way for it’s implementation in January.
The decision was appealed, and last week, seven judges of Commonwealth Court in Pittsburgh heard arguments from both sides about the legality of the tax. The panel gave no indication when it would make its final decision.
Philadelphia is the first major city in the country to enact a sugary beverage tax. Four other cities, all in California — San Francisco, Oakland, Albany, and Berkeley — have all passed variations of their own tax. According to city budget documents reviewed by the Santa Fe New Mexican, Berkeley's 2-cent-per-ounce tax exceeded budget projections for fiscal year 2016 and is on pace to meet its fiscal year 2017 projection of $1.6 million.