Amnesty for Philly parking ticket scofflaws?

Old parking ticket debt would be wiped off the books under an amnesty program proposed Thursday by a member of City Council.

A member of City Council on Thursday proposed an amnesty program for parking ticket scofflaws, while another said the city should raise the penalties for business owners whose properties attract loitering, drug use and other nuisances.

Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell said amnesty would increase collections by allowing Philadelphians with long-standing debts to pay those from the last three years and have the rest cleared.

"If you've got 10 or 20 years [of debt], people won't pay. They just can't afford it," she said. "But we think if we give them a time frame people are more likely to pay back bills and get their record straight."

The bill, referred to a committee, would direct the Philadelphia Parking Authority to roll out the program by the end of the year. It would include forgiveness - once only - for fines, fees, and penalties.

Blackwell said she did not talk to the PPA before introducing the bill.

PPA spokesman Martin O'Rourke said agency officials declined to comment.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass' bill targeted at nuisance businesses drew more immediate feedback Thursday from leaders in the business community.

The law would allow businesses to be cited for nuisance behaviors - such as public urination, illegal consumption of alcohol, excessive noise, and littering - that happen on their property, the sidewalk or street in front of their property, or public property adjacent to theirs.

It provides an exception for those who have "made a good-faith effort" to stop those activities or by making a police report.

Owners who have three citations in 60 days or seven in 12 months could have their business license suspended or revoked. The owners could appeal to the Department of Licenses and Inspections, a process that would require they meet with community organizations about the concerns.

Bass said the goal is to identify bad behaviors and help business owners address them. But she said that in the end, an owner is responsible for activities outside their doors in the same way they are for shoveling the sidewalk after a snowstorm.

"We cannot conduct business and then say that part of it is not my responsibility. The trash outside of my business, that's not my responsibility," Bass said. "No, it is. The loitering is your responsibility."

Michael Banks, president of the Philadelphia area African American Chamber of Commerce, said the legislation was "casting a large net" rather than focusing on players likely to draw bad behavior.

"What you're asking the business owner to do is police the community," he said. "To be the gatekeeper. And that's not why you open a business."

Joe Grace, director of public policy for the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment on the bill but said the city should focus first on enforcing existing nuisance laws.

Under current laws, individuals can be cited for the activities mentioned in the bill, but business owners cannot be held liable for those activities happening on or near their properties, according to L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss.

Also Thursday:

Councilman Allan Domb introduced a bill that would cut in half the discount given for early payment of real estate taxes. Domb said that the rate has not been updated in more than 25 years and that the change would save the city an estimated $9.5 million annually.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced a bill to direct the city to buy alternatives to Styrofoam when the price is reasonably competitive.