In budget address, Kenney calls for unity of Philadelphians ‘under attack’

Mayor Kenney outlined a string of more modest proposals in this year's budget — funding to fight the opioid crisis, hiring additional attorneys to represent abused children, increased spending on paving, money for a park over I-95 — collectively aimed at improving Philadelphians quality of life, public safety and the city’s economic outlook.

Delivering his second budget address Thursday, Mayor Kenney continued to promote the initiatives that have been a bedrock of his first year in office -- fighting poverty, strengthening neighborhoods, and empowering Philadelphia’s youth.

Then he went off script, and spoke of an uncertainty looming over that work.

“We don’t know what’s coming out of Washington,” he said, his eyes no longer glancing to the teleprompters but to the audience that filled Council chambers. “And we don’t know what’s coming out of Harrisburg.”

“Every day it’s something different. And it’s not good,” Kenney continued. “But the thing that I am sure of is that all of us as Philadelphians, all of us who love this city and the diversity and strength — racial diversity, ethnic diversity, gender diversity, LGBT folks — all of us together are under attack. And we need to stand up together.”

Unlike last year, when Kenney used the address to launch a high-stakes fight against the soda industry, Thursday’s speech included no flashy initiatives or new taxes.

Instead, Kenney outlined a string of more modest quality-of-life proposals in a $4.4 billion spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1. They include nearly $2 million to fight the city’s opioid crisis, more than $1 million in housing assistance for the homeless, and $90 million over six years toward a park that would cover a portion of I-95.

“We ask you to lift up our most vulnerable by increasing resources that will improve their health and well-being,” Kenney said. “And we ask you to support job-creating initiatives that will increase economic opportunities for all our residents.”

He also laid the groundwork to carry out a key initiative the recently enacted soda tax will in part fund, a $500 million reshaping of the city's parks, recreation centers, and libraries known as Rebuild.

“In order to create opportunity for all of our neighborhoods, this budget proposes investments that will drive economic growth in all of our communities,” he said. “Specifically, Rebuild has the potential to catalyze economic growth in dozens of Philadelphia neighborhoods.”

Kenney’s administration on Thursday gave to Council a request to issue three $100 million bonds spaced 24 months apart, the lion’s share of Rebuild’s price tag. Officials have said the bonds will not be issued until a pending lawsuit opposing the tax is settled.

A sign of lingering opposition to the tax, about 100 people, many PepsiCo employees, staged a small protest outside City Hall on Thursday morning, wearing shirts that read “Ax the Tax” and chanting the same slogan.

Some on Council, including President Darrell L. Clarke, have been critical of the administration’s plan for implementing Rebuild. In a direct response, the administration last week made a major modification, opening the door to a greater number of nonprofits managing work on Rebuild sites.

Kenney on Thursday took additional steps to reinforce his relatively positive relationship with the chamber. Woven throughout the speech were nods to individual members. He mentioned each of the 17 by name, along with an initiative each has championed.

He did the same in last year’s address, as he asked Council members to make the potentially politically unpopular move of enacting a soda tax. On Thursday, he thanked them for ultimately doing so and called for the same unity “in the face of even greater threats.”

Council members, who have been asked to increase existing or impose new taxes six times since 2017, seemed generally pleased with the budget. Clarke said that Council would likely make tweaks but that he thought most members “will quickly get around” the proposal.

He also said that he shared Kenney’s feelings of dismay over the current political climate and that Kenney’s message of “bringing people together” resonated with him.

“I think the current onslaught from the federal and state government will bring us closer together,” he said. “Sometimes it may be a blessing in disguise.”

Councilwoman Cindy Bass noted the recent vandalism report at a Jewish cemetery in Wissinoming, calling these “troubling times.”

“So, I’m really inspired,” she said, “that the mayor would give us this message of hope and of encouragement, and that we are going to stick together and work together.”

Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this article.