On deadline, Philly City Council reaches consensus on Rebuild

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that City Council had secured a change to Rebuild legislation that would allow members to pre-approve organizations that could manage Rebuild projects. Some members had sought the change, according to a source familiar with the talks, but  it was not approved. 

Almost one year to the day after City Council passed a tax on sweetened beverages, it gave initial approval Thursday to a core initiative the tax receipts would pay for, a significant reshaping of Philadelphia’s parks, recreation centers, and libraries known as Rebuild.

“This will be a wonderful program,” President Darrell L. Clarke said after the vote. “We’re looking forward — I know I am — to the first groundbreaking as soon as possible.”

That could happen as soon as this year, according to Mayor Kenney’s office.

Over the next six or more years, Rebuild could touch from 150 to 200 individual sites, facilities that have fallen into deep disrepair because of budget constraints. Improvements will range from face-lifts to the construction of new buildings.

The $500 million project is a pillar of Kenney’s anti-poverty agenda and has been pitched as a path to finally diversifying the city’s building trades. Given the high stakes, Council seemed prepared to punt on the vote Thursday, potentially delaying until the group returned from summer recess in September.

But after a full day of negotiations, Council reached a deal in the early evening — nearly 10 hours after the scheduled vote — and quickly voted it out of the Committee of the Whole, made up of all 17 members. Council will take a final vote Thursday. Clarke said he expected the measure to pass.

If it does, the city would be cleared to take out the first of three $100 million bonds. Officials have said they would wait to do so until litigation challenging the beverage tax is settled. But $8 million in city money has been set aside for the project, meaning work can start before the borrowing.

“Today’s hearing was a critical step towards launching Rebuild,” David Gould, deputy director of community engagement for the project, said in a statement. “The amendments allow us to target resources to the areas that need it most, while also maximizing diversity on work sites and delivering projects efficiently and effectively.”

Much of the debate on the project, which has stretched for months, has focused on an agreement with the building trades. It includes a target of 45 percent minority participation for workers on Rebuild sites and a 50 percent Philadelphia-resident workforce.

To hit those goals in the project’s first year, a new commitment by the administration, the trades, and the city will begin a 12-month pre-apprenticeship program. Members will receive job training and get  help studying for the apprenticeship tests and paid work on Rebuild sites. Out of concern that that pool of workers will be too small to hit the diversity goals, Council members also added a requirement the unions tap workers from existing pre-apprenticeship programs.

The unions also would be required to give the demographic breakdown of employees on Rebuild sites, according to Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown. (The administration has said it will release a copy of the agreement after the legislation gets final approval.) The trades had previously planned only to provide employee zip codes.

“Having seen us set a lot of aspirational, theoretical, verbal commitments, I’ve learned the hard way,” Reynolds Brown said. “If it’s not in writing it doesn’t exist. And so just to put a zip code and tell us, ‘You’ll be satisfied the zip codes capture the populations we’re intending to serve?’ No, no, no, and no.”

Though Rebuild is too small of a project to create significant change in the makeup of the building trades on its own, officials hope the approach will be replicated by the private sector.

“We want the private sector to follow suit,” Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said after the vote. “Anybody who comes in here asking for subsidies, any break, this is now the floor.”

In negotiations, Council also secured a string of changes to the legislation that would give members more control over the project’s implementation, including:

  • Spots for two Council appointees and the chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee on the Rebuild oversight board.
  • Annual approval of the list of Rebuild sites selected by the administration, as well as the line-item budget.

“Council went through a long and arduous process to vote for a soda tax,” Clarke said. “It would make sense that Council, as the legislative body … would also be in the process as it relates to the implementation.”