Mayor Kenney's second budget appears to be a good mix of fiscal prudence and ambition designed to help the city's most vulnerable residents while improving the quality of life for all Philadelphians.
The $4.4 billion budget's showpiece is a plan to capitalize on the Delaware riverbank's potential by placing an 11-acre park atop the roaring cars and trucks traveling below it on I-95 at Walnut and Chestnut Streets. The $225 million city project is receiving additional funds from the state and William Penn Foundation, with work expected to start in 2020 and be completed in three years.
Kenney says it will be a park for the entire city, especially those who don't make it to the Jersey Shore. "The waterfront is their Shore," he said Thursday in a meeting with Inquirer and Daily News editors and reporters.
Kenney's ambitious Rebuild program to repair parks, libraries, and recreation centers may begin later this year, depending on the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the beverage industry to kill the soda tax passed last year to pay for the plan. The city announced last week that it was ready to use the tax money to create 2,000 new pre-kindergarten seats for children. It wants 6,500 new seats by 2021.
In his budget address Thursday to City Council, Kenney said Philadelphia remains "first in poverty and last in job creation." He said the opioid crisis, which saw 900 people die of overdoses last year, had increased homelessness. He said he wants to make a drug overdose antidote more accessible in communities like Kensington and Fairhill where addicts have been congregating in encampments.
In discussing employment, Kenney said other areas of the city need help to experience the momentum that has added jobs in Center City.
Turning to public safety, he said he plans to increase security cameras along commercial strips and provide more lighting near stops along the Market-Frankford El transit line. He wants to continue outfitting police with body cameras, increase training for firefighters and paramedics, and upgrade equipment.
The mayor contends he can do all this and continue to make modest cuts to wage and business taxes. That's worth celebrating. He also has a plan to cut the employee pension's unfunded liability. But it depends on the public safety and white-collar unions agreeing to increase their members' contributions and put some workers in a two-tiered program that resembles what blue-collar workers have accepted.
In the coming weeks City Council will hold budget hearings, and early indications are that they will go smoothly. After all, this budget doesn't ask Council to take unpopular stands on raising taxes or cutting services. Council President Darrell Clarke had mostly good things to say about Kenney's budget proposal, but indicated that he wants more focus on providing jobs and training in disadvantaged areas.
It isn't apparent in Kenney's budget, but the Democratic-controlled city also needs to brace itself for possible blowback from having Republicans in control of both Harrisburg and Washington. If the Affordable Care Act dies or Philadelphia loses federal funding for being a "sanctuary city," there could be costs that require budget adjustments.