Mayoral candidate Chaka Fattah wants to lease out Philadelphia International Airport and use the proceeds to fund an ambitious initiative to slash the city's child poverty rate.
Fattah, a U.S. congressman, is to unveil the idea, part of a plan he calls his "opportunity agenda," this morning. He said in an interview yesterday that the agenda would also include proposals to reduce business and wage taxes, as well as details about how to pay for the many new programs he has promised on the campaign trail.
Under Fattah's proposal, the airport would be leased to a for-profit firm, an arrangement Fattah estimated would generate $3 billion. After retiring the debt on the airport, he estimated, the city would have nearly $2 billion left to finance the new social programs.
Fattah said details of the programs themselves would be decided by a body known as the Philadelphia Opportunity Commission, which as mayor he would chair. Other appointees would come from politics, labor, churches, and academia.
"What we're interested in at the end of the day is evidence-based, education-led approaches that create self-sufficiency, academic excellence, and a culture of achievement," he said.
Fattah promised to implement the agenda via a "new architecture" for children's programs, in which a diverse array of government programs - from police efforts against truancy to Department of Human Services monitoring of troubled households - would be broken down into zones that correspond with 181 Philadelphia elementary-school areas.
Each area would have a single coordinator who, Fattah said, would be accountable for successes and failures.
The broad, if vague, agenda dovetails with the theme of Fattah's mayoral campaign, which has been closely tailored toward appealing to poorer voters who feel left behind.
"We're launching a comprehensive effort to move into the sunshine people who are now in the shadows of the city's prosperity," Fattah said. He estimated that the effort would lead to a cut in the child-poverty rate "at minimum in half, and possibly by two-thirds."
But whatever Fattah or his four Democratic primary rivals propose, said Rob Dubow, executive director of the state board that oversees city finances, their lives will be complicated by long-term structural problems with the city's finances.
Dubow said any mayor would need to address the fact that Philadelphia's obligations for things like pensions and health care are growing far faster than its income. Because those costs are mandatory, the result has been a city government that must balance its books by reducing police or park spending.
Fattah, though, said the real long-term problem was Philadelphia's poverty, which he said his plan would address.
The nitty-gritty of leasing out the airport could prove exceedingly complicated, said former airport director Alfred Testa, who studied a similar initiative several years ago.
"It's a long process," Testa said. "And Philly's tough. You would need to do a lot of work on the airport beforehand."
Though Fattah estimated that 50 airports around the world were run under similar arrangements, Testa noted that they are very rare in this country. Stewart Airport, north of New York City, was the first in the country to be leased to a private firm. But just six years into a 99-year deal, the firm sold the lease back to a public authority.
Midway Airport in Chicago is also preparing a lease plan.
Testa said the main advantage for passengers would be in getting the facility away from the control of elected officials, whose directives about who should get jobs or contracts have added to customer costs. The airport was a key focus of the recent City Hall corruption probe.
Fattah said the city would retain its power to appoint top airport officials. Testa said that "would never fly" with any potential private partner.
Fattah said his plan would also include a pledge to continue wage-tax reductions and a proposal to scrap the much-maligned business-privilege tax and replace it with a tax on net profits of city businesses.
And he said he would offer non-Philadelphia businesses a chance to continue paying their present tax rates if they moved into the city. He said the "tax-neutral" proposal would mean that qualifying firms would no longer stay away from the city because of business-tax rates.
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