Cutting through the budget BS with Rebecca Rhynhart: 4 takeaways
Residents, activists, and officials tried to make sense of how to understand and impact Philly’s finances at a Billy Penn event.
The Budget BS panel: Jen Devor of Better Civics, Malika Rahman of CCP, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, Billy Penn reporter Jordan Levy DANYA HENNINGER / BILLY PENN
Jun. 10, 2022, 6:30 a.m.
City Council is in the last weeks of crafting Philadelphia’s spending plan, with the city’s fiscal year 2023 budget due by the end of the month. The many budget hearings — held virtually for the third year — were revealing to an extent, but only if you knew where to look.
As part of Billy Penn’s efforts to highlight recent changes and new developments, we hosted a live discussion to help elucidate the budget process. Included in the panel were:
City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart
Civic activist Jen Devor
Community College of Philadelphia professor Malika Rahman
The budget lays out the financial priorities of the entities that form and inform it: members of City Council, the Mayor’s office, city departments — and, ideally, the constituents who give elected officials the power to crunch the numbers and provide a plan.
Speaking of electeds, Rhynhart is widely rumored to be considering a run for mayor in 2023. At the end of the event, an audience member shouted out the question directly.
Though there was no obligation to answer, the controller said she was glad to respond. She noted her current priorities — but did not deny the idea. “I’m doing my job,” Rhynhart said, “and obviously I care about the city. So that’s what I’m focused on.”
That current job will include auditing the last budget passed by the Kenney administration. And most of the evening focused on how points of consensus can become coalitions, what city residents know about the process — is there a way to cut through the budget BS?
Here are a few takeaways from the happy hour discussion, held outdoors along the Schuylkill River at Parks on Tap.
What’s the right balance to strike in violence prevention spending?
Funding for violence prevention and the meaning of “defund the police” was a big topic of conversation.
Rahman, a former deputy sheriff before turning to education, summed up a common sentiment. If we’re going to be allocating money to public safety, she said, “we need to see the proof in the pudding.”
Over the course of the Kenney administration, public safety spending decreased by about 4%, but it still remains the largest tranche of departmental spending. Funding for violence prevention has actually grown — as shootings and homicides continued to rise.
The audience expressed concerns about that disparity, noting some organizations have waited months to receive money set aside for them, an operational slowdown that can greatly hinder potential impact.
Another question raised: Is enough spent on measures that will immediately help a city in crisis? Rhynhart noted her office found only 21% of last year’s $155 million in anti-violence spending was meant to bring results in the next few years.
Panelists also discussed how while novel ideas are necessary in some cases, they’re not always the answer — and the importance of data-driven initiatives without losing sight of the interpersonal, sometimes quotidian means of preventing violence.
Rahman put it plainly, encouraging attendees to “ask the questions that seem difficult and challenging, force people to explain to you what qualifies this organization for this amount of money based on this initiative.”
The budget mutates over the course of the year
Once the budget is finalized, fiscal matters don’t stop there. Controller Rhynhart hipped participants to transfer ordinances, the authorization that Council grants to spend more money in the General Fund than previously planned.
It sounds like that’s just moving funding from one place to another, but it’s actually adding more dollars to the pie, Rhynhart said. “It’s called the transfer ordinance because money is transferred from the extra appropriations that are passed in the Grants Fund.”
These ordinances pass twice a year, often to cover overtime pay for city workers, Rhynhart said. “There’s a lot of room for improvements in how the public is brought into this process,” she added.
Transfer ordinances are different from the negotiations that happen in Council between the release of the mayor’s budget proposal to the final vote in June.
That time represents a window for constituents to push officials on issues they think are important. This year suggested changes to the proposal include Councilmember Kendra Brooks’s suggestion to add $10 million to purchase US Bank liens to save urban gardens, and Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson’s $16 million plan to help residents navigate the consequences of property assessments.
Looming questions on taxation
The budget is funded in large part by tax revenue, and audience members brought up several issues about who should pony up that money.
Asked about the idea of mandating payment in lieu of taxes (aka PILOTs) from the city’s major nonprofits — think UPenn, CHOP, Drexel — Rhynhart noted there’s a push for them every time there’s a tight budget, but then the conversation is often dropped.
She suggested it’s an idea that should be explored when there’s not a financial crisis., “especially as they buy more and more land, and are expanding more of their holdings in our city.”
One person expressed worry about the fact that the city depends heavily on the wage tax, which suburban residents only have to pay if they come into the city for work — not if they work from home, as has become more common thanks to the pandemic. What could replace the billions of dollars it sends to the city coffers if remote work becomes standard, they wanted to know?
It’s an issue that needs to be explored, Rhynhart acknowledged. The most recent quarterly cash report from her office does show wage tax revenues rebounding somewhat, bringing in $24 million more year-over year.
What about Councilmember Brooks’ recent proposal to bring back a Philly wealth tax? While approving of a wealth tax federally, the Controller said she doesn’t “see that functioning correctly” on a local level — mostly because rich people could easily move taxable holdings to the suburbs.
There’s power in people, persistence, and reading the fine print
Jen Devor, co-founder and president of Better Civics, came ready with the lowdown on navigating the budget as a resident, and some depressing if not surprising truths.
Acknowledging the shortcomings of hearings before Council, the primary way residents are heard in the budget process, Devor said, “the reality is, talk about BS, sometimes by the time a hearing is set and you get to Council to testify, Council’s decision has already been made.”
Even so, it’s not the end of the road.
“It’s important to not just think about testifying at Council about important issues like the budget, but about all of the organizing tools around an issue that you need to use before and after,” she continued.
Such tools range from frequent contact through coordinated phone zaps to rallies to public education drives, and other direct actions.
Devor also shared one experience from when she testified in favor of the soda tax, an especially heated hearing where she was booed by the tax’s opponents, who also mobilized outside of City Hall. It “was a zoo” that day per Devor, but overall an indication of what increased engagement could look like.
“It was wild. Wouldn’t it be amazing if every important issue in our city had that kind of response?”
At the end of the day, the format of budget information — from the initial proposal to the departmental reports written for hearings and the ~1,000 page document that maps it all out — doesn’t make great casual reading.
Still, residents who want to be on top of the budget can’t underestimate the importance of becoming familiar with these documents and helping others understand them.
“It’s by design that this information about how our government works and how to hold our elected officials accountable is complicated,” said Devor.
It’s easier to figure these matters out with a few partners, whether as part of a formal organization or as neighbors working through them together. A scenic happy hour by the Schuylkill banks doesn’t hurt either.
This was originally posted on June 10, 2022 by Billy Penn. You can read the original article by clicking here.