Municipal Workers in One City Unite to Call for Higher Taxes Instead of Layoffs

Inside a branch of the Philadelphia library before the coronavirus pandemic.

Inside a branch of the Philadelphia library before the coronavirus pandemic. Shutterstock


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The effort in Philadelphia involves both union and non-union employees and comes as city elected leaders are trying to solve a budget shortfall caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

City workers in Philadelphia are advocating against cuts and layoffs Mayor Jim Kenney proposed in a budget plan last month, urging that the city instead hike taxes on wealthier residents and businesses, as well as turning to other new revenues to help patch its finances.

Some of the workers—a mix of union and non-union employees—are also critical of the fact that the budget proposal would provide more money for the city police department, while putting other services, like libraries and parks, on the chopping block.

Philadelphia, like other local governments across the country, is scrambling to balance its finances after experiencing a sharp drop in tax revenues brought on by the sudden economic slowdown the coronavirus outbreak caused.

The workers have united under the banner of Campaign for a Just Philly Budget. Their proposals to raise revenue include doubling a gross receipts tax rate that businesses pay, and reinstating a “personal property tax” on the value of stocks, bonds and other financial assets.

They’ve also floated proposals to end property tax abatements for larger businesses and for “payments in lieu of taxes,” or PILOTs, for major nonprofits like universities and hospitals.

Kenney’s office offers reasons why these proposals are impractical or misguided. And the mayor has stressed that his plan is an attempt to maintain core city services at a time when Philadelphia is dealing with severe financial fallout from the ongoing coronavirus crisis.  

The debate over the city's police budget took on a new dimension on Monday when 14 of 17 Philadelphia City Council members, including Council President Darrell Clarke, said in a letter to Kenney that they could not support a proposed $14 million increase in police funding. 

That message came as state and local leaders around the U.S. are scrutinizing police budgets and policies, after days of nationwide protests driven by outrage over police brutality and other troubling law enforcement conduct towards black Americans.

But the opposition effort the city workers are mounting against the proposed cuts and layoffs predates the protests. It was sparked by a plan Kenney unveiled in early May to address a projected $649 million deficit heading into the upcoming 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Part of Kenney’s plan is to lay off a significant portion of the city’s part-time, seasonal and temporary workforce. 

“This budget pares city services down to the most essential, imposes layoffs on hundreds of workers, and reduces or eliminates some programs that are simply no longer affordable,” the mayor said last month at the time the plan was rolled out.

Rachel Robinson, a children’s librarian at a library branch in west Philadelphia and a union member, said that while the library positions targeted for layoffs in the near-term are technically “seasonal,” they’re vital for keeping the library running smoothly.

“We depend so heavily on seasonal workers,” she said. “Seasonal workers come back year after year, after year and are working their way up to an opportunity to take a civil service exam to become part-time and then hopefully to become full-time.”

“You’re losing like the lifeblood, the people who keep the library running and who are on their way to have a career at the library,” Robinson added. “That’s who we’re losing.”

In the library system, the seasonal workers include employees who work on after school programs, library assistants who handle tasks like check-ins and re-shelving and facility guards who also have custodial duties, according to Robinson.

Philadelphia’s library branches are still closed to the public due to the coronavirus. The city’s public schools began closing in March. Robinson and others are worried that the seasonal library jobs will remain cut after libraries begin to reopen and school resumes.

“I can’t imagine them opening without staff to open them,” she said of libraries.

Flan Park normally works as an after school program leader at a library from September through the end of June, but was recently laid off from that position about a month early. The job, which Park has worked for the past three years, is about 20 hours a week and pays around $17 an hour. 

Programming is mainly during 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Park said the site they work at sees 20 to 30 kids per day, many of them in the kindergarten to third-grade age range, who get help with homework assignments and reading and do other art and literacy activities.

Park said many students they work with are from less well-off households and that for some of the kids, or their parents, English is a second language. The program can sometimes involve helping parents understand their children’s schoolwork so they can help their kids out.

“It's a really important and beneficial program,” said Park.

But Park noted that even though some seasonal employees have held jobs for over a decade, these workers lack the same protections and benefits the city’s union workforce has—including paid time off in the event of something like the current pandemic. 

“When it comes time to trim,” Park said, “our jobs and positions are considered disposable, which really sends a strong message about what the city government chooses to prioritize.”

For now, Park has managed to land a remote job in another part of the library through the end of the summer, but said they know about 40 coworkers who were left unemployed.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office said they could not immediately provide a count on Tuesday for how many seasonal workers could be laid off under Kenney’s budget plan.

But Robinson and Park estimated that the number of seasonal workers within the library system who could be affected by layoffs was somewhere around 200 to 250. Workers in other departments would be subject to lay offs as well.

Kenney’s budget plan relies on measures beyond just job cuts to address the large projected deficit, and proposes general fund spending of $4.9 billion, a $341 million decrease over the original $5.2 billion budget the mayor put forward for fiscal 2021.

The mayor has also sought increases in a wage tax rate for people who live outside the city but commute in for work, and in a parking tax, while also proposing to freeze businesses tax rates, rather than lowering them as previously planned.

Recreation centers, along with libraries, would have hours reduced, a community college scholarship program would be delayed and downsized. A hold on new hiring, with some exceptions, and pay reductions for certain employees are also outlined in the package.

Mike Dunn, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, in an email this week, largely rejected the slate of revenue proposals that the coalition of city workers is backing.

He said experts and commissions have warned that raising the gross receipts tax rate would “hurt the city’s competitiveness and long-term growth.” The personal property tax, Dunn said, would face legal hurdles due to a past state Supreme Court ruling that found it was unconstitutional.

(Supporters of the tax say the old version of it could easily be tweaked so it holds up in court.)

As for ending the property tax abatement, he said it would “have very little positive impact” on the city’s short-term finances and could have negative effects in the long run.

And, finally, he said the city has limited power to compel universities and medical facilities to make payments in lieu of taxes, while also noting that these institutions are large employers.

Dunn emphasized that proposed increases in police funding would go towards areas like “implicit bias training” meant to curb racism, officer-worn body cameras and 20 new positions in the department’s Intelligence Bureau that would support data-driven policing.

There’s also funding, he said, for hiring 28 new “public safety enforcement officers” as part of a program supported by Clarke, the council president. These officers would help the police manage traffic, but would not carry firearms or have the power to arrest people.

The mayor’s budget plan also included salary increases negotiated with police unions, which enabled the city to enact a one-year labor contract extension with them, Dunn said.

Councilmember Helen Gym said she and another councilmember plan to introduce legislation on Thursday to reinstate the personal property tax and to end the property tax abatement. 

But in a phone interview on Tuesday she also said that even if these measures were enacted, they would only go so far to solve the huge budget gap brought on by the coronavirus. 

“We're in an extraordinary and difficult situation,” she said. "We have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue,” Gym added. “We only have not great choices in front of us." 

More aid from the federal government would be a big help, Gym said. But Republican leaders in Congress have shown little urgency in recent weeks to pass another coronavirus relief package that would funnel more federal dollars to cities like Philadelphia.

Gym did sign onto the letter opposing the increase in police funding and also said she’s supportive of reducing funding for the department below current levels. 

“A majority of our departments got cut between 10 and 20%,” Gym said. “We spend an enormous sum of money on policing and prisons,” she added. Proposed general fund spending for the police budget for fiscal 2021 is about $760 million under Kenney’s plan. 

Asked if she thought that significant cuts to seasonal staff were inevitable given the financial difficulties the city faces, she replied: “I don’t believe anything is inevitable.”

“I think that there is a major challenge,” she added. “And we have limited amounts of time.”

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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