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Citizens’ Forum on Saving Municipal Services in Philadelphia


by John Oliver Mason

Arch Street United Methodist Church, at Broad and Arch streets in Philadelphia, was the scene of a public forum on cuts in city services and fair means of taxation, on Thursday, March 12, 2009.

The forum was sponsored by Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks and the Coalition for Essential Services. Members of the coalition include the Coalition to Save the Libraries, AFSCME District Councils 33 and 47, SEIU Local 32BJ, Asian Americans United, Fire Fighters Union Local 22, Media Mobilizing Project, Lutheran Settlement House, Philadelphia Student Union, Kensington Welfare Rights Union, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, Jobs With Justice, Green Party of Philadelphia, Health Care for America Now, Philadelphia Unemployment Project, Coalition of Labor Union Women, and ACT-UP Philadelphia.

Marc Stier, State Director of Health Care for America Now, opened the program, and spoke of the Obama administration and leaders in the House and Senate in Washington coming out for a national health care program for all Americans this year; “But it’s still going to be very difficult,” Stier added, as such a program will face “enormous opposition from the insurance companies. They’re gearing up the same kind of campaign they did fifteen years ago (during the Clinton administration) to try to stop health care reform.”

Stier announced that on Saturday April 4th, Health Care for America Now of Pennsylvania will do a joint event with Health Care for America Now of New Jersey; they will hold a rally near the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, with members from other parts of the state, like Allentown and Scranton, and march across the bridge and meet with activists from New Jersey, “symbolizing,” said Stier, the fact that “health care hangs on a thread, and suspended over a ravine.”

Gloria Gilman, chair of Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, spoke of the group’s origins from the 2004 presidential campaign. “We realized,” she said, “there’s a lot of energy for organizing in Philadelphia, that people were ready to try to take back their government, and to take back some control over their lives.”

Of the coalition to preserve city services, Gilman said, “This is an effort that we have joined with many other organizations, and we’re now (at) over thirty-five organizations.” The coalition, she added, was formed “to insure that Mayor (Michael) Nutter and City Council don’t cut essential services to the residents of this city, and that if we need to find additional revenues, there are ways to do it that don’t impinge too much on any particular group,” especially low-income people.

Sharon Ward, Director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (a branch of the Keystone Research Center), gave a power-point presentation on the effect of budget cuts on municipal services. The Center, she said, “is organized on public principles. One, is that facts matter. We believe that it’s important to understand what’s in the budget, and they understand state tax policy and local tax policy in order to (effect) change. Second is that we believe government is not the enemy. Government in fact is absolutely necessary, and public services are necessary, not just for our quality of life, but also for our economy. It’s critical to remember that without education, and police and fire services, and many other services that are funded here or at the state level, we wouldn’t have economic growth. If we don’t fund these things adequately, we wouldn’t have jobs.”

In her power-point presentation, Ward showed the Philadelphia city budget for the current fiscal year “as it was supposed to be…Most of the revenue that comes in to support our services comes from our tax dollars, about 72 percent.” She spoke of the wage tax, the property tax, the business privilege tax, and how much money each tax generated. “The business privilege tax,” she added, “actuality generates more revenue for the city than the property tax does, it has for some time.” Half the tax dollars, Ward said, “is spent on public safety and on health.”

Ward also spoke of the projected city budget deficit, adding that most states and large cities in the country have budget deficits. “A lot of what we heard over the past six months,” she added, “in the state or city, is that our budget deficits are related to overspending. Well, virtually every state has a deficit. It’s a revenue problem, not a spending problem. The rich states and the poor states, generous states and parsimonious (stingy) states, have budget deficits. We’re in a recession, tax revenues are down, we can’t support ourselves.”

Tax cuts, Ward added, contributed to the budget deficits, and in Philadelphia, as in other cities, “Prison costs are going up, (city employee) pension costs are going up because the city’s pension fund, just like your 201K, has lost a significant amount of its value, and the city has to put more money in to cover” its pension costs.

As for the idea that tax cuts are the way to economic growth, Ward said, “There’s a lot of economic literature on tax cuts, particularly on cities and states. The cost of taxes is a very small percent of the operating cost of most businesses.” And, she added, “There’s a lot of evidence that if you implement a tax cut, and then cut services, you actually lose jobs, you don’t gain jobs.” Also, she added, “If you cut a dollar in taxes, you’ll never make a dollar back in additional revenue from job creation or anything else. Generally, it costs you money to cut taxes. Most economists think that for every dollar you make in tax cuts, you get back anywhere between thirty and fifty cents.”

Gregory Benjamin, head of the Coalition to Save the Libraries, spoke afterwards, saying, “I think you need to understand the significance of people power, because for so long, the government has basically been telling people what’s going to happen in their neighborhoods. What happened with the movement (to keep open) the libraries was neighbors got together and said, ‘No, not this time, no, not this way.’”

Benjamin noted that because of neighborhood activism, the libraries that were slated to close stayed open. “The libraries didn’t close,” he added, “because the people organized, they came together, and they made sense.” People need libraries, said Benjamin, to use the computers and further their education.

Towards the end, participants broke up into groups according to council manic district, to plot strategy on how to influence their city council members.

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