City Council wants to commandeer a portion of municipal budget dollars

Philadelphia’s annual budget battle got an early start this year, as Councilman Mark Squilla today proposed a Home Rule Charter change that would give City Council an unprecedented amount of power when it comes to determining exactly how city dollars are spent.

“That will enable Council to be able to move and adjust up to 10 percent of the budget given by the administration into departments that the whole Council will decide can use more money,” Squilla said. With a fiscal year 2013 operating and capital budget totaling over $3 billion, the legislation would give Council free reign over as much as $300 million, Squilla said.

Right now, City Council must approve the amount the administration dedicates to each department during the budget negotiation process, but can’t specifically determine the line items on which the money is spent within those departments. “Council feels, I think, at this point – at least I feel – that some of the things we have during the [budget] hearings and we ask a lot of questions and we get to suggest certain ideas to the administration, but there’s never really that little give and take,” Squilla said.

He added that, though the measure was in some ways generated by Mayor Michael Nutter’s recent veto of a bill Squilla introduced that would have added a $2 parking ticket surcharge to be dedicated to parks maintenance, it is not retaliatory. “When I was going through the surcharge bill and we were trying to figure out how to get the $2 surcharge added to Parks and Recs, the administration said we couldn’t do that because of the charter,” Squilla said. “So therefore, I asked, ‘Well, how can we get around that?’ They said the only way to get around that is to change the charter, so that’s what we’re trying to do here, is to change it and give us the ability to do that and maybe take a little bit of pressure off the administration and put some more pressure on the Council members who happen to represent the districts.”

He said that the measure would allow Council members to more effectively address the concerns of their constituents. “When we meet and we have hearings and people meeting with us, a lot of times people say, ‘Go see your Council members and try to get more money,'” Squilla said. “Well we can try, but we really have no authority to do that. This will give us the ability to now have the authority to at least put a couple of dollars to specific things.”

The legislation must be debated at a committee hearing before Council votes on it. Though Nutter’s press secretary said the administration could not comment because it had not yet read the bill, Squilla said he is “sure” the mayor will veto it. “But then we would have a right, as Council, to override that veto with a number of votes, a 2/3 majority,” he said.

The charter change would then be subject to a public vote at the polls. Squilla said he hopes the question will get on the ballot during the municipal elections in May so the legislation could be in effect by next year’s budget negotiations.

What could have been

Squilla said the budget passed in the spring would likely have looked a little different, had the legislation been in effect. “I think there would have been some changes and some dollars switched around into different departments and agencies,” he said. Here are some of the areas that might have seen more money:

The Department of Parks and Recreation. Squilla said that he would have liked to have seen more money go to city parks, which have been the target of $8 million in cuts over the past four years. He with his parking ticket surcharge legislation, whose revenue would have been dedicated to the department, but the bill was vetoed by Nutter.

The District Attorney’s Office. Another area Squilla mentioned was the prosecutor’s office. District Attorney Seth Williams asked for a two percent increase during budget hearings to hire more prosecutors, pointing out that when it comes to the amount of money received per violent crime in the 22 largest U.S. counties, Philadelphia is the second most underfunded – and among the most crime-plagued.

The Department of Licenses and Inspections. Squilla and Councilman Bobby Henon are both supporters of crackdowns on tax delinquent property owners and increased enforcement of code violations which, of course, come at a cost to the cash-strapped department.

The Fire Department. Many members of Council, including Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., have been vocal critics of the cost-saving tactic of temporarily closing stations on a rolling basis, also known as brownouts. Still other Council members, most notably Councilman Jim Kenney, want to have funds available for the city to settle contract negotiations with firefighters union Local 22.

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