Philly Council hears plan to raise revenue from nonprofits, charities

Councilman Brian J. O'Neill talks with Councilwoman Cindy Bass before the opening of the Council session, the first of 2013.
Councilman Brian J. O'Neill talks with Councilwoman Cindy Bass before the opening of the Council session, the first of 2013. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 26, 2013

After four straight years of tax hikes, and with a new property tax system coming online this year, two Philadelphia City Council members raised the prospect Thursday that the city could get new revenue from its nonprofits and charities.

Councilman Bill Green introduced a bill to give the city direction on collecting business taxes from nonprofits engaged in commercial activity outside their nonprofit missions.

And Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown called for hearings on the property tax exemption enjoyed by charities, which she said own property worth nearly 11 percent of the city's total value.

"Many of the nonprofits are doing their fair share by the services they provide," she said. "Some might argue that equals what they would pay in taxes. That might be debatable."

On the first day of a new Council session, lawmakers grappled with contentious zoning bills and two mayoral vetoes, and were asked to reconsider the paid sick-leave bill.

Work continued on a bill that Brian J. O'Neill introduced late last year to change what businesses and other uses are allowed in commercial corridors.

His bill originally sought to restore the rules from the old zoning code, which was replaced last year with what was hailed as a slimmer and more modern rule book for building in the city.

O'Neill amended his bill Thursday to allow community gardens and farmer's markets in commercial areas, after, he said, talks proved to him that they provide "a great service to the community."

"It makes immense sense," he said. "It took me a little while, but I got there."

Debate will continue on housing density and other issues, O'Neill said, and the bill might not face a final vote for two to three weeks.

In other action:

Sick days. William K. Greenlee reintroduced a bill mandating that businesses provide paid sick days to workers. Essentially the same bill passed in 2011 on a 9-8 vote, but Mayor Nutter vetoed it.

Businesses, particularly restaurants, have fought the measure as a costly "unfunded mandate" from the city. Joe Grace of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce said he had discussed with Greenlee the possibility of making the law voluntary and providing tax incentives to businesses that give paid sick leave.

"Everyone agrees there's a cost to this," he said. "The question is who should bear that cost."

Greenlee said he was hesitant to adopt that strategy because it would rob the city treasury and be unfair to businesses that provide sick leave "because it's the right thing to do."

"And now you start giving incentives to businesses that are only doing because they are incentivized?" he asked.

Notification. Council voted by 13-3 to override Nutter's veto of Jannie L. Blackwell's bill that changes rules for notifying neighbors of development and seeking input.

Green said the bill created requirements that "are almost impossible to comply with" and could tie up developments in court "for years."

"This is a big mistake," he said. "We will all rue the day this veto was overridden."

Blackwell said she was mystified by the mayor's action, since she thought the administration had agreed to the bill after weeks of discussions and changes.

"Now they want to start all over like we never had the meetings, never had the compromise," she said.

Twelve votes are needed to overturn a veto.

"Wall wrap." Nutter also vetoed a bill that would allow a controversial "wall wrap" advertisement on the Electric Factory building at Seventh and Callowhill Streets. Some revenue would have been distributed to three local schools and a community group.

The bill passed last year with a veto-proof margin, but Mark Squilla, the sponsor, chose not to call for an override vote Thursday.

A letter this week from the U.S. Department of Transportation warned that the digital sign could violate state and federal laws governing on advertising near highways, and approving the wall wrap could threaten some of the state's federal highway dollars.

"That sort of made some people uneasy," Squilla said. "I have to reevaluate where we're at."

He has one more week to call for a vote before the override stands.


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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