Advocates turn out in force at Council meeting

Posted: March 15, 2014

With the battle lines drawn by Mayor Nutter's budget address, combatants on the dominant issues facing lawmakers this spring wasted no time staking their positions.

A week after protesters were shut out of the mayor's speech - and Nutter spoke to a uncharacteristically subdued chamber - advocates returned in force for Thursday's City Council meeting. They flooded the hallways before the meeting, sat with their signs during the proceedings, and visited with Council members after. And during the meeting, members of a coalition fighting the proposed sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works even were even able to adress Council from the lectern.

The sale of the municipal gas utility to a Connecticut firm is opposed by the gas workers' union, but it was a group of environmentalists and religious advocates for the poor who stepped forward Thursday.

"If we sell PGW to a powerful corporation, we are giving up the protection of the weak and giving power to the strong," said Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, speaking for Philadelphia Interfaith Power & Light. "The only way they are going to make money is by raising rates."

The proposed PGW sale could intertwine with the budget season's other great debate: how to finance the School District's request for $195 million in new money.

Education advocates gathered Thursday in City Hall to push Council to pass an extension of the city's extra 1 percent sales tax, which would pump $120 million into the district's budget.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke would rather split the proceeds of the sales tax with the city's pension fund, which is underfunded by about $5 billion.

The pension fund looms over the PGW sale, as well, because the profit - expected to be $424 million to $631 million - would be fed into the fund.

Clarke reiterated his position Thursday, saying "people need to focus their advocacy on the General Assembly," where education funding has been cut.

The Rev. Kevin Johnson, pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church, said school boosters would "continue to apply the pressure upon the governor and all our state elected officials."

"However, home must take care of home," he said. "And now it's time for the City Council to do what's needed."

In other business Thursday:

Council passed two bills to allow the sale of the city-owned garage beneath John F. Kennedy Plaza and begin the refurbishment of LOVE Park.

Council delayed passage of a package of bills related to construction of a new Comcast tower, which would be the tallest in the city. Clarke said more community input on the project was needed, and he termed the delay "nothing major."

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson introduced a bill to broaden a 10-year tax-relief program for longtime residents in fast-growing neighborhoods.

215-854-2730 @troyjgraham

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