Kenney outlines his vision for the future

AVI STEINHARDT
AVI STEINHARDT
Posted: March 05, 2016

With his first budget address Thursday, Mayor Kenney extended an olive branch to a City Council he hopes will back him in the first big fight of his term.

One by one, he acknowledged all 17 members by name. And for each, he listed an initiative in his budget that the member has championed.

Then, he asked those members to support the linchpin for his own bold initiatives - a tax on sugary drinks, which the chamber has twice rejected in the past.

"I know that one tax can make some very wealthy and very powerful people very, very upset," Kenney said. "But I've seen this Council take on special interests before. And I know, together, we can do it again."

The address drew a standing ovation from Council and the capacity crowd, a notable shift from more recent budget speeches by Mayor Michael Nutter, when tensions between the governing branches ran high.

Kenney seemed at ease in the room where he attended 23 budget addresses as a councilman. At the lectern, he modestly waved to quiet the applause, took a sip of water, then shook the hand of Council's stenographer before beginning.

He pitched the 3-cents-per-ounce soda levy as the only way to realize a broader vision for Philadelphia, one with universal pre-K, vibrant recreation centers, fully equipped police and fire departments, and less blight.

The tax would bring in an estimated $400 million over five years, the majority of which would fund the mayor's plan for universal pre-K. His budget also calls for $600 million to repair neglected libraries and rec centers; $2.75 million over five years for 4,000 police body cameras; and more than $100 million to improve police facilities, upgrade fire department equipment, and purchase new fire vehicles.

Then there are the initiatives he credited Council for backing: a city post to enforce the paid-sick-leave law (advocated by Councilman William K. Greenlee); development of a municipal ID program (introduced by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez); and additional revenue for commercial district beautification (supported by Councilman Bobby Henon).

"If we ever want the mayor's budget address to be about something other than our failing school system and its repercussions," Kenney told his former colleagues, "then we need to implement serious, radical, ambitious policies."

Kenney's budget is now in Council's hands. And while the body did not always take kindly to Nutter's revenue proposals, many say that was in part due to the members' strained relationships with the former mayor.

While Kenney's relationship with Council may sour, it has not yet. Insiders say that makes it an ideal time for him to push a traditionally unpopular tax.

"If you're going to ask for something, do it during the honeymoon," Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said, acknowledging the approach.

Of 15 Council members interviewed since details of Kenney's soda-tax plan became public, all said they were keeping an open mind. Even two who said they were fundamentally opposed to the idea, Republicans Al Taubenberger and David Oh, said they would weigh both sides during budget hearings.

"To be very direct about it, I am not a fan of having a citywide program be a burden on one particular industry," Taubenberger said.

Most members said they support Kenney's initiatives but are still weighing whether they would support a soda tax.

"I agree with all the priorities. We might have to get there through a different route," said Quiñones-Sánchez, who has a bottling facility in her district, and has concerns about whether the tax is legal and how it would be enforced.

With some, Kenney's delivery resonated as much as his message.

"I believe he's sincere. I believe he feels this is the best for our city," said Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell. "And it's a big issue for us to believe in our mayor and I believe we do."

Council President Darrell L. Clarke, who has opposed the soda tax in the past, declined to say how he's leaning. But he said he is not necessarily more inclined to support it simply because Kenney's budget includes $100 million in bonds for an energy initiative he proposed.

"One has nothing to do with the other," Clarke said. "The energy proposal actually is a self-funding initiative. It may not even require any bonding."

The soda tax drew a quick rebuke from the beverage industry and others, including a newly formed coalition with members including small-business owners, the American Beverage Association, and the Teamsters union, whose truck drivers deliver soda. Larry Miller, spokesman for the No Philly Grocery Tax Coalition, said the tax is an unreliable revenue source.

"Small grocery stores are starting to stock less sugary drinks," he said, noting a tax would hurt sales further. "So why are we trying to build funding on something which we already know is a diminishing source?"

Beverage industry lobbyists can be counted on to be swarming Council members' offices, if they haven't arrived already. And Kenney, who opposed the tax under Nutter, acknowledged their arguments can be persuasive, "so persuasive they even got me to believe them five years ago."

He insisted, however, that the benefits of funding universal pre-K far outstripped any negatives attached to the soda tax.

Going off his prepared remarks, he told the chamber about two recent experiences.

At a pre-K facility in Mantua, he met two 4-year-old boys, "unafraid, bright smiles, engaged, articulate, happy," he said.

Two days later, he visited the Pennypack House School, which houses juvenile males charged with felonies. One student, he said, approached him.

"He said, 'This is the best school I've ever attended,' " Kenney said, as many in the previously silent audience let out a sigh. "The best school he ever attended [is] in jail.

"It is our responsibility," he continued, "for those two 4-year-old little boys and for every 4-year-old little boy and girl in the city to not let them go on the road to Pennypack but get them on the road to Penn."

As the applause nearly drowned out his words, Kenney closed simply: "Let's get to work."

tnadolny@phillynews.com

215-854-2730@TriciaNadolny

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct estimated revenue from the proposed soda tax, which is $400 million over 5 years. 

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