There they go again. Council just raised a slew of taxes to partially fund the annual School District shortfall. Seems like we’ve seen this movie before.
But this time, Council’s machinations stunk even more than usual. That’s because, among those targeted for whopping tax increases was the parking industry. As you’ll recall, the two most prominent members of said industry, Joe and Rob Zuritsky, distinguished themselves from the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil tradition of local business leaders when they organized and helped fund Philly3.0, a PAC dedicated to changing the makeup of City Council and lobbying for term limits on the august body. Lo and behold, they have now been hit with yet another tax increase—to a rate of 22.5 percent, this after their 15 percent tax was hiked to 20 percent in 2008. Coincidence? Uh, this is Philly.
“I don’t get into motivations,” says longtime political observer Larry Ceisler. “I look at the pros and cons of issues. That being said, it is fair to wonder whether this tax increase on parking garages was either political payback or a signal to others: You challenge Council incumbents, you do so at your own peril.”
This is not an argument against levying a tax increase on those who own parking lots and garages. There actually are good reasons to tax the industry: The schools need the money; we want more people taking public transportation; we want more density on our streets; we want less in the way of exhaust fumes poisoning our air. Tax parking enough and you may discourage driving in the city to the degree that you can make a dent on these quality of life issues. But tax it too much and you can harm a local industry that employs our fellow citizens, and discourage suburbanites from coming in and contributing to the local economy. The Zuritskys would no doubt add that, by disproportionately singling out one industry—New York, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Chicago all tax parking less than we do —city government is overstepping its bounds by using the tax code to pick winners and losers in a game best left to market forces. That’s what Rob Zuritsky was getting at in 2011, when he unsuccessfully lobbied to roll the tax back to 15 percent.
Finding that balance is a good debate to have. But we never had it. Where were the hearings? The debates on the floor of Council? The op-eds, yay and nay? Nobody made the smart policy case for (or against) yet another parking tax increase.
This being Philly, and given Council’s history of engaging in petty political feuds, it’s a good bet that this wasn’t about policy at all. It was about smacking down a couple of businessmen who had the temerity to publicly stand up to the Council For Life crowd. Let’s be clear: Though the Zuritskys recent experience with Council these last years —and Mayor Nutter, whom they supported in his 2007 election but who shortly thereafter signed the tax increase and opposed the proposed 2011 rollback—may have informed their desire for change, the issue of taxing the parking industry wasn’t part of Philly 3.0’s stated agenda; nor were prospective candidates asked for their position on the issue on 3.0’s questionnaire.
But by being so public in favor of term limits, it was as if the Zuritskys had issued a political fatwa on incumbents. Remember, for this current crop of legislators, sitting on Council will be the best job they’ve ever had. Just consider the perks: the six figure salary, the car, the 23 weeks off. It’s a type of public welfare. To you and me, the Zuritskys’ bold call for change was just common sense. To the permanent political class, it was an existential threat.
When 3.0 announced that it was getting in this game, I was supportive—with an asterisk. I was critical that the group, a 501c4 “independent expenditure” PAC, was not disclosing its list of contributors. Other than the Zuritskys, who laudably stepped out front, it is not known who has funded the enterprise. I still wish they’d come clean —because there is strength in numbers.
But this latest tax increase is precisely why so many of the PAC’s contributors have not come forward. Because they’re fearful that their industries will be taxed, or their places of businesses will receive visits from city inspectors, or their development projects will be stymied by the shame that is Councilmanic Prerogative. I know a number of those who have contributed to 3.0 and am refraining from outing them, because I don’t want to make it easier for the empire to strike back. And I don’t want to be complicit in punishing those who are trying to do the right thing by being engaged citizens.
This is what all the hand wringing about the perils of dark money doesn’t get. I, too, value transparency. But transparency can make you a target in a backroom, one-party town with low voter turnout. Just ask Rob Zuritsky.