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Mayors that inspire

At our 2020 Ideas We Should Steal Festival, three game-changing (and young!) mayors—Svante Myrick (Ithaca, NY), Randall Woodfin (Birmingham, AL) and Paige Cognetti (Scranton, PA)—joined Larry Platt for a virtual conversation:

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In Search of the Spirit of Reinvention

Philly is the nation’s first startup. So, in this budget season, why not put old talking points behind us…and pivot?

In Search of the Spirit of Reinvention

Philly is the nation’s first startup. So, in this budget season, why not put old talking points behind us…and pivot?

The consensus is in. Mayor Kenney’s $5.1 billion budget proposal hews closely to the old physician mantra: It does no harm. Thanks to the windfall of federal stimulus dollars, Kenney’s blueprint restores the deep cuts brought on by the pandemic. From a budgetary perspective, it’s almost as if 2020 never happened.

“Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value,” Joe Biden has said. Well, this latest Kenney budget proposal gives us Jim Kenney. It’s fine, but it doesn’t embrace the opportunity a crisis provides to challenge core principles, to hold up to inspection the way we’ve always done things, to reinvent government and the city. That may be too much to ask of this administration, but, as mayors have issued post-pandemic plans throughout the nation, I’ve found myself suffering from sharp pangs of mayoral envy.

In Ithaca, New York, Mayor Svante Myrick—who joined us for last year’s Ideas We Should Steal Festival—put forth arguably the boldest police reform plan in history, seeking to replace the police department with a “Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety” to be made up of armed “public safety workers” and unarmed “community solution workers,” all reporting to a civilian director of public safety instead of a police chief.


MORE ON THE PHILLY CITY BUDGET


Not surprisingly, the police union howled upon learning that, under Myrick’s initial proposal, cops would have to re-apply for their positions, and seems to have largely beaten back the most revolutionary of Myrick’s reforms. But Myrick has called his “Reimagining Public Safety” plan a living, breathing document, and the city continues to roll out reforms under it.

Meantime, in Birmingham, Alabama, last month, Mayor Randall Woodfin—who appeared at Ideas We Should Steal with Myrick—pardoned 15,000 local citizens with misdemeanor marijuana convictions. They “deserve a chance to be part of our work force, to provide for their families and to achieve success on their own,” Woodfin said, adding that their “new life starts rights here, today, with forgiveness and redemption.”

In both cases, these young mayors have dared to rethink the ways that things in their respective cities have always been done. Myrick, in particular, has taken a lot of political hits since first announcing his plan in February, but, for cities like Philly that often default to the same-old, same-old, there’s an object lesson in all those slings and arrows: In times of crisis, rather than seeking to reinstate the status quo, leadership is about striking a vision and then engaging with the entrenched interests who are invested in the way things once were.

Philadelphia was, in effect, the free world’s first startup; What happened to that spirit of reinvention? Do we really want to be modern-day versions of Kodak or Blockbuster now, just blithely going about our business while disruption rains down all around us?

Stuck in old narratives

Lately, I’ve been particularly sensitive to just how stuck we are in old narratives. Before Kenney’s proposal, Councilman Allan Domb rushed out an economic growth tax-cutting plan that would accelerate cuts to the wage tax, reduce the net income tax rate for businesses, and allow businesses to pay taxes on revenue or profits, but not both. (Philadelphia is the only major city to tax both. We’re Number One!)

Kenney’s budget is fine, but why are we so easily satisfied with the merely adequate? There’s so much that can be done right now. But maybe even more important than the tangible gains of new policy are the psychic effects of living in a city that tries new things.

At least two blue ribbon tax reform commissions have concluded that Domb’s reforms are way overdue. When Mayor Kenney released his budget proposal, it included modest wage tax cuts such that a resident household with an annual income of $50,000 would see a savings of $15 next year, and $2 the year after that. Not exactly a Myrick or Woodfin level of rethinking, huh?

Already the rhetoric in the debate feels like we’re in a time warp, wherein “progressives” see any tax cut as a supply-side giveaway to the rich rather than as a lifeline to those who might just use the relief to employ our neighbor. If Domb sounded to some like a modern day Jack Kemp, touting the miracle cure of tax cuts, progressives like Helen Gym also seemed to be fighting past battles, arguing that relief money from the American Rescue Plan “was not meant to subsidize taxes, especially for corporations.”

City Councilmember Cherelle Parker, a leading contender for mayor next time around, not only seemed to similarly be revisiting some old fights, she also sounded…confused when it came to the subject of modest wage-tax relief for non-residents. “Why would we be rewarding this group by lowering their wage tax rates? They don’t live in the city of Philadelphia, and now some of them won’t ever be returning to Philadelphia to work,” she said. “So instead, why wouldn’t we be focused on some of the Philadelphians who both live here and they work here?”

Of course, those who don’t return to Philadelphia to work will, by definition, not be getting the tax cut. Only those who return to work in the city—which we want to incentivize—will see their wage taxes modestly reduced. So Parker’s argument against cutting the wage tax for non-residents is actually an argument for cutting the wage tax for non-residents.

Knee-jerk populism

Parker’s comments speak to just how ubiquitous knee-jerk populism has become. Let’s reopen old fissures and rail against suburbanites at precisely the same time that workers are deciding whether it’s worth it to come back to the city and companies are considering whether to relocate to the ‘burbs. That’s why the Kenney budget proposal smartly reverses the parking tax and non-resident wage tax hikes instituted last year.

“To undo that suburban wage tax increase and to roll back that parking tax increase is really key to send a message out to the suburbs: We want you back as workers. We want you back as diners. We want you back in cultural institutions,” Center City District CEO Paul Levy told the Inquirer. He knows, as Kenney does, that an exodus of businesses and workers and consumers would actually devastate poor people in Philadelphia.

What those who bring national ideology to local politics don’t want to grapple with is that without a growing tax base, a city has nothing to redistribute. Guess who our two biggest employers are? The University of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia itself. What do they have in common? Neither pays taxes.

It’s not that Philadelphia doesn’t have elected leaders and civic and business institutions stepping up; it’s just that, too often, they’re wedded to the age-old curse of incrementalism. As I’ve written, it’s great that the Chamber of Commerce has gotten more engaged of late around fostering inclusive economic growth, but, by its own admission, its laudable Philadelphia Skills Forward Initiative to retrain and deploy into the workforce 5,000 predominantly Black and Brown workers who have been displaced by the pandemic is not commensurate to the challenge. Not in a city that’s 45 percent Black with only 2.5 percent of businesses with payroll owned by African Americans.

This is where the likes of Domb and the Chamber need to combat populist distrust of the business class by coming up with new ways to frame their interventions. One such way would be to arrive at the problem-solving table with demonstrable skin in the game.

Imagine Philadelphia being the first city to ask all its businesses to join the Black Equity at Work movement. Not only would it be bold, but the business community just might be in a better position to secure significant tax cuts in return. But it would require taking some risk, eschewing ideology, and thinking anew.

How groundbreaking would it be if the Chamber membership committed to the Black Equity at Work Certification advanced by Management Leaders of Tomorrow? The brainchild of John Rice, former NBA executive and former U.N. Ambassador Susan’s brother, the program confers on employers a type of Good Housekeeping seal of approval when it comes to meeting Black equity standards. Companies get graded on areas like racial representation, compensation equity, inclusiveness, and racially just business practices, like doing business with minority vendors. The scorecard was devised in partnership with the Boston Consulting Group and already companies like Nike, Deloitte and BlackRock have signed on.

Imagine Philadelphia being the first city to ask all its businesses to join that movement. Not only would it be bold, but the business community just might be in a better position to secure significant tax cuts in return. But it would require taking some risk, eschewing ideology, and thinking anew.

Cross-sector problem-solving

To be clear: There are green shoots of such envelope-pushing here. The recent announcement of Help For The Hurdles, a public/private partnership that uses CARES Act funding to connect the homeless through First Step Staffing to $16 per hour jobs and services seems like an example of cross-sector problem-solving. And I’ve been encouraged to see Councilmember Derek Green heralding a city-owned bank—it’s an idea that’s fraught with red flags, but an idea nonetheless—and am intrigued by, though skeptical of, his notion of a land value tax. But, too often, we seem mired in old debates.

Want to feel inspired? Look to Austin, Texas’s Austin Civilian Conservation Corps, modeled after FDR’s program of the same name during the Great Depression that put more than 2.5 million men to work in 4,500 camps across the country beginning in 1933. They planted over 3 billion trees, combated soil erosion and forest fires, and battled natural disasters like hurricanes, floods and droughts. It was an unprecedented experiment in federal relief work, and Austin has shaped a local program in its image, if not its scope.

“We have to reinvent the wheel every once in a while, not because we need a lot of wheels, but because we need a lot of inventors,” the educator and author Bruce Joyce once said.

The Austin experiment is still embryonic, with a mere $2 million budget—culled from loose change found in a multitude of city departments. That’s good enough for about 60 jobs at $15 an hour, cleaning up parks and trails, planting trees, and installing solar panels.

Why not borrow from Austin, and unveil a Philly Conservation Corps? Eleven percent of our population is still unemployed. Why not put them to work, cleaning and greening the city? At least one civic leader pitched just this idea to Kenney early in the pandemic, and the answer predictably came back: There’s no money for it.

Here, of course, is where the aperture of the governmental lens needs to widen. Do we really not have the money for such working-class relief efforts, or do we lack the political will to reorder priorities?

If the Austin experiment is too small-scale for your liking, turn your gaze to our neighboring Garden State, where, inspired by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, eight mayors have come together and set their sights on narrowing the wealth gap by creating a $100 million philanthropic fund to support Black and Latinx business owners and real estate developers.

Kenney’s budget is fine, but why are we so easily satisfied with the merely adequate? There’s so much that can be done right now. But maybe even more important than the tangible gains of new policy are the psychic effects of living in a city that tries new things. I don’t know if I agree with all of Myrick’s reforms in Ithaca. But, reading about them, I know I felt envious that here was a city unafraid to be on the move.

“We have to reinvent the wheel every once in a while, not because we need a lot of wheels, but because we need a lot of inventors,” the educator and author Bruce Joyce once said. Those dudes in powdered wigs who had the audacity to form the first startup right here nearly 250 years ago? I bet they’d co-sign the notion that the spirit of reinvention tends to feed off itself.

Make sure you’re all set to vote in the 2021 primary election in Philly

Header photo courtesy of Jared Piper for Philadelphia City Council / Flickr

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