On the campaign trail: Al Taubenberger, 62, is a Republican challenger for an at-large City Council seat. MARIA S. YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO
The idea that a citywide political election must be won block by block is a familiar one to Al Taubenberger, all too familiar.
Four years ago, had he convinced the voters of maybe two more blocks to back his campaign for a City Council at-large seat, Taubenberger could be running as an incumbent this year rather than a challenger and perhaps an underdog.
Taubenberger placed eighth in the 2011 at-large Council election. Only seven candidates won seats. Taubenberger finished with 38,682 votes, just 203 behind David Oh.
Taubenberger, 62, is giving it another try this year. The Fox Chase resident should be familiar to folks in the Northeast as the longtime president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Yet, on a citywide level, voters may most recognize him for his 2007 mayoral campaign, when as the Republican nominee he garnered 17.1 percent of the vote against Michael Nutter.
In this year’s Council at-large race, the five Democrat nominees are positioned to stroll to victory in the Nov. 3 election due to their party’s 7-to-1 voter registration advantage in the city. So that leaves the five Republicans and four independent and minor-party candidates to battle over the two remaining seats.
In a recent interview with the Northeast Times at the Dining Car, Taubenberger sized up the restaurant’s newest dish, the “Tauben-burger,” while discussing topics including small business, absentee landlords, riverfront development and his own career, which includes tenures on two City Council staffs and a congressional staff.
Northeast Times: Why did you decide to run again for City Council?
Al Taubenberger: I know the good that I can do having come out of a council staff. I know the good the office can do. I also know that sometimes they can gum up the works. In 23 years with the Chamber of Commerce, I came to work every day with a stack of letters on my desk and problems and concerns from small businesses. The city for so long has not done well by small businesses. They have not encouraged them to stay, not made it easy for them to open. And also, they’ve ignored neighborhoods, in many cases the folks in the Northeast and other parts of the city. Our services are not what they should be. That’s something else that drives me. I know I can be of greater service to the community and to small business owners being in City Council.
NT: What are the things that need to be fixed to encourage small businesses?
AT: First of all, the tax code is onerous. If you talk to an accountant in Philadelphia and say, “I have this concept, this idea. I’d like to open a business,” nine out of 10 of those accountants, to save you dollars, will suggest that you do this anywhere but Philadelphia. It should be the reverse. This should be the natural place. There are a lot of great things in the city of Philadelphia, the diversity of its population, the willingness of people to go to work. But the tax code, the complications, have really caused small businesses not to be in the city. Even worse, after they open up they realize, “If I’m just a couple of miles up the road, I don’t have to deal with these taxes.”
NT: Which specific taxes are we talking about? How do we simplify the code while maintaining the revenue stream?
AT: You need revenue. The government needs money. But the government needs to tighten its belt as well. I think when a company first opens, there should be a small window when there are less taxes, not a lot but enough to encourage. I think we need greater cooperation with L&I. They’re not really doing the job. And just making the whole process easier. There have been some attempts at this but it is not nearly what it could be. It’s one giant bureaucracy that is not functioning properly.
NT: What specifically do you mean when you talk about neighborhood services?
AT: Quality of life for a lot of folks. If you have someone who is not taking care of their property, weeds are growing, they haven’t mowed the lawn all summer, there should be fines given out for that and enforcement. CLIP is a great answer but is not the only answer. If you ask Philadelphians, and this has come to me while going door to door, people complain about the absentee landlords. There should really be a red flag when the lawn isn’t kept up and the property is deteriorating. Something should be done, reaching out to the owner. Just because they are paying the taxes doesn’t mean everything is copacetic. Because just the way that property looks is a blight to the rest of the community. One bad house on a block will bring down the rest of the property values considerably.
NT: In the Northeast, we are trending toward lesser owner-occupancy and increasing rental-occupancy. How do you assess that trend and is the city in a position to do anything to improve that trend?
AT: The trend is the marketplace. There are people who as investors want to buy a property and then rent it out. It’s America. They’re allowed to do it. However, our community should protect itself against absentee landlords who may own the property from New York and meanwhile their tenants are all over the place causing havoc and all (the landlord is) worried about is collecting the rent check. They need to be licensed properly, which a lot of them don’t do. If you want to rent your property out, OK, but get your license because there are some taxes that ought to be paid. And also, we want to know who you’re renting to and where you are so that if there’s a problem with your tenant, we can have some control over it.
NT: Do we need a new prison? Where do you stand on the riverfront location that was discussed (as a new prison site) before the summer? And what is your vision for riverfront development in the Northeast.
AT: The city for the most part has done a poor job of riverfront development. It is truly an asset and there is only a finite amount of riverfront land. It could be used for industry. But people like to be close to the river, so it’s a great opportunity for parks and for housing development. In Europe, they do this all the time. They’ve done it in other cities in the United States. This is a great asset. I don’t think a prison needs to be built there. Getting back to the prisons, we have to take a look at what the dollars are and the demand, and if we can cooperate with Pennsylvania. We need cooperation with other levels of government. And I also know there are areas in Philadelphia that have been blighted for years and might welcome the redevelopment that would come with that and the job opportunities that would come with that.
NT: On the issue of public schools, we’ve had a series of property tax increases, including one last session. How to resolve the public school financial problem moving ahead?
AT: The public schools have to be managed better. Every program has to be evaluated. That should be part of the budget process. They need a formula for funding that works. Right now that’s discombobulated and broken. The state has many times reneged on their (financial) responsibility, yet they control the School Reform Commission. There should be a formula for putting local people on the school board, and there is. But if you’re going to go to the state and ask for money, they want some say. Conversely, there is no regular funding source. You cannot consistently go to our citizens and say, “Well, this year it’s going to cost you nine percent more.”
NT: What in your professional experience qualifies you to be on City Council?
AT: Twenty-three years with the Chamber of Commerce. All my life as a Philadelphia resident and a community activist. I’m president of the Burholme Civic Association and Town Watch. I’m one of the guys who helped found the Town Watch. I know how important jobs are to people and that we have to be on the forefront of creating them. You have to be not only a legislator, but a salesman for the city. The mayor can’t do it all alone and I certainly want to work with the new administration and the members of Council in attracting jobs. ••