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Connecting with Kenney

Making an investment: Mayor Jim Kenney, shown above at Abraham Lincoln High School last year, says he will propose historic spending on rec centers, parks and libraries to help community infrastructure across the city. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Mayor Jim Kenney is reaching out to Philadelphians in many ways, including answering questions from weekly newspaper readers each month.

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Kenney’s newspaper debut comes today in the Northeast Times. He will answer questions for readers of the Star, the Times’ sister paper, on March 16. The Star covers Bridesburg, Port Richmond, Kensington, Fishtown and Northern Liberties.

The mayor also makes a monthly, 30-minute appearance on WURD (900 AM). Additionally, he will answer questions during a monthly segment on Philadelphia Public Access Channel 64. The first segment will air on Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m.

The #AskKenney Twitter chats will also continue.

The Times asked readers to submit questions, and we received plenty. Kenney was able to answer eight of them, based on space in the paper.

In the future, we hope to have the mayor answer questions on other topics submitted by readers. They include the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, the 10-year tax abatement on new construction, absentee landlords, the city pension fund and Philadelphia Gas Works.

Q: Traffic control lines in the streets are in dire need of repainting throughout the city but especially in the Northeast. The previous administration chose to ignore this ever-growing problem. Will your administration make a conscientious effort to repaint traffic lines where needed to help make driving safer on our streets?

— Steve Dutill, Sun Valley

A: Hi Steve, my administration is committed to reducing traffic-related accidents and ensuring well maintained signage, including street lines, will certainly be a part of this plan. We expect the Vision Zero task force will be assembled this spring and we will begin acting on their recommendation this year. In the meantime, if you’d like to make a request to have a specific stretch of lines repainted, please contact 311.

Q: The Home Rule Charter states that any city employee transferring to a new position has a six-month probation period. After the probation is completed, the employee is accepted to that position. The employee is to be reviewed two times during that probation period. However, at any time, the supervisor can reject the employee, with a negative review, and return them to the previous position, if it is available.

Mr. Mayor, this is the 21st century, and employees have rights. I am in my 17th year as a city employee and have been affected by this regulation. Is it possible you could review this and make some significant changes to the city’s charter?

— Maryann Rush, Mayfair

A: Hi Maryann, any changes to the charter have to be proposed by City Council and then confirmed by the voters, but I certainly agree with you that it is time to update some of our HR procedures. The City doesn’t even have an onboarding procedure for new employees! One of the first executive orders I signed as mayor was to create a Chief Administrative Officer, who is charged with bringing our hiring, recruiting and personnel procedures into the 21st century. As part of that effort, she will also be administering a city worker employee satisfaction survey, so we can identify problems like the one you’ve just brought to my attention and work to improve them.

Q: The public pool at Lincoln High School is a community gem, widely used by the residents and by swim teams in public and Catholic schools. The locker rooms are a disaster: broken lock holders, half the showers don’t work, shower temperature is not regulated, and the floors are dangerously slippery. Lockers haven’t been painted in years and are dirty and rusty inside. Can you make a rehab of these dressing rooms a reality?

— Edward S. Marks, Holme Circle

A: Mr. Marks, Unfortunately, our city has historically underinvested in our parks, rec centers and libraries. Among big cities, Philadelphia ranks at the bottom on this type of infrastructure spending. This is a tragic mistake because in addition to the unsafe conditions you described, these investments are also tremendously cost-effective, with substantial impacts on improving our children’s after-school education and reducing crime.

The Parks and Rec Department is the largest provider of after-school programming for Philadelphia children, which is a critical service given that some 57percent of all violent crimes by juveniles occur on school days, and 19 percent are in the afterschool programming hours between 3 and 7 p.m. When the Conservancy and Parks & Rec invested $5 million in Hunting Park, over three years, crime went down 89 percent over that time period within a half-mile radius of the park. In Fort Myers, Florida, police documented a 28-percent drop in juvenile arrests after the city began their Success Through Academics and Recreational Support Program in 1990. Burglaries and thefts in a Philadelphia precinct also dropped 90 percent, after police helped neighborhood volunteers clean up vacant lots and plant gardens, falling from 40 crimes each month before the cleanup to an average of only four per month afterward.

So, as part of a larger effort to turn around our schools and improve neighborhood safety, I will propose historic spending on rec centers, parks and libraries in my March budget proposal to help community infrastructure across the city.

Q: Who is paying for Love Park and who paid for the ice skating rink? Schools need more money

— Donna Seitz, Northwood

A: Hi Donna, I understand your concern about prioritizing our limited city resources, but both of these projects are actually revenue-producing, meaning they contribute money to the budget that we can spend on our schools and other city services. The upcoming renovation of Love Park and the construction of the ice skating rink in Dilworth Plaza last year are also joint ventures between the City and local businesses and nonprofits, so their assistance also helps to reduce our net costs.

Q: How could we allow the Department of Streets to use well over the entire budget on a single storm?

— — David Slowik, Northeast

A: Hi David, our winter storm budget is actually somewhat of an average figure. Because some years we get a lot of snow, like we did this year, and other years we get almost nothing at all, our budget director takes a five-year average of annual spending on snowstorm cleanup, and uses that for the budget. As we have limited funds, we don’t budget for the worst-case scenario, but we plan for an amount that we think is reasonable given our last five years’ spending.

In fact, given that this was the largest storm our city has seen in decades, we were actually able to operate pretty cost efficiently. The City didn’t close early the Friday the storm hit and opened on time the following Monday morning, whereas other cities like D.C. and New York were forced to close, costing the taxpayers additional money on top of snow-cleaning efforts. Additionally, as a result of our aggressive clean-up efforts, all primary streets were cleared and nearly 80 percent of residential streets were cleared within 24 hours of the end of the storm. Clearing the streets that quickly also mitigated the negative economic impacts that would have occurred if most of our citizens were unable to get to work that Monday.

Q: Hello, Mr. Mayor. If Philadelphia would take control of all the vacant properties in Philadelphia, put them on the market for investors to fix and flip, it would help the tax base. Driving the inner city every day, it makes me upset to see these properties just sitting there and falling apart and not collecting real estate taxes. What’s being done to get this problem resolved?

— Bill Sims, Realtor, Coldwell Banker Hearthside

A: Hi Bill, the City developed a Land Bank several years ago that does just what you’ve described. However, the process required for the City to take possession of private properties is purposefully not quick. We need to ensure we’re respecting the rights of anyone who may have claim to the property as well as community members who would be affected by the City’s acquisition of the property.

That being said, we have made some significant progress in this regard. The number of vacant properties in or moving to the Land Bank inventory is over 1,700.

Q: Why do you feel we should be a sanctuary city?

— David Lee, West Torresdale

A: It’s a public safety issue. Full cooperation between the PPD and ICE discourages immigrants from calling the police when a dangerous situation is occurring or from cooperating with local investigations that would solve and reduce instances of violent crime. Full cooperation with ICE also puts a significant strain on police time and resources that distracts from keeping known violent criminals off the street.

I know some people are concerned that a sanctuary city policy could make us less safe, but the facts just don’t bear that out. San Francisco, for example, has a comparably lower murder rate than those cities without sanctuary city policies. And, even after the city amended its sanctuary policy two years ago to become more lenient toward repeat immigrant offenders, San Francisco’s homicides continued to drop the next year by 3 percent.

Additionally, between 1990 and 2013, our country’s unauthorized immigrant population more than tripled, from 3.5 million to 11.2 million, but during these same years, the FBI reported a 48-percent decrease in violent crime and a 41-percent decrease in property crime. A 2010 Census Bureau study also found that native-born males without a high school diploma were three times as likely to be incarcerated for a violent crime than less educated males from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the three countries of origin from which the majority of undocumented individuals come.

I am also the descendent of Irish immigrants who were very unwelcome in this country when they first came here a hundred years ago — so with policies like these I try to be a student of our own history. Every new wave of immigrant group that has come to our country has gotten a hostile reaction, but our economy and our public safety have ultimately been better for accepting and integrating them into our country.

Q: Talk of pre-Kindergarten sounds wonderful for kids and especially the parents who work (cheaper than daycare, for sure). My question: The School District of Philadelphia has no money now, so where does the money come for pre-K (raise our taxes, for sure)? And 3- and 4-year-olds, how will they fare for an eight-hour day or longer? Naps, food, activities?

- — Barbara Golden, Fox Chase

A: Hi Barbara, I know eight hours can seem like a long day for a toddler, but studies actually show that both children and families benefit academically and economically from an eight-hour pre-K day. There are several successful programming models for an eight-hour day that we will work to emulate as we expand pre-K access over the next three years — all of which ensure children receive the proper rest and nutrition during these hours spent in an early childhood education environment.

When it comes to paying for pre-K, we really can’t afford not to do it. Our schools are in crisis, and we’re not doing the kind of big significant policy changes that will turn the district around. Instead, we’re playing defense, raising taxes year after year to ward off another funding crisis.

Pre-K is our offensive solution. Kids who participate in pre-K are far more likely to stay out of special education programming, graduate from high school, get a job and stay out of the criminal justice system than those who don’t. The school district currently spends an average of $23,000 per child on special education services per year. Philadelphia could save approximately $5.6 million per grade, or over $72 million over the length of a child’s K-12 school years if all children were given an opportunity to enroll in pre-K.

And, across the board, the return on investment for every City dollar invested in quality preschool ranges from $4 to $16 in the form of reduced need for social services, special education, remediation and public safety activities as well as increased tax revenue. ••

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