Connecting with Kenney

Mayor Jim Kenney answers questions submitted by Times’ readers.

Community issues: Mayor Jim Kenney addresses reader-submitted questions regarding homelessness, sugar tax, zoning and the sanctuary city policy. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Thank you, readers, for submitting questions to be answered by Mayor Jim Kenney.

This is the third time Kenney has answered questions from Times readers since taking office last year.

We submitted 47 questions to the mayor, and several of them were on the same topic.

Below are the answers Kenney gave to what’s on your mind.

Q: Philadelphia ranks in the top 10 of big cities when it comes to poverty-stricken residents. We also rate in the higher percentile in terms of high tax rates. My question is, with these two factors, how do you expect people to get out of poverty?

— David Lee, Chalfont

A: We have made gradual decreases to both our wage and business taxes and now have them at their lowest rates since the 1970s. These measured decreases made it possible to provide relief for our working families but not make drastic cuts to services. My proposed budget for FY ’18 will continue to lower these rates.

This past year, we also embarked on our most ambitious anti-poverty effort to date by securing the funding for three programs — pre-k, community schools and Rebuild — by passing the Philadelphia beverage tax. This past January, nearly 2,000 3- and 4-year-olds were given access to quality, affordable education thanks to PHLpreK. This number will increase to 6,500 over the next several years. A recent study conducted by the University of Chicago found that, in the long term, students who attend these programs eventually go on to earn more later in life and, in the short term, pre-k parents earn more annually because their children are in school.

Community schools are also proven to fight poverty because they address the non-academic factors that keep low-income students from learning. It is very difficult to succeed academically if you come to school hungry, sick or traumatized. The nine community schools we launched in September provide services directly to students and their family on school grounds that combat these non-academic factors. Thanks to the beverage tax, we’ll be able to turn 25 existing neighborhood public schools into community schools over the next five years.

Finally, the Rebuild initiative will provide $500 million for much-needed renovations and updates to parks, rec centers and libraries throughout the city. These renovations will be accompanied by a job-training program that will provide unemployed and low-skilled Philadelphians with a career in the building trades. Over its seven-year lifetime, we expect Rebuild to improve the spaces and programming where our children spend their out-of-school time, and provide a workforce development model that can be used all over the city to fight unemployment, given our construction boom.

Q: I work in Center City, so I see so many homeless people. They are homeless for various reasons: young adults panhandle on the El; older homeless in the streets who seem high or mentally ill. I had to research homelessness in Philadelphia to find whom to call for certain situations. Especially, I saw a woman dressed in pajamas, I think, who seemed mentally ill. I think we need to post whom to call for certain homeless situations such as I see human trafficking hotline signs posted around SEPTA and city concourses. What are we doing to combat the homeless situation and what is being done to inform the public on how to help?

— Jacqueline Young, Sun Valley

A: The Office of Homeless Services provides leadership, coordination, planning and the mobilization of resources to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring by working with our many partners. OHS partners with many local agencies that provide job training, housing assistance, drug and alcohol treatment as well as mental health first aid. If you know someone who is homeless and in need of help, please call our 24-hour hotline number at 215–232–1984.

Other initiatives to address homelessness are the Shared Public Spaces Initiative, which launched in November to leverage the support of our private and nonprofit partners in reducing aggressive panhandling and chronic homelessness. My proposed budget for FY ’18 asks Council to address this challenge, by supporting a total of 83 units in rapid rehousing and supportive housing. Rapid rehousing focuses primarily on families who have become homeless, moving them quickly out of a shelter and into a community setting. Supportive housing is particularly effective for those suffering from mental illness or addiction, with a 90-percent success rate of preventing a return to homelessness. Both types of housing will allow our system to become less reliant on shelter beds, which are very costly and less successful in ultimately returning our homeless citizens to stable living arrangements.

Q: Dear Mr. Mayor Jim Kenney, I am a retired Philadelphia special education teacher and I am 100 percent for your soda/sugar tax, but as a senior citizen on a fixed income, why should I have to pay a tax on something I need for my health? Examples are soy milk, almond milk, protein drinks and Gatorade (prescribed by a doctor when I am sick). Please, sir, explain this to all the senior citizens who are not drinking soda but are just trying to stay healthy on what we are allotted each month.

— Barbara Martin, Fox Chase

A: Barbara, there are several nut- and plant-based milks that are not subject to the tax. All unsweetened nut and plant milks are not taxable, and sweetened nut and plant milks that the USDA has deemed nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk are also not taxable. Furthermore, protein shakes are not taxable if they are sold in concentrate form.

Also, please note that the Philadelphia beverage tax is not a tax on the sale of sweetened beverages but rather a tax on the distribution of these beverages. Any price increase the consumer sees is because the distributor has decided to pass the tax along.

Q: Who is on the Zoning Board of Adjustment? How do they get there? Who holds them accountable for their decisions? Are they open to outside influence? The proposal to open a drug rehab center across from Max Myers Playground by a guy from RICHboro is a very heinous and despicable act. Thanks.

— Pete Hart, Castor Gardens

A: Pete, the current ZBA members are Frank DiCicco (new chair), Carol Tinari, Confesor Plaza Torres, Anthony Gallagher and Thomas Holloman. The ZBA is an independent administrative board. The members are appointed by the mayor. The decisions of the ZBA can be appealed to the Court of Common Pleas. I am unaware of the proposed drug rehab opening near Max Myers Playground. If you could email me further details at James.Kenney@phila.gov, I will be glad to look into the situation.

Q: Joann C. Hutton (Upper Holmesburg), Alan Knapp (Winchester Park), Donna Seitz (Northwood) and Anthony Dello Russo (Fox Chase) all condemned Kenney’s sanctuary city policy, arguing illegal immigrant criminal suspects are given special treatment.

A: I would like to start by clarifying what our policy is because there is a great deal of misinformation out there. Philadelphia works with our federal partners on anti-terrorism and drug trafficking task forces, and we also do not stop ICE from arresting Philadelphians whom they believe are undocumented. Philadelphia is fully compliant with all federal laws. Nothing we are doing with regard to immigration is illegal. And nothing we are doing gives immigrants “special treatment.”

There are two policies people often think of when they refer to our “sanctuary city” status. The first is that our police officers do not inquire about immigration status in the course of their investigations. This policy has been adopted by most police departments and endorsed by nearly all law enforcement organizations because it is very difficult to get immigrants to report crimes or act as witnesses if they’re afraid the police will deport them. If immigrants aren’t willing to come forward in those situations, then criminals stay on the street.

The second policy that you may have heard about is that our prisons require a judicial, criminal warrant from ICE before turning someone over in our custody to them. We have this policy because federal judges have ruled that if we turn someone over without such a warrant, then we are violating the Fourth Amendment and we can be held liable for damages. Lehigh County had to pay out over $100,000 in one such case. Philadelphia is also not alone in having this prisons policy. Hundreds of localities, including 18 in Pennsylvania, several of which voted for President Trump, have been forced to adopt this policy as a result of the significant financial burden that comes with this cooperation.

Thank you again for reaching out. If you have additional questions about our policies, please refer to this blog post: beta.phila.gov/posts/office-of-immigrant-affairs/2017–02–24-immigration-sanctuary-cities-city-of-philadelphia-action-guide

Q: The city needs money but people don’t want to pay more local taxes. So, instead of an unpopular beverage tax, why not have churches pay real estate taxes? In tight times, no one should get a free ride.

— Ross W. Nickel, Rockledge

A: Mr. Nickel, taxing nonprofit organizations like churches would be in violation of the federal tax code and therefore not possible. ••