Tax hike still talk as PD offers to cut force for raises
Wednesday, August 14, 2013 1:00 AM
The police chief has proposed reducing the force in order to grant raises as Philadelphia aldermen continue to consider a tax hike to close a recurring budget shortfall.
Aldermen once again discussed raising taxes last week after six consecutive years of previous boards spending about $6 million more than the city has taken in.
Philadelphia would see two less officers on the streets under the police chief's proposed budget presented to the Mayor and Board of Aldermen last week.
Aldermen are considering raising the millage by as much as 10 mills as they prepare the 2014 budget, which on a $100,000 home would be an additional $100.
Attorney Robert Thomas said that Philadelphia had one of the lowest millage rates in the state.
"The city of Carthage has a millage rate of 28," he said. "We're at the bottom of the state."
Ward 1 Alderman Josh Gamblin told board members at last week's meeting that he supported raising the city millage to 20, but pointed out that he didn't want to "tax us out of this hole."
"I plan to be out of this hole in four years," Gamblin said. "But we don't want to cut our employees' throats."
City Clerk James Johnson voiced support for a millage increase, saying the city would have to go up to 20 mills (an increase of 10 mills) to come close to stopping the ongoing shortfall in the general fund.
Johnson projected that the city would end fiscal 2013 on Sept. 30 with a $519,456 shortfall.
Police Chief Bill Cox told aldermen last week that he would not fill two vacancies on his force in 2014 in an effort to cut his budget by about $54,100.
Out of this reduced budget, he asked aldermen to give all his employees a 63 cents an hour raise.
"My goal is to try and get them the raise they haven't had in several years," Cox said.
"I want to take care of my people."
Assistant Fire Chief Steve Thomas presented aldermen a budget last week, asking for a $45,000 increase to fund 3-percent salary increases for all employees along with additional monies for turn-out gear and other needed items.
Thomas also asked aldermen to hire a new firefighter, saying the fire department is about to have two vacancies as one fireman was about to go on military leave.
Gamblin told board members that he was not in favor of hiring anybody else until the budget issues were resolved.
Thomas voiced concern that the city could lose its current fire rating if the fire stations were not manned properly.
Gamblin told board members that the fire department was just rated last year by the state.
"That comes every five years so I think we have a little leeway," he said.
Ward 4 Alderman Cecil Nichols disagreed, sparking a verbal exchange with Gamblin.
"If we don't think enough of the chief to trust his decision; we have to trust this man," Nichols said.
Gamblin fired back: "I choose to investigate. I'm going to do what I think is right."
Nichols made a motion to hire the new firefighter, saying it was in the best interest of the city.
It failed 3-2.
In voting against the hiring along with Gamblin, Ward 2 Alderman Jim Fulton and Alderman-at-Large Willie Jackson said they would like to see the budget finalized before any additional personnel is hired.
"I'm trying to get the budget in the black," he said.
Nichols fired back at Gamblin, saying that the budget was "already in the red. You inherited that."
Gamblin responded: "Yes, from you."
Nichols is the only incumbent on the new Board of Aldermen.
Gamblin told aldermen that the salary of the firefighter who is going on leave could be used to pay overtime in the fire department when an employee is out sick or on vacation.
Nichols told board members that safety comes first.
"The police and fire departments are the top two things we have to maintain," he said. "That's a fact. If something happens, we'll say we should have."
No decision on the fiscal 2014 budget was finalized during last week's meeting.
During the budgeting process, aldermen have debated other ways to cut spending including layoffs, selling assets and cutting employee benefits.
Bill Griffis, owner of Griffis Chrysler Dodge Jeep and Magnolias & Sassafras in Philadelphia, said a millage increase would affect his businesses.
"I think the councilmen really need to look at reducing expenditures before they go and raise taxes," he said.
The city has not had a general ad valorem millage increase in more than 10 years except for fiscal 2006 when it was raised from 10.4 to 11 mills.
However, after reappraisal, the city dropped the millage to the current 10 mills in fiscal 2009.
A mill generates about $54,900 annually for the general fund, which provides monies for the operation of such departments as police, fire, cemetery and streets among others.
Philadelphia's current millage rate of 10 generates about $549,000.
Carthage's total millage generates $30,000.
The city of Philadelphia has not funded the paving of a street in more than five years.
The city saw a fifth consecutive year of expenditures outpacing revenues in fiscal 2012, that year by $1.3 million, an audited financial report showed.
Officials have until Sept. 15 to formally adopt a fiscal 2014 budget. A hearing for public comment on the budget has not been set.