It’s budget season for the Philadelphia City Council, and to obtain public input on the budget for the upcoming year, members of council have been holding meetings throughout the city intended to let local residents have a say.
On Tuesday, May 1, members of city council held the third neighborhood budget hearing of the year at Kensington’s Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center, on Kensington and Lehigh avenues.
Councilmembers Mark Squilla (D-1st dist.), Kenyatta Johnson (D-2nd dist.), Marian B. Tasco (D-9th dist.), Bill Green (D-at large), William Greenlee (D-at large), David Oh (R-at large) and council president Darrell Clarke (D-5th dist.), joined councilwoman María D. Quiñones-Sánchez (D-7th dist.) in her district and opened up the floor for residential commentson the upcoming city budget.
They certainly got an earful.
Residents discussed a wide range of issues: disappointment over statewide budget cuts, education initiatives, a return of funding to the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, even the members of the neighborhood’s Spanish-speaking population vocalized fears of working with police.
Amy Miller, of the East Kensington Neighbors Association, brought up the fatal fire at the Buck Hosiery Building April 9 - which took the lives of Lt. Robert Neary and fireman Daniel Sweeney – and said the city needs to work to clean up vacant structures in order to prevent future accidents.
“If we don’t have a well-funded fire department, we will be facing a deadly future,” she told councilmembers, noting that she wanted vacant structures sealed and “put back into use and onto the tax rolls.”
Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez replied that steps are underway to help ease Miller’s concerns. In fact on Friday, April 27, a bill she called the “steel seal bill” was passed out of committee, meaning it will be read before full council and could become law.
The bill requires that vacant buildings throughout the city be sealed with 14-gauge rust proof metal shielding, which is intended to keep people out.
“It was not a response to the fire,” the councilwoman said. “It’s something we’ve been working on.”
A hot topic of the meeting was the $8 million in funding that was supposed to be delivered to the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation after a parking tax increase in 2008.
The funds were never delivered, and at least four of those who testified last week asked to see the funds returned.
In fact, Mayor Michael Nutter’s one-time idea to tax sugary beverages was tossed around by residents as a way to return funds to the department.
However, Clarke said that might not happen as the funds were placed in the city’s general fund when the two separate Parks and Recreation departments merged.
“I don’t know, as we move ahead, if we will be able to put that money back,” said the council president, noting that the downturn in the national economy had impacted the city’s ability to put funds into the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Instead, he noted that locals should look to parks like Hetzell’s Playground at Columbia and Thompson streets in Fishtown, which has partnered with area businesses to raise funding in order to improve the field, as a way other parks could raise funding.
In perhaps the most chilling testimony of the evening, Spanish-speaking representatives of area business associations spoke out against the federal office of the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), because too often, they claimed, the ICE deports victims who report crimes.
It’s a problem that Miguel Martinez, president of the Dominican Merchants Association of America – which, he said, represents over 3,000 businesses throughout the region – keeps victims of crimes from reporting the incidents to police due to fears of being deported.
“There has been a lack of security in the past several months…members (of the Dominican Merchants Association of America) have been assassinated or have been victims of crime,” he told councilmembers, through the help of a translator. “I ask for better security throughout the neighborhood.”
Another woman, who also spoke in Spanish, asked council about the cost that deportations – and that of the cost of care for orphans that deportation can create when parents are sent out of the country and their American born children remain behind – put on the city’s budget.
Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez answered these concerns twice – once in English and once in Spanish – saying that her office is currently working with law enforcement agencies to find out how often deportations occur to illegal immigrants who have been victims of crimes – instead of only those who might have committed a crime - and just why the deportations occur.
She said that deportations should only occur in the case of a “major crime.”
She said that, in many cases, residents often feel that they are victimized twice, once if they have victims of a crime, and again if they report it to police, as sometimes an immigrations officer is waiting to deport the victim when they come to give information at the police station.
“Victims have been deported, with the way the data [that her office is working to obtain from law enforcement officials] has been saved,” she said. “It’s supposed to look for undocumented criminals, but, because of these problems, undocumented individuals will not report crimes.”
Due to this, she said, there is no telling just how many crimes have gone unreported throughout the Spanish-speaking population in Kensington.
City Council will need to finalize the budget by the end of June.
Star Staff Reporter Hayden Mitman can be contacted at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.