The main branch of the Free Library at 19th and Vine has plans to expand and renovate for the future. The Library is pursuing funding for a plan to expand its main branch to include tons more internet access, a new children’s section and other improvements to help it stay relevant. Relevancy is a concept often foreign to City Council which explains this priceless interchange between Councilman DiCicco and Elliot Shelkrot, Director of the Free Library as reported by the Daily News:
"If you had to make a choice, would you rather fund the Central Library expansion or keep the branches open,"Councilman Frank DiCicco asked Shelkrot.
"Now you're asking me to play Solomon," Shelkrot began.
"No. Solomon had to cut the baby in half. You get to keep the baby whole. Which baby do you choose?" DiCicco asked.
After a bit of evading, Shelkrot said that he considered the expansion and building of a new library at the Central Branch more important to the future of Philadelphia.
DiCicco’s line of questioning stems from his claim that a $30 million bond approved by Council just over a month ago will cost the city $3.5 million in debt service payments a year. The $3.5 million figure is derived from a memo from Controller Saidel written in December.
Although the city has approved $30 million in bond funding for the $120 million library expansion project, the initial bond bill approved by Council is only for $10 million. This bond will require debt service payments of about $1 million a year. The first payment will be made in 2 parts over FY 06.
A feasibility study commissioned by the library finds that the expansion project will bring in $1.9 million in city wage tax revenue from the creation of over 1000 new construction jobs and will also help spur new growth along the Parkway.
So, debt service payments due in FY 06 cost less than DiCicco claims and will be covered entirely by the wage tax revenue generated by the project. The library expansion will also generate almost a million additional dollars for new projects or future debt service payments.
Despite this, DiCicco is leading the charge to rescind the Council bill which authorized bond funding for the library expansion even though the bond has nothing to do with the revenue shortfall causing library service cuts in the first place.
The real cause of library service reductions is the elimination of the business privilege tax. City Council, the PA Economy League, Philadelphia Forward, Young Involved Philadelphia and other proponents of conservative trickle-down economic theory have beaten the drum for tax reform for so long that the Mayor included a 3.8% reduction in business privilege taxes in this year's budget. That reduction is worth $70 million in FY 06. The Mayor’s budget is revenue neutral so that reduction will be balanced by an increase in parking taxes from 15 to 20 %.
If even a small portion of the revenue generated by a parking tax increase were given to the Free Library rather than business privilege tax reduction, full-time week-day service could be maintained and all branches could be opened on Saturdays too (the Library says this would cost about $5 million, or about 7% of the amount of BPT tax reductions proposed). Instead, cuts are being made to basic services with the vague promise that business tax breaks will eventually generate economic growth.
The reality is that the jobs and economic growth that tax reform proponents have promised haven’t emerged so far and are unlikely to start any time soon. As Professor Robert Lynch pointed out in his paper, “Rethinking Growth Strategies,” local taxes are normally at the bottom of a list of criteria that businesses use when making decisions about where to locate their company. At the top of that list is location, quality of city infrastructure and service, access to roads and transportation and the quality and skills of the local workforce.
If our elected officials and city opinion leaders like Frank DiCicco, Michael Nutter, David Thornburgh and Brett Mandel can't understand what a real vision for change and growth looks like, eventually their grandstanding is going to be revealed for the political trickery it really is. We need to speak up and force City Council to stop pitting our present against our future.
Expanding the main branch of the library, maintaining current library services and maintaining fiscal flexibility to be able to adopt new ideas to generate growth (like Councilman Goode’s minimum wage increase bill) are the kinds of policies that will help make Philadelphia a world-class city in the 21st century. Eliminating business privilege taxes, which benefit only the wealthiest corporations, is a strategy that does nothing substantive to spur growth and will ultimately leave the average Philadelphian (including most small business owners) in the lurch.