News Column

EDITORIAL: Whipping up sales

June 15, 2014

The Philadelphia Inquirer



June 15--City Council must be trying to impress someone with its tough-love approach to the School District's funding problems, but it isn't the parents and children who are desperate for a resolution to the crisis.

After weeks of insisting that a larger portion of a sales-tax extension go to the city's employee pension fund, Council voted Thursday to give the district the higher amount, but with a proviso that the split could be changed if the legislature passes a cigarette tax for city schools.

As if leaving that degree of uncertainty weren't enough, Council then stuck it to the district again by reducing the amount it had agreed to borrow to help schools make it through the current year.

Because the sales-tax cash won't be available until next fiscal year, the city had agreed to borrow $50 million for current expenses and repay it with the revenue collected later. Mayor Nutter and Council President Darrell Clarke, however, decided to use any proceeds from buildings sold before June 30 to help repay the loan.

That sounded fine, but then Clarke decided the loan should be reduced by whatever the district expected to be paid for the buildings. So instead of $50 million, Council's Finance Committee has approved borrowing only $27 million. By the way, the district says the loan amount should be $61 million, because $11 million from expected building sales was already budgeted.

Clarke may be trying to appear frugal, but giving the schools less than what the state's authorizing legislation directed looks like something else. He has criticized the district for not selling vacant buildings faster. Reducing the loan amount appears to be Clarke's way of snapping a whip to get the district to speed up its efforts to sell unused properties.

That zest for quick transactions is at odds with Clarke's approach to the pending sale of Philadelphia Gas Works. Council gave a consultant eight weeks just to deliver a first draft of its analysis of the successful bid for PGW, which means a deadline to complete the sale by July 15 will probably be missed. That doesn't mean the sale won't happen, but it raises that risk.

Clarke says of the PGW sale that Council is only ensuring due diligence. Shouldn't the same due diligence be shown in selling vacant school buildings? What happens after they are sold could have a dramatic impact on the Philadelphians who live nearby.

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(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer (PA)


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