June 17, 2017

Philly's $500 million Rebuild initiative moves toward City Council vote

Development Parks
Philadelphia Playground GEORGE WIDMAN/AP

Children play on modern-design playground equipment at Franklin Square.

A major plank of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney's effort to revitalize the city's aging infrastructure took a step forward this week as City Council's Committee of the Whole voted to approve the Rebuild initiative, one of several proposals that seeks to draw funding from the sugar-sweetened beverage tax.

On Thursday, the committee gave a green light to vote next week on the initiative, which would renovate more than 400 parks, libraries and recreational centers citywide. 

The legislation authorizes a service agreement between the city and the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development (PAID), facilitating a financing plan that would raise $300 million through the issuance of bonds.

The bill's fate had been in limbo amid an appeal of Philadelphia's soda tax, revenue from which will be used to offset the city's bond program. A panel of Commonwealth Court judges upheld the soda tax earlier this week, reaffirming the legality of the controversial measure with a 5-2 vote after a challenge from the American Beverage Association and other opponents.

Under the terms of the legislation, each and every Rebuild proposal must be submitted to a Project Review Team placed in charge of assessing budgets and contractors for each project.

In addition to the $300 million in bonds, Rebuild will benefit from a $100 million grant from the William Penn Foundation, whose contribution had been contingent on City Council's approval of the bond issue. Along with state and federal grants, the foundation will chip in an additional $75 million, while another $20 million will be raised through $1 contributions for every $2 in donations from public, private or charitable sources. In total, the multi-year initiative will reach about $500 million. 

A tour of Philadelphia's dilapidated parks last year revealed the effects of what Philadelphia Parks Alliance executive director George Matysik called a "chronically underfunded" system.

Earlier this year, the New York Times highlighted Philadelphia's focus on parks and public spaces as a means of driving social and economic progress through the establishment of community hubs.

A final vote on financing for Rebuild is expected next Thursday, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Once approved, the city will begin the RFQ process to select contractors for various Rebuild projects.

Pending approval of the $300 million borrowing plan comes as Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz and other critics of the soda tax questioned the implications of early revenue shortfalls from the levy during its first several months. City finance director Rob Dubow responded to concerns with a letter explaining that the seasonality of the tax will require a calendar year's worth of collections to gauge the accuracy of revenue projections. The city has stood by its expectation that the soda tax will annually raise about $92 million.