City Hall: City Council Emergency Funding Clears First Hurdle

An emergency budget transfer is on track to be approved after Philadelphia City Council heard the bill for first reading on Mar. 26, 2020. 

The $85.4 million transfer will provide funds for the citywide effort to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the text of the bill, $75 million of the funds will go to personal services, purchasing of services, and materials, each in increments of $25 million. 

Another $10 million will be allocated for taxes and indemnities, and $400,000 will be used by City Council for community outreach during the crisis. 

The allocations of the transfer ordinance are not more specific than what is mentioned above, but City budget office documents responding to individual council members questions do provide some insight into the office’s plan. 

One major sticking point mentioned by multiple council members concerned how often the administration would update City Council on COVID-19 related spending.

“The Administration commits to providing updates on COVID19-related every two weeks,” the budget transfer document states, referencing Mayor Jim Kenney’s office.. “We do not foresee meaningful reports more frequently than every two weeks/per period, as labor costs are the largest expenditure category.”

The administration will be required to report expenditures to the city council every two weeks. 

Councilmember David Oh said the reporting period begins on Apr. 17, at which time the finance director’s office will submit the report to the city council president’s office. 

“This is extremely unusual,” Oh said. “We’re in an emergency situation. And I think that given those circumstances, we are doing the best we can.”

Councilmember Maria Quinones-Sanchez, chair of the Appropriations Committee, said the criteria for the biweekly reporting would focus on specific areas. 

“How are we responding to the health crisis? How are we working with our workers? How are we supporting small businesses? How are supporting people?” Quniones-Sanchez said. 

The City is also providing incentive pay for essential employees, which is equal to time-and-a-half regular salary, an expenditure that will cost $20 million. 

The cost for N95 masks before the COVID-19 outbreak was $1 per unit; now, the range is anywhere from $4-8. The City has contracted to purchase 500,000 masks at the cost of $5.65 per mask and estimates it needs anywhere between 10,000-30,000 masks per day. 

The federal government has provided 9,540 masks to the city, which had exceeded the expiration date. However, the Center for Disease Control guidance suggests the masks can be used beyond their expiration date if they were stored properly.

The report notes availability, not cost, is the determining factor in acquiring supplies. 

The majority of the ordinance will be allocated for maintaining essential services and health care, with $2 million for businesses and $500,000 for the City’s new PHL COVID-19 fund which benefits nonprofit organizations.

There is also a question as to how much the City will receive in state and federal reimbursements for local expenditures. 

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier expressed concern the ordinance does not do enough to support individuals and workers. 

“In the same way that we want to get some cash assistance to small businesses, we should be thinking about the individuals and workers that need assistance,” Gauthier said. 

Lawrence McGlynn is a recent graduate of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication where he earned a Master’s in Journalism. For the next several months he will be reporting out of City Hall on various council and committee meetings, the city’s budget, and how these impact the daily lives of Philadelphians.

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