Issues take lead in mayoral race


In politics, there’s an advantage an incumbent usually has over his challenger: the ability to effect change during the campaign. Mayor John Street capitalized on his position in City Hall a week ago, and did so with near-perfect timing, just as the campaign season kicked into high gear after Labor Day.

On Thursday, the mayor announced the state insurance department had agreed to force auto insurers to lower their rates for most drivers. Motorists with limited tort coverage — which caps the amount a person can sue for pain and suffering — will benefit from a 20-percent decrease in premiums.

About 70 percent of Philadelphia’s drivers have limited tort coverage, according to Street campaign spokesperson Joel Avery.

Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz and Street had been dueling over the issue of auto insurance rates for the last several weeks, and the mayor appeared to be floundering.

His original request to cut rates across the board was denied by Insurance Commissioner Diane Koken two weeks ago. Then Traffic Court President Judge Francis E. Kelly turned down Street when he asked to suspend the Live Stop program in hopes of getting more drivers legal.

And Katz had been talking a good game. He released his own plan the day before Street’s announcement — it included group discounts for city drivers and the end of policies that penalize low-income drivers based on credit ratings.

This was all lost in Street’s announcement.

"The mayor has taken aggressive action to trim these rates and all of that action has paid off," Avery said. "This is a huge victory for the people of Philadelphia."

It’s also a victory for Street, one probably large enough to eliminate auto insurance from the docket of campaign issues.

But Philadelphia isn’t free of problems just yet; plenty of other concerns remain as probable fodder for mayoral debates.

Ben Franklin said two things are certain in life: death and taxes. Both topics will also certainly be discussed between now and the Nov. 4 election.

The wage tax was an issue during the last election; it remained one throughout Street’s first term and is sure to weigh on the minds of voters. Katz has proposed trimming the wage tax, just as he did in 1999. This time his plan is to cut it to 3.5 percent for residents and non-residents.

Street doesn’t think the city can afford it. A year-and-a-half ago, when Councilmen Frank DiCicco and Michael Nutter introduced legislation that would continue the modest cuts to the wage tax started by former Mayor Ed Rendell, Street bristled. The bill passed unanimously, but it took a spirited rally outside City Hall before the mayor changed his mind.

"I’m not offended by the fact that Council wants wage-tax cuts," Street told the Review in an April 2002 interview. "I’ll do the cuts, and I won’t whine about it. I am just telling you we won’t be able to give raises … We are going to have to do some things that might be uncomfortable for Council members."

The legislation reduced the wage tax from 4.54 to 4.5, with more cuts scheduled over the next five years.

Street would rather cut the city’s gross-receipts tax, which is a lower-profile move but, the mayor and some economists argue, a better one for the city in the long run.

The gross-receipts tax, or business privilege tax, affects the city’s ability to keep and attract businesses, Street says. He signed legislation to cut the tax incrementally during the next five years at the same time he approved the wage-tax reductions.

The Katz campaign claims that cutting the wage tax a full percentage point will bring 63,500 new jobs to the city by 2010.

"Philadelphia deserves to be on a level playing field with other cities," Katz said this summer. "Unfortunately, our wage tax has placed an unfair burden on workers, and it has created an unfriendly environment for local companies trying to compete."

The GOP candidate points to several studies that report the most common reason people give for moving out of the city is the wage tax.

"The Katz Blueprint for Growth" also includes phasing out the gross-receipts tax. Katz has said the city will make up for the initial decrease in tax revenue by doing a better job of collecting taxes, revamping the city’s budget and accounting procedures, and streamlining government with new technology.

The Street campaign calls this proposal a "blueprint for disaster." Street maintains that he already has created 36,000 new jobs and says the Katz cuts will come at the expense of Operation Safe Streets and other city services.

Which brings us to death — in this case, the city’s murder rate.

The Street campaign touts the increased police presence known as Operation Safe Streets as the city’s savior, but the statistics are conflicting.

On one hand, overall crime has dropped 20 percent during the first year of Safe Streets, according to the Street campaign. Also, between May and December 2002, police seized $81 million in illegal narcotics — nearly six times more than was seized a year prior.

At the same time, the murder rate is on the rise just a year after Philadelphia recorded the fewest homicides in 17 years — logging 288 in 2002. There had been 224 murders in 2003 as of last month.

During the first six months of this year, there were 155 murders compared to 125 over the same time span last year. Shootings and gunpoint robberies also have increased.

The Katz campaign has latched onto these statistics to discredit Safe Streets. Earlier this summer, the challenger released his 11-page proposal to curb gun violence.

"Philadelphia has a public safety system that doesn’t work …" Katz said last month. "The first thing I’m going to do is get the guns off of our streets and out of the hands of dangerous criminals."

Katz supports longer mandatory sentences for those who commit crimes with a gun and for people who carry guns illegally.

He also wants to create a specialized "gun court" in Philadelphia that would specifically deal with crimes involving firearms. Several other cities, including New York, have established such courts. Katz and other proponents say such a dedicated court would streamline the judicial process, thereby sentencing criminals more quickly.

The Republican wants police to increase patrols in high crime areas during peak hours, but has said the city cannot afford to continue running Safe Streets at its current pace. More than half of the $100-million budget has evaporated in the first 14 months of the five-year program.

Perhaps as a reaction to the costs, Safe Streets’ manpower has fluctuated. The program originally placed 600 officers on 300 of Philadelphia’s worst corners, with many officers working 12-hour overtime shifts to cover the territory. Last week, Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson announced the overtime shifts would no longer be mandatory. Now it is expected as many as 400 officers will be available for Safe Streets.

Street and his supporters continue to stand by the program despite criticisms.

In June, during a press conference to announce the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police’s endorsement of the mayor, FOP president Robert Eddis lauded the initiative.

"[Street’s] vision for Operation Safe Streets should be a model for the rest of the country," Eddis said. "Anyone who would criticize the program simply doesn’t understand it."