Kenney: Bill due on ‘pay to play’

Among the colorful phrases that became a part of this city’s vocabulary during the recent election season was the term "pay to play."

It refers to the political practice of awarding government contracts to companies in exchange for campaign contributions. Mayor John Street admitted during a pre-election debate that contributors had a "greater chance" of getting city contracts than non-contributors. Republican Sam Katz pounded the point home for the next few weeks, to no avail.

Now City Council is considering two pieces of legislation that would set some boundaries.

Councilman-at-Large James Kenney held hearings on his pay-to-play bill last Wednesday. On Thursday it was voted out of committee.

The bill would establish a $1,000 cap on contributions from individuals and companies seeking no-bid city contracts worth $10,000 or more.

Kenney originally wanted to draft the legislation to eliminate any contributions from companies that do no-bid business with Philadelphia, but said lawyers advised him such a move would be unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that political contributions are an expression of free speech.

The councilman’s attempts at campaign finance reforms predate this year’s election shenanigans.

In March 2002, Kenney tried to tack on an amendment to the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative legislation that would halt donations from any company awarded a contract through NTI. It failed.

"It is an issue people have been dealing with for a while now," Kenney said on Friday about his current push, "and it needs to be addressed by the government in order to get some kind of level of comfort for the public."

Fellow Councilman-at-Large Wilson Goode Jr. has introduced a separate bill that would limit campaign contributions to $1,000 from individuals and $5,000 from political action committees.

Kenney voted in favor of that legislation also. His bill has to do with ethics and contracts, he said, while Goode’s addresses campaign finance.

"They can mutually coexist," Kenney said.

George Burrell, the mayor’s secretary for external affairs, testified against the reforms last Wednesday.

Street has maintained that he supports campaign finance reform, but believes it only will be effective if enacted at the state level. Otherwise, donors will funnel funds through other legal channels outside of the city’s control, the mayor has said.

Kenney said he has shored up seven votes for his bill and is working on two more, which would be enough to pass it and send it before the mayor. Street would probably veto it, and even Kenney admitted it is unlikely that he could round up the 12 votes to override the veto.

The councilman still feels bringing the issue to the public’s attention will help.

"We need to keep talking about it …" Kenney said, "so at some point the public gets fed up with it and Council members respond based on complaints from their constituents."

Residents back at Wilson Park

A decade after work began to rebuild Wilson Park, the first families are moving back into the Philadelphia Housing Authority property near 27th and Wolf streets.

Work on the project was done in three phases. After the first two were completed, the authority did not have the funding to complete the third. Then in January 2002, the agency’s board approved a bond sale to raise money to renovate neighboring Tasker Homes, 31st and Tasker streets.

When the sale took place in July 2002, it raised enough funds to rebuild Tasker and finish Wilson Park.

PHA is in the midst of a multi-year, $1-billion plan to rebuild and remodel its roster of properties throughout the city. The agency will build 3,000 units and renovate another 3,000. More than 8,000 units in the densely populated high-rise and low-rise projects have already been demolished.

There are 153 newly renovated homes at Wilson Park. PHA expects all units will be occupied by March. At Tasker, the agency plans to spend $160 million to demolish the original 1,000 low-rise units on the 40-acre site and build 546 homes.

Williams wants to spread warmth

State Sen. Anthony H. Williams has introduced legislation that would increase the utility assistance available to low-income families by $50 million.

Pennsylvania has designated $120 million to spend on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps families pay for a variety of home heating fuels and furnace repairs in the winter.

The current allotment is enough to help 350,000 families statewide. The additional funds Williams has proposed would assist another 16,000 families.

Analysts have predicted natural gas costs will escalate this winter, resulting in as much as a 22-percent increase in monthly bills for a typical household.

To qualify for LIHEAP assistance, a family must have an income less than, or equal to, 135 percent of the federal income poverty level. A family of four with an annual income of up to $24,840 can qualify for the program.

Applications are available at Department of Public Welfare county assistance offices, local utility companies and community service agencies, or online through the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Application for Social Services, at