HEARD ON THE HILL / IN CITY HALL: Washington Blasts Lottery Consultant Fees

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CROWDED auditorium heaped AVI and budget questions and complaints on City Council members as they held hearing hosted by 6th Dist. Councilman Bob Henon in his district at Lincoln HS. Council Members above were Denny O’Brien, Henon, President Darrell Clarke, Council’s CFO Folasade Olanipekun-Lewis, David Oh and Mark Squilla. Photo by Harry Leech

CROWDED auditorium heaped AVI and budget questions and complaints on City Council members as they held hearing hosted by 6th Dist. Councilman Bob Henon in his district at Lincoln HS. Council Members above were Denny O’Brien, Henon, President Darrell Clarke, Council’s CFO Folasade Olanipekun-Lewis, David Oh and Mark Squilla. Photo by Harry Leech

State Sen. LeAnna M. Washington (D-Northwest) has received communication from Revenue Secretary Dan Meuser containing followup from the Feb. 26, 2013 Appropriations hearing. Meuser said in the letter the Commonwealth may owe millions in consultancy and legal fees.

To which, Washington answered, “Throughout the Lottery private-management process, I have repeatedly asked about the projected consultancy fees that would arise from the work being done to execute and defend the Private Management Agreement with Camelot. My questions were either dodged or met with extremely vague answers. Now we know why.

“Unfortunately, I am not surprised by the excessive cost projections that Secretary Meuser provided to the Appropriations Committee. For an administration that prides itself on rooting out instances of ‘waste, fraud, and abuse,’ this sum represents the kind of misguided policies that continue to hurt working families across the Commonwealth.

“The most disappointing part of Secretary Meuser’s response is that even though the PMA deal was disapproved by Attorney General Kane, our seniors will be left with this bill when they can least afford it.

“In the wake of continued cuts to aging and human services, too many older Pennsylvanians are struggling to make ends meet. The money owed by the Commonwealth to these firms cuts into vital services that are funded by the lottery. As a result, even less money will be available to fund programs that seniors depend on to live healthy and independent lives.”

State Sen. Mike Stack (D-Northeast) and State Rep. Bryan Barbin (D-Cambria) have urged the Senate to take action on “Vets First Tax Credit” legislation which would provide a $4,000 tax credit for each veteran an employer hires. The Barbin bill, HB 159, was unanimously approved by the House in March and has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee. Stack’s companion bill, SB 468, has been referred to the equivalent committee.

In order to qualify for a Vets First tax credit, the taxpayer who owns a small business is required to certify the veteran was hired for a new position in the taxpayer’s business or was hired to fill the position of another employee who voluntarily separated from employment with the taxpayer and to agree to continue the operation of its small business for at least five years following the taxable year for which the taxpayer first claims the tax credit.

Councilman Wilson Goode wants City Council to get a handle on the city’s ability to develop what it takes to prepare a workforce to help draw more business into the city. He has introduced a resolution authorizing the Committee on Commerce & Economic Development to do so.

It cited the unemployment rate in Philadelphia as of September 2010 was a staggering 10.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the unemployment rate in many of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods far exceeded even that level.

The House Urban Affairs Committee has passed several bills that would give Philadelphia more authority to provide targeted tax relief to homeowners and allow the city to get tougher on tax deadbeats. Here’s a breakdown of the bills:

HB 388 targets tax delinquents by allowing the City to put a lien against all the properties owned by the tax delinquent within the Commonwealth.
HB 390 allows the City to provide aid to individuals based on age and financial need, such as occurs when the City hikes property taxes for longtime residents in gentrifying neighborhoods.

HB 391 allows Philadelphia to accept periodic payments of property taxes. This is in response to concerns of those people who may not be able to pay such a large bill all at once.

Despite widespread state spending cuts, the General Assembly ended fiscal 2011-12 with an uncommitted surplus of $140 million, according to an audit report approved Wednesday by a state commission.

The report, approved by the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission, also shows 80% of the $306 million spent by the legislative branch that fiscal year went for salaries and benefits of lawmakers and staff.

The surplus was reduced last year by $43 million from a $183 million surplus in fiscal 2010-11, and is nearing an appropriate level, said State Rep. Gordon Denlinger (R-Lancaster), the commission chairman.

“The reserve is maintained to allow the General Assembly to operate during a stalemate,” he said.

The General Assembly spends about $30 million each month and needs to be able to operate independently in case of a prolonged state budget stalemate as happened in 2009 with former Gov. Ed Rendell, said Denlinger. Stalemates are more likely to occur when state government is under divided political control, he explained.

Lawmakers had openly discussed reducing the surplus to $120 million last year, but the audit report indicates that goal wasn’t reached, said Capitol activist Tim Potts.

Another activist leveled a broader criticism of the legislative surplus which has developed over decades. “The slush fund is justified as an emergency reserve to protect the balance of power should the budget not be done Jun. 30, 2012,” said Eric Epstein, cofounder of RocktheCapital.com. “Surplus money has been used in ways over the years that have nothing to do with a budget impasse.”

The General Assembly has ignored previous recommendations from an auditor to adopt a policy to cap the surplus and monitor it, said Epstein.

Councilman Bill Greenlee has introduced a bill which aims to curb the number of stolen properties committed through deed theft. The bill places many roadblocks in the beginning of the recording process to prevent the deed theft from occurring.

The Councilman has worked over a number of years to reduce the number of properties stolen throughout the City by placing additional regulations on the recording of deeds, but deed theft continues to be a rampant problem. This new legislation requires that a purchaser of a property who foregoes title insurance must sign a statement as presented by the Records Dept. acknowledging the risks and benefits of not purchasing it.

Under the legislation, before the recording of the deed, the Records Dept. will perform a records check and determine whether the required documentation for the deed has been presented. If there is no discrepancy, the Department will record the deed pursuant to state law. If there is a discrepancy and the Department is satisfied with the purchaser’s explanation for the discrepancy, the deed will be recorded.

If however, the Department determines there is no reasonable explanation for the discrepancy, the deed will be stamped “Not Certified,” and be recorded. The Department must then notify the proper governmental agency of the suspected fraud.

The legislation also calls for the Law Dept. or an agency designated by the Mayor to develop and administer a Tangled Title Assistance Program to help the victims of deed theft obtain legal services and other resources because many victims do not know how to resolve the tangled title process.
While this bill does not stop a deed from being recorded, it does place red flags on the deeds and will hopefully prevent the thieves from risking being caught. Deed thieves will know the City will come after them.

“A home is the most valuable and important thing people will own in their lives,” Greenlee stated. “It is government’s responsibility to take whatever steps are necessary to protect a citizen’s property.”

State Reps. Brendan F. Boyle and Thomas P. Murt, chair and co-chair of the Eastern Montgomery Co.-Northeast Philadelphia Legislative Alliance, urged state lawmakers to use the upcoming transportation funding process to dedicate resources to renovating the Huntingdon Pike (PA 232) and Philmont Avenue corridors, both of which run through Northeast Philadelphia and Montgomery Cos.

“As someone who represents a district that includes both of these roadways and drives on them almost every day, I call on our colleagues in the House and Senate to take this opportunity to commit funding to the renovation of what are two of the major corridors in our region,” said Boyle. “The condition of these roads is deteriorating every year, restricting traffic flow and further driving up the future cost of eventually addressing these issues.”

Murt emphasized the economic benefit of investment in the region’s core infrastructure.

“Going forward with rehabilitating these roadways will not only create jobs in construction and other related industries, but will also improve traffic flow and ease congestion on surrounding roads, allowing people and goods to move more efficiently through our region,” said Murt. “Investing in our roads and other transportation links is a critical factor in attracting businesses and other forms of investment to our communities, so this call for funding is not just a transportation issue, but an economic and quality of life issue as well.”

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