10 Questions for Philadelphia Mayoral Candidate Nelson Diaz

1) Ensuring Philadelphia has a well-prepared, well-educated workforce is important to business in our city. What is your plan to ensure Philadelphia has a well-educated workforce capable of filling the employment needs of business?

Developing a 21st century workforce for Philadelphia starts with fixing our schools and disbanding the School Reform Commission. After 13 years of state control, our schools are in worse shape than ever and state funding has dried. The School Reform Commission has failed at its most important job, and we need to change direction. I believe that our school system needs to be returned to local control, and that our education system should be the Mayor’s responsibility – put me in charge and hold me accountable for change. If I in my first term I am not able to turn around our school system, vote me out of office and then hold the next person accountable as well. Right now the Mayor has extremely limited ability to impact the direction of the single most important thing to our city’s future, and that has to change.

In addition to fixing our schools, we need to reform our workforce development strategies, as well. Philadelphia has an extensive community college system and we should be using it for workforce development. Many community organizations already do good work on workforce development, and we should be engaging them as partners as we make changes to the community college system. That is why I would sit down with business leaders, community partners, and the colleges themselves to identify the skills companies need and develop programs within the Community Colleges to provide those skills to Philadelphians. People who are willing to work hard and invest in their education should know that the path they’re on will lead to job, and with this change they will have that confidence.

2) In his most recent budget, Mayor Michael Nutter proposed a 9% property tax increase to help bridge the funding gap for the city’s schools. How do you feel about asking property owners in the city to pick up the costs?

I disagree with Mayor Nutter’s plan because small businesses, the middle class, and the poor are already paying too much. Now, we need to generate more revenue to fund our city’s schools in a way that does not require us going hat-in-hand to Harrisburg. That is why I have proposed a school funding plan that fully funds our schools in the short term and allows us to make transformative investments in the long term – the only candidate in this race to do so.

At the heart of my plan is a proposal to change our tax system so that we shift the burden onto commercial property owners and move away from regressive wage, business, and residential property taxes – a change that both the business community and Progressives strongly support. Additional changes include restructuring Philadelphia’s pension management to put the system on sounder financial footing, collecting delinquent taxes, implementing a PILOT program so mega non-profits pay their fair share, and reforming the tax abatement process so that it is not subsidizing those who do not need the help. I recognize that fixing our school funding process is a huge challenge, which is why I am going to make it my top priority as Mayor – but doing so on the backs of working and middle-class Philadelphians is not the way to go. I would urge everyone to read my comprehensive funding plan on my website.

3) The real estate tax abatement can help the city grow, but it also provides a tax break at a time when the city needs every dollar. Do you favor the current tax abatement plan and what changes, if any, would you make to it as it stands now.

I favor two significant changes to the ten-year tax abatement, both of which would make a more effective use of scarce government resources. The original purpose of the tax abatement was to spark a building boom in Center City and University City. It is clear that the abatement has been extraordinarily successful in those neighborhoods, and both of those neighborhoods are now thriving and will continue to thrive with or without a subsidy. The need for investment incentives to build contemporary residential, commercial, or industrial space in Center City and University City no longer exist. That is why I would amend the abatement process for core Center City to closely match a proposal from Councilman Wilson Goode – the City would continue to abate its portion of the tax levy, however the school district will collect its share of property taxes. Outside of Center City, the full abatement would continue, to encourage growth and investment in the neighborhoods.

We can’t survive as a city if success and growth are concentrated in only a couple small pockets while the rest of the city falls further behind. That is why I believe the full abatement should continue in its present form for the neighborhoods outside of Center City and University City. We need to encourage developers to invest in the neighborhoods and outlying commercial corridors. By shifting incentives to areas that have been starved of new development dollars, we can make sure each one of our neighborhoods shares in the prosperity of Center City, in the development of the Navy Yard, and in the culture of our Arts District.

4) Crime is always a hot topic in Philadelphia. What do you think should be the first priority of the new mayor when it comes to reducing crime in the city?

While we’ve made progress in bringing the murder rate down, our crime rate is still far too high. Every citizen deserves to live in a safe, vibrant community. Today, far too many of our neighborhoods are neither safe nor vibrant. People feel trapped in a cycle of poverty and crime with no end in site. I grew up in public housing in a poor neighborhood, and I’m acutely aware that instead of ending up as a Judge I instead could easily have ended up in a courtroom as a criminal defendant as so many of my friends growing up did. If I hadn’t turned my life around at the age of 15, there but for the grace of God go I.

Our police officers are overwhelmingly brave, dedicated public servants. Many in the community, unfortunately, see police officers not as people there to protect them but as a faceless monolith there to oppress them. That dynamic has to change, and it starts with ending the “stop and frisk” program. “Stop and frisk” doesn’t target criminals, is being applied unconstitutionally in a shocking percentage of cases, and is creating immense distrust and anger among the people police desperately need as allies.

That’s why I believe in community policing, a strategy focused on street foot patrols and beat cops who are a familiar face in troubled neighborhoods. The average man and woman on the street should know the local police officers by name and face, and the police officers should get to better know the people they’re protecting and serving. I believe in expanded PAL centers, smaller community-based substations, and alternatives to incarceration for youths who may be starting off down the wrong track. We need to end the prison pipeline and intervene early to make sure young troublemakers don’t turn into serious career criminals. I had behavioral problems as a young man that easily could have left me in prison or a juvenile facility, which is why I know how vital it is to stop squandering young talent and lend a helping hand to those who are at risk.

5) The failed sale of PGW was a setback for the current administration. As we look forward to the years ahead, would you make another attempt to sell PGW and what steps would you take to earn enough support to make sure the sale is successful.

It is unsurprising that the City Council did not support a plan it had no say in developing. The next Mayor needs to have a collaborative partnership with the City Council, and rather than attempting to dictate solutions the next Mayor should consult with stakeholders like the City Council to make sure they’ve bought into proposed solutions early on. This is a question of your basic approach to government and management, and this collaborative, consensus-building approach is the same one I’ve taken every time I’ve overhauled a big bureaucracy. Whether it was fixing the city court system, overhauling public housing while working at HUD, or as City Solicitor I always treated everyone with respect and treated them like partners.

6) There’s been a lot of debate at City Hall about creating an energy hub in Philadelphia to attract manufacturing to the city and create jobs. What are your thoughts on the city as an energy hub?

It’s clear that Philadelphia needs more jobs, particularly for blue-collar workers. At the same time, Philadelphia has some of the worst air pollution of any big city in America. That’s one reason Philadelphia is consistently ranked as the least healthy County in Pennsylvania. Those concerns have to be balanced against each other so that we can find the right solution. It’s irresponsible and short-sighted to act as if one of these doesn’t matter because of the other as some candidates in this race have done. Both jobs and clean air are crucial priorities. For that reason, I support the concept of an energy hub as long as what we build replaces – rather than adds to – current or recent emissions.

I have a lot of experience with clean energy projects, having served on the Board of Directors of one of the only energy companies in the world that supports a cap and trade system to tackle global warming. I’d use that experience and those connections to make sure that energy development in Philadelphia meets all of our needs.

7) What neighborhood commercial corridors would you most like to see strengthened – and how would you strengthen them?

Every single neighborhood commercial corridor needs to be strengthened. This is an area I’ve been working on for 40 years, ever since I started my career as the Executive Director of one neighborhood merchants association. We need to start by looking at what’s holding back these neighborhood commercial corridors, and develop solutions that address the main challenges. I see five primary areas to improve: access to capital, access to expertise, the physical environment, comprehensive planning, and workforce development. My workforce development plan is described in more detail above, and the others are described below.

Many small businesses lack access to working capital and start-up loans. This is particularly true of both neighborhood business and high-tech startups; Philadelphia gets 1/10th the Venture Capital funding Boston gets, for instance, and the vast majority of the funding in our area goes to suburban businesses. To fix this, we need to connect businesses or business development associations with private sources of funding, partner with the 80 area colleges and universities to create economic incubators, and consider providing more direct loans and funding from the city and from economic development agencies. We have a number of government entities that are theoretically set up to play this role, and we need to make sure they do so going forward.

Knowing how to navigate the bureaucracy and our tax system are both major challenges for small businesses. Fixing this starts with cutting red tape in the bureaucracy; report after report has demonstrated that compliance costs for small businesses are incredibly high in Philadelphia. In addition, one strategy we’ve used successfully in the past is to hire navigators to go into these neighborhoods and help business get the answers in needs. For a relatively low cost – much of which can be paid for by grants and funding from outside of the City budget – we can create a much more welcoming regulatory environment for struggling businesses.

Another problem many businesses face is an unwelcoming physical environment – abandoned lots and burned out or vacant property are at epidemic levels in many neighborhoods around the City. Nobody wants to live, work, or shop next to a collapsed building or rubble strewn lot. My administration is going to set a goal of at least halving the number of vacant lots in Philadelphia by the end of my time in office, a change that’s going to be particularly welcome in outlying commercial districts.

Finally, we need comprehensive plans for success in these neighborhood commercial corridors. PIDC has done an incredible job crafting a long-term plan for how to turn the Navy Yard into Philadelphia’s next great asset, and we need to apply the same approach to corridors in places like North or West Philadelphia. I’d like to see PIDC take the lead on that, in consultation with over agencies like the Housing Authority or local Community Development Corporations.

8) We know government has limited spending capacity—are there certain city departments in which you envision investing more resources? Are there agencies where you envision spending less resources?

I think we need to take a long, hard look at every single department’s budget and see if Philadelphia is getting the bang for our buck taxpayers expect and deserve. Recent revelations that the School District has gigantic piles of unused supplies just sitting around – at the same time teachers do not even have pens and paper for their classrooms – highlights the need for a modern inventory system in every department, and for managers to effectively track supplies and progress towards goals.

I know I can more effectively manage our tax dollars because I have repeatedly reformed failing bureaucracies throughout my career. When I took over management of the city court system, there was an unfathomable seven-year long backlog in civil courts, and an unacceptably long wait in the criminal courts. We were stuffed full of unnecessary patronage hires who got in the way of dedicated civil servants. In eighteen months, I changed that. We eliminated the criminal court backlog, brought the civil courts in line with national standards, and saved $100 million by doing things more efficiently. That is the same approach I took at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, where I managed 500 lawyers and thousands of support staff, overseeing 23 major lawsuits nationwide. We managed to settle every one of those cases, generating billions in new funding for affordable housing, while fundamentally changing how we applied housing law across the entire nation.

That kind of top to bottom overhaul is exactly what the City needs today. Revelations about the mess at the Department of Licenses and Inspections are likely just the tip of the iceberg. There is a reason Philadelphia does not collect hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes we are owed. There is a reason dangerous businesses do not get inspected and do not get cited. There is a reason small business owners and anyone dealing with the city get stuck in a morass of red tape. We can change that with better management, and I am going to change that as Mayor.

9) The city has taken steps in the past 8 years to become more green. What would you do to keep Philadelphia heading in this direction.

As we address climate change and attempt to become a greener city, it is essential that our transit policy be brought into the 21st century. I applaud Mayor Nutter for the steps he has taken to start us down this path, but as his experience showed, the forces of the status quo still have a lot of strength in the city. If we are going to make this a city that truly prioritizes transit alternatives and invests in its infrastructure, the next Mayor needs to find a way to do a better job working with others on these crucial issues.

Assuming I am able to do a better job getting community buy-in for changes to our transit network, I am going to insist on changes that put mass transit and transit alternatives first in our city. In addition to big-ticket items like extending the Broad Street Line to the Navy Yard and creating express commuter rail service to Trenton, Central NJ, and New York, we also need to look at the little things that cumulatively add up to a major impact. That includes things like signal prioritization, dedicated bus lanes, and off-board payment options for buses. When tried elsewhere, these kinds of relatively small improvements have increased bus ridership by 25-30% and cut travel times by 25%. If we can get people out of their cars and into mass transit, it goes a long way towards making this a green city.

We also need to make sure that transit alternatives like biking and walking are real options in every community in this city. While advocates for biking tend to be richer and whiter, the people who would benefit most from a robust bike network are those who can not afford a car and need a bike as a low-cost alternative. That means streetscape improvements, talking things like vacant lots to make people feel safe walking, and more community green spaces so that walking is a more pleasant alternative. Finally, one underrated change we can also make for our environment is to bring jobs back into the City of Philadelphia, which my tax reform and economic development plans would do. Jobs in cities are significantly less energy intensive than jobs in the suburbs; if we substantially cut down on the number of people reverse commuting by creating jobs in the City, we will markedly reduce our carbon footprint.

10) Every mayor needs to make tough decisions. How will you handle implementing unpopular policies (i.e., cuts in some city services in order to fund other ones; tax increases).

One of the biggest contributing factors to the failure of major initiatives from the current mayor has been the failure to proactively build consensus ahead of time and bring in key stakeholders early in the planning process. It is important to remember that the city and our assets do not belong to any one person – they belong to everyone. All key stakeholders are going to have a say in how we move forward as a city. Attempting to present controversial proposals as a fait accompli gets us nowhere, and just increases tension between people who should be governing partners.

I have always sought to build consensus throughout my career, especially when talking about contentious issues. I will do the same as mayor.

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