Oct. 21, 2011 10:30 am

Maria Quiñones Sanchez: Q&A with councilwoman on tax reform, digital divide and redistricting [VIDEO]

Two and a half weeks before Election Day, freshman Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sanchez has effectively already earned a second term. After soundly beating challenger Dan Savage, who held the seat and lost it to Sanchez,  in an at times bitter primary, the Inquirer-endorsed Sanchez is running unopposed in the general campaign for the seventh council […]

Two and a half weeks before Election Day, freshman Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sanchez has effectively already earned a second term.

After soundly beating challenger Dan Savage, who held the seat and lost it to Sanchez,  in an at times bitter primary, the Inquirer-endorsed Sanchez is running unopposed in the general campaign for the seventh council district.

So now she can focus a bit more on her legislative work.

Representing largely poor and blighted neighborhoods like Kensington and portions of North Philadelphia up to Frankford at the foothills of the Northeast, Quiñones Sanchez has taken an interest in digital divide issues and tax reform policy to try to retain what manufacturing remains in the broken heart of the Workshop of the World.

The first Latina on council, Quiñones Sanchez, 42, was born in Puerto Rico but raised in Hunting Park and now lives in Norris Square with her husband and two sons. A Mastbaum High School and Lincoln University alumnae, she worked for council members, including former at-large Councilman Angel Ortiz, and is credited with having brought life back to Latino education-advocacy group Aspira, along with leading other Hispanic-focused community organizations.

In 1999, she lost to incumbent City Councilman Rick Mariano but after he went to federal prison in 2006 and Savage was chosen by ward leaders to replace him, she beat him in the 2007 primary. Full bio here [.doc].

Below, Technically Philly speaks to Quiñones Sanchez about taxes, computer literacy and how city data helped clean up her district.

As always, edited for length and clarity.

What is the status of the tax reform legislation from Councilman Green and yourself? We reported earlier this year that it was in a working group.

“We can get some support, if not complete support, from the Chamber because this represents a higher tax reduction than plans for a gross receipts reduction”

We have now reintroduced the legislation and are holding a hearing on Monday, Oct. 24 to hear outside perspective on it.

The legislation we introduced this session is a little different than what we have pending. What we have pending is a total transformation, this one [that will be discussed in Monday's hearing] comes from the working group with the administration and the work that has been done over the past couple of years.

There were two items that we thought we had some general agreement about across stakeholders: one was the $100,000 tax exemption, both on the gross and net, for small businesses, and the second is single source piece that would help manufacturers offset their competitiveness [by cutting income tax on products and services sold outside of the city, to help exporting businesses]. We beleive that we can get the support the two pieces, two of the pieces in the bigger piece of legislation.

Has the Chamber of Commerce supported these changes? They’ve been among the most critical of your efforts around tax reform, saying it creates ‘winners and losers.’

We’re going to meet with the Chamber again before the hearing and have met with them before the summer. Bill [Green] and I met with their executive team and heard their concerns around some of the legislation.

I think we can get some support, if not complete support, from the Chamber because this represents a higher tax reduction than plans for a gross receipts reduction. And this is more targeted because the beneficiaries are overwhelming Philadelphia-based businesses.

This represents anywhere from a 12-15 percent tax reduction versus such minor reduction in the mills on the gross receipts.

More than ‘winners and losers,’ Councilman Jim Kenney said the legislation was a ‘dangerous experiment,‘ that wasn’t worth taking. Has he come out to support your changes?

I think this is better. We met with Councilman Kenney. He agreed to support us on this $100k part in a more complete way, so we’re both going to be supportive of some of his legislation and get a hearing ourselves [on the tax reform].

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Into the first half of the last century, your district once had one of the densest collections of manufacturing jobs in the world. From the 1950 to 1980, that industrial half of the city lost 300,000 jobs, as the Inquirer reported. So for you, the export help for what remains of manufacturing in Philadelphia matters.

That single source part [where businesses would only pay net income taxes on income derived in the city, not non-City sales] is a little more difficult in that it costs the city a lot more over the five year roll-out plan. That’s what we’re talking to the administration about.

It’s really important though. There are still jobs to lose. I met with two manufactures in my district who were, like, ‘I’m out.’ Now, the [business privilege tax] was one element and storm-water management [fees from the Water Department] was another, and we’re working with them, but I feel very strongly that we have to send a message — even if we postpone implementing that a year away — so at least that manufacturers know some relief is coming.

One part of the problem is keeping what businesses we have, but another part is the training a new workforce. How have you taken on the issue of digital divide in your district?

It’s very challenging, but we’ve done really well. We have close to a dozen of the digital labs through the stimulus package. Just last week, we did a grand opening at Prevention Point, which is my controversial needle exchange program in West Kensington. It’s already heavily used by their clients.

We’ve tried to partner with the city’s IT department and Philly Fight to get to underserved constituents. We’re trying to open one more.

Opening up computer centers in poor communities is a good first step, not a solution. What are you doing to engage these underserved communities?

The way we’ve located the centers and the partners we’ve had are choices to focus on the constituents we’re tring to reach. The homeless man may not go into the library because he doesn’t feel comfortable there, but, because he is a client at Prevention Point, he might get online there. Once there, we’re focusing on real training on computers and use for job searches.

Now, at our library at 6th and Lehigh, we expanded their computer center through one of these grants because of increased volume, but it’s about trying to meet people where they’re at, rather than just having them come to us.

Because libraries are usually small, we try to find new places, and we can interact with new people there too. Some of the steps we need are just education and awareness of what computer services are out there and what you can do with online access.

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Is reforming tax policy to retain and attract business and reaching out to the poorest and most vulnerable fellow citizens around technology enough to connect people with jobs in your district and the rest of Philadelphia?

I still believe we have a ways to go to put together a comprehensive workforce strategy in the city. We had hearings a few weeks ago of the [City Council] Committee on Commerce and Economic Development with the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corporation as they merge with the Workforce Investment Board. We’re concerned with what we heard.

What is concerning?

There have been huge cuts at the state level, so I think the city needs to get smarter about how it uses its labor force development money. You’re going to see us, through the Committee of Commerce, more engaged in that public discussion.

What are the drastic cuts at the state level — for the Workforce Development Corporation, they lost 90 employees and are down to 120 staff people — going to do to how we work, how are we engaging employers to get involved in our programs?

The move at the state level is to subsidize private businesses more,. by saying, ‘let people hire them and let the subsidy go to the business.’ It could be helpful if it’s being targeted to the innovative businesses. So part of the discussion is how we make that connection happen.

The Workforce Development Corporation — and I worked there in a previous life — tends to follow kind of the traditional, larger firms. How do we ensure small businesses can tap into that, so those subsidies touch our re-entry community and other places that could be missed?

When I was at Prevention Point, I talked to the clients. Even the hotels ask housekeepers to log into work with handheld computer systems so we need to give our people the basics, just familiarity with computers. Social media has helped tremendously, to get people aware. You may not have a home, but you have an email address. You may not have a home, but you have a Facebook page.

But then taking that to the next level, you need those skills, if you’re a cashier or if you’re a housekeeper. The very basic understanding is important.

With the maturing of the web has come a need for greater performance tracking. While the technology community is embracing the open data movement, an overwhelmed city seems to still be lagging behind. Do you see that? Is it unavoidable?

Part of the challenge in the city is that while we want to embrace transparency, we have not put out the resources necessary at the table. 311 was off the shelf technology. 311 is still operating with Hansen [database system] on one side from L&I and the Streets Department technology on the other. That’s kept them limited, and I know that’s something they’ve looked at.

I know on the capital side, IT has a lot of money, and I think we have been slow – to put it nicely — to utilize those resources to get a more comprehensive 311 PhillyStat program, where the data drives the performance. I think 311 has gotten much better, once it figured out how the data could interface, but we’re still dealing with limited technology. Apparently there is an RFP out and I’m looking forward to seeing talk of its new design.

You’ve taken steps to bring the performance management data into City Council.

One of the things I’ve proposed in Council that didn’t move and hope we can push the new president of City Council to push would be to introduce a CouncilStat like New York, that would allow us to interface with the city’s data through our eyes. One of the things I hear when talking to my colleauges in New York and Chicago and other places is that they really use their CouncilStat to drive their budget conversations.

So that if the Streets Department says ‘We’re going to have the capacity to fill 10,000 potholes,’ but there is a 30,000 pothole backlog, we can say ‘that’s not enough.’ Right now we don’t have that. We are totally beholden to the city on the data.

What I’d like to see in Council — this could be done cheaply, the Council piece in New York, the setup costs were maybe $100,000 to $150,000 and maintaining it was $40,000 a year — is the ability for us to be able to be sure that the departments are dropping the data to us, that we could check in on that and use GPS and other ways to measure success, that’s huge.

Whether that data is being shared publicly and real-time with you, the public or the Managing Director’s office through PhillyStat, there needs to be real buy in. We’ve found the biggest problem is sheer workflow problems, not having the people to get this data secure, stable and out in an API or something like it.

That’s not true. We have deputy commissioners of administration who have fought to give up this territory.

I think the Mayor is creating more political will to say ‘we have to have this call for transparency.’ There’s no reason that we can’t see this data in his next term, and see it in real time. Even if he doesn’t want to see it all out there, to see more of it in a public platform. We need to see in real time that we’re missing our goals in real time.

In the initial conversations about 311, a department can say it’s going to take 72 hours, but there’s no way of knowing if that’s true. Unless it’s a performance management tool, what does it matter? It needs to be real time.

Collecting and sharing data in a real-time fashion, like a dependable API, is an absolute priority, particularly because there are people in the technology community who want to build interesting tools and visualizations on their own with it. There’s some interest but it seems like each agency is waiting for someone else to be the first.

Yes, we haven’t had a lot of progress because we can’t get the departments on board early, because once you put that data out there, they have to stand by it. One of the things I learned very early on is never ask a question you don’t have an answer to. I hate, too, whenever you have to put it on the record for building the record, so I understand, but we all need to do a better job of explaining why this matters.

Things like the OpenDataRace and the recent SEPTA hackathon should help that cause. What helped you see the value of releasing data in malleable formats?

So, we can connect SEPTA routes to the litter index. My litter index — tracked by Neighborhood Services at the Streets Department — has been reduced tremendously in my district.

[We did that with data.]

So we looked when I first started, one of the things I found was that I had 50 public trash cans [in my district], now we’re close to 400. We did an overlay for the placement of trash and bus routes. Where did the most trash happen? In the congruence of bus routes and mass transit. So taking streets data and SEPTA data and learning that can teach us things [to govern better].

From Front to Second Street, we’ve learned that we don’t need a bus stop because we can’t put a trash can there and people can walk that half block either way. If we’re sharing data from all of our agencies, this can happen in more ways. I wouldn’t have been able to see that if I couldn’t ask for and see a combination of data.

We looked at where SEPTA sold tokens, and they didn’t in my poorest communities where people could afford the full price the least. We need to have all these quasi departments and all the agencies offering the ability for us to crunch data and better leverage the limited resources we have. We can get smarter about how we’re doing things.

“A more compact district also means a more concentrated district in terms of poverty, so I didn’t get an easier district.”

Lastly, in our redistricting coverage, your district kept being named as among the worst irregular, how do you feel about the change?

The district is going to look a lot better. I think we had some real challenges that the data showed us around the shift of populations,

We saw where the city has to do a more focused job of repopulating the community, and areas where I’m busting at the seems and the Northeast is too. I think we’re at a better place, but I’d like for Council to utilize its ability to redistrict at any time to be willing to shift these lines as necessary.

One thing I told folks is that a more compact district also means a more concentrated district in terms of poverty, so I didn’t get an easier district. As much as the political pundits spoke about getting an easier district, I got a more challenging district.

I looked at the census, and the median income, I’m sure, was reduced. I already had 44 percent of my district under $20,000, and with the loss of the more stable parts of my district, with the demographic shifts — I picked up some large African American communities which was also helpful in the changing areas — this is more work.

…And we learned that with data.

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a cofounder and Editorial Director of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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