Philadelphia is missing $36 million.
At least, that’s the contention of City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, in the most recent addition to the growing chorus of voices clashing over Mayor Jim Kenney’s soda tax in Council – should it be 3 percent, zero percent, or a tax on bottles?
The $36 million – by her estimate – is the tax revenue on liquor-by-the-drink sales she says the city misses out on every year.
She wants Council’s finance committee to hold hearings on the missing cash – a call echoed by no fewer than three of her colleagues — Curtis Jones, Jannie Blackwell and Allan Domb.
Bass, Blackwell and Jones all harped on stop-and-go stores in their districts that are purportedly selling liquor shots over the counter. While this reporter hasn’t personally had the privilege, there is no doubt it happens, more so in stores situated in low-income neighborhoods.
The heart of the matter for these council members seems to be that if take-out shops are flouting Liquor Control Board regulations about selling shots by the glass, you can be sure they’re not paying taxes on some of their sales.
In Bass’ words, these operations are “unlikely to be audited and it’s unlikely there will be any repercussions for non-payment.”
Their point is a good one, but it brings up a more troubling question: Stop-and-go’s aren’t some new phenomenon, so just how long has this revenue stream been ignored by the city?
“Revenue is doing a good job; they just need more help. It’s a big job” said Domb, after the session. “Get a list of the liquor licenses and match the revenue collected to each license. You’ll see who’s not paying.”
UPDATED: Kenney administration spokesman Mike Dunn refuted Bass' assertions in an email:
"The Revenue Department is exceedingly thorough in capturing the liquor by the drink tax, including from stop-n-gos and small delis, though the use of PLCB data," he said. "In fact, the Revenue Department captures 91% of this tax from bars and stores during the year it is owed, and nearly all of the remainder by the end of the second year. And all of the tax goes directly to the School District, and so could not be used for the new initiatives proposed by the mayor."
Also noteworthy in Council:
• Bass is also looking at reviewing the Department of Health and Human Services’ recent contract downgrade for the city’s top social service agency over mismanagement. Additionally, she is considering reviving a ban on polystyrene containers as part of an anti-litter effort.
• Jones wants the city to look at creating a public course for ATVs — the kind that currently plague many city streets.
• David Oh wants a $500 annual license fee for Uber and Lyft drivers, along with a $5,000 franchise-type fee for their corporate masters. He’s also holding hearings on the opioid epidemic ravaging the city and state Friday at 10 A.M.
• Bobby Henon registered his official opposition to Blondell Reynolds Brown’s proposed tax on beverage containers as an alternative to Kenney’s soda tax proposal. He said it would make real the idea of the mythical “grocery tax” – as beverage industry groups have tarred Kenney’s plan.