Former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart is one of eight Democratic candidates in Philadelphia’s upcoming 2023 mayoral primary on May 16 hoping to secure a chance to run against the de facto Republican candidate David Oh in November. Rhynhart spoke with The Triangle in a phone interview where she addressed issues relevant to students among other areas she hopes to focus on if elected mayor.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Amelia Erb: What would you consider the issues that are most relevant to university students to be, and are there any that you wish that university students would pay a little more attention to, or would be a little more aware of?
Rebecca Rhynhart: Well, I think that for university students, we need to make sure that our city is a safe city and that we grow the economy so that there’s good jobs, so people can stay here after they graduate. And I think it aligns with my platform to make this city safer and cleaner, and to create opportunity. So first, on the issue of safety, I’ve put forth a public safety plan of steps I would take, starting from day one as mayor to tackle gun violence, and crack down on illegal guns. The mayor is responsible for safety in our city, and as mayor, I would pull the district attorney together with the police commissioner, to make sure that we’re on the same page with cracking down on illegal guns.
You know, the police have doubled the number of arrests for illegal carry over the last five years. But the conviction rate by the district attorney has declined from 65% to 42%. The district attorney says it’s because the police cases aren’t as strong as they need to be. Well, let’s all get in the same room and figure this out, because we have to make our city safer.
And also as mayor, I would coordinate the Philadelphia Police Department with Drexel police, SEPTA police and state police to make sure that everyone is coordinated for true safety, campus safety. So, given the level of gun violence and crime in the city, that is the number one priority right now. But for university students, I think that making sure that there’s job opportunities so that our students stay here after graduating, I want to keep as many of the Drexel grads after graduation as possible, so that’s a big initiative of mine as well.
AE: I noticed in your public safety plan, you mentioned declaring a citywide emergency to address the issues right now. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what the effects of this would be like? Basically, what would it mean for students?
RR: Well, declaring a citywide emergency on gun violence allows the mayor to activate the
emergency operations center. So what that means, from the mayor’s point of view, is that this would enable me, as mayor, to coordinate not just the police department response, but the Streets Department to fix street lighting in high crime areas, library and rec departments to make sure that there is after school programming in the neighborhoods most impacted by the violence. Just for clarification, what I’m calling for, the citywide emergency, is different than a state of emergency. A citywide emergency just allows the mayor to open the Emergency Operations Center. And so it just allows for better coordination and to truly treat the gun violence as with [the] urgency that it deserves. As a student at Drexel, the only difference that would be felt would be stronger coordination and leadership from the mayor and the operating departments to get our city safer.
AE: I also wanted to ask about your former role as a City Controller; obviously that has a lot to do with controlling finances. And I was wondering how that contributes to your perspective on economic growth in the city, and how that background kind of gives you an advantage?
RR: I have spent a number of years working for the city in financial roles. I was the city’s budget
director for five years and then I also served as the independently elected Controller for the last five years, and so I know the city’s finances inside and out. I know how the wage tax, the business income, receipts tax and other taxes contribute to the city’s budget. I also know how to maneuver the city’s budget, meaning that one of the things I think we need to do to encourage business growth is to continue the gradual reductions in the wage tax, and also look to lower the business income and receipts tax.
So this tax, otherwise called the BURT tax, business income and receipts,is a tax on gross receipts of a business as well as profits. What it means is that small businesses and entrepreneurs are double taxed on their businesses. We’re only one of four cities across the country with this tax this way, and we need to lower that. From my financial knowledge, I know that if we want to lower that tax by 5%, it costs about $35 million. And that’s a number that we would then have to locate. For example, as City Controller, I estimated that the city could save $40 million a year by managing overtime better. Those are the types of adjustments that I’m very aware of because of my knowledge of the city’s finances.
AE: As City Controller, you were also the first woman elected to serve. If elected mayor, you would also be the first woman to serve in that position. What does this mean to you, and have you been able to see progress since you first got that role as controller?
RR: In terms of being the first woman Controller, I feel honored that I did it. It’s amazing to me that the city has gone so long without having a woman Controller or, for that matter, a woman mayor. The city has had 99 male mayors. And we’re looking to elect the 100th mayor on May 16. And I want to be the 100th mayor and the first female mayor that the city has had. I’ve accomplished a great deal as City Controller over the last five years, really moving and expanding my office as Controller beyond the traditional financial audit work to tackling some of the city’s toughest challenges. I worked on gun violence reporting out on what works in other cities and what we should implement here. I did work around the inequity in service delivery across our city.
For example, looking at on time trash collection, and reporting on how your zip code is the
determinant for when your trash gets picked up on time. For example, Center City and northeast Philly have on time trash, maybe 93% of the time or more. While Northwest and South Philly have on time trash pickup rates of only 65% to 75%. This type of service inequity is unacceptable, and as mayor I’m going to change it to make our city work for every neighborhood. We should have services that work for each neighborhood, trash picked up, streets clean and schools that are good. All of the city services should be provided in a way that every neighborhood feels safe and healthy and with opportunity.
AE: You’ve also been recently endorsed by former mayors Nutter and Rendell. I was wondering if you could give some insight into what these endorsements mean to you and what they represent to you?
RR: Mayors, Nutter, Street and Rendell. They’re very different. They all have very different leadership styles, and all had very different policy priorities. But what the three of them agree on is who can best lead our city forward and what it means to me is that the three of them, despite their differences, know what it takes to be mayor. They know what it feels like to get a call at three in the morning that there’s a crisis in our city. And they know what it takes to lead our city through that. They have confidence that I am the right person to lead the city forward. I am honored to have their confidence and I hope to gain the people’s confidence to become the mayor on May 16.
AE: Lastly, I was wondering if you could elaborate on your goals relating to sustainability and addressing the climate crisis?
RR: The climate crisis is, of course, such a severe issue. I put forth a sustained sustainability and
climate action plan, which involves committing to carbon neutrality by 2050, and also committing to be a waste free city by 2035. What that entails is improving our recycling and adding composting. Recycling is down to 8% of the total trash and recycling pickup, meaning that we are not doing a good job as the city with recycling. It was up to 21% at the end of Mayor Nutter’s term, and it has [now] fallen to 8%. That is unacceptable, and as mayor I will prioritize getting recycling, backup, adding composting and becoming waste free by 2035.
And also on climate change, making sure that as a city, we prioritize reducing
energy consumption in city buildings, and helping homeowners across our city make improvements to their homes, especially lower income families that encourage energy reduction, insulation and other changes and improvements to homes. I have a whole plan on this. I actually was an environmental studies major in undergrad and I care deeply about the environment and about sustainability. This is a priority for me going forward.