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Newsworks - April 13, 2016

Soda tax supporters, opponents pack Philly City Council budget hearing

Members of Philadelphia City Council heard from people on both sides of the sugary drinks tax debate at a community budget hearing Tuesday night.

While Mayor Jim Kenney's proposed budget is more than 200 pages long, it was clear from the parking lot what people came to talk about: his proposal for a 3-cents-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugary drinks to fund universal pre-K, community schools and an overhaul of city parks, recreation centers and libraries.

Members of the "No Philly Grocery Tax Coalition" — sponsored by the American Beverage Association — greeted every car, handing out fliers and asking drivers to sign petitions. Members of Teamsters Local 830, which represents about 2,000 people who work in bottling plants or drive beverage delivery trucks, held up large banners outside the entrance.

Inside, more than 200 people packed into a large room at Concilio, a social-service agency in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia. That included many members of Philadelphians for a Fair Future, the coalition supporting the tax who also gave out fliers and took petition signatures.

While the room was filled with adults, several children held up hand-written signs. Fifteen-year-old Shannon Smith's sign read "Neighborhoods first." On the other side of the room, 9-year-old Delmaro King held up a poster reading "No Philly grocery tax." Delmaro's father, Louis Rodriguez, is a member of Teamsters Local 830 and works for a local Coca-Cola bottling plant.

Those in favor of the tax acknowledged the potential impact the tax could have on soda industry jobs — the tax could decrease consumption by at least 55 percent in Philadelphia — while promoting the benefits of the projects that would be funded by the revenue stream.

"We really need to choose what is going to be beneficial to us in the long run," said Obioma Martin, who owns a company that trains early childhood educators. "Are we thinking about more criminals or are we thinking about an educated workforce?"

Those opposing the tax spoke about the impact on jobs, as well as the effect rising sugary drinks prices could have on working families, echoing TV and radio ads from the American Beverage Association.

Coca-Cola employee Norman Shoemaker said he supports the pre-K plan, "but not on the expense of the beverage company. We cannot afford that. If you want to help the kids, we have to first start helping the parents because it is about the parents that take care of the kids."

Philadelphia City Council is expected to vote on the tax in June and plans to hold at least one more community budget hearing on May 3, but the location has not yet been announced.

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