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Philadelphia's birthday: marred by school crisis, census news

Like other port cities, Philadelphia is finding how easy it is to get excited about the Tall Ships.

Some 30 of the graceful, stately sailing vessels are helping the City of Brotherly Love observe its fourth century this week. Their arrival has dominated the news.

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The diversion is welcome. For Philadelphia faces some nagging problems, including one most residents weren't aware of until this week.

Mayor William Green III has just signed legislation increasing property taxes by 6 percent and business-use and occupancy taxes by 30 percent to try to raise fall by a strike by the local teachers federation, are in severe financial straits. The teachers bowed to a court order to return to work, but they still have no contract.

Meanwhile, future tax collections and a host of potential services for the elderly could be heavily influenced by the disclosure that a quarter of the city's heads of households are over the age of 65. That is double the percentage of 10 years ago.

While the situation, discovered in the 1980 US Census, is not considered unique to Philadelphia, it raises such issues as:

* Will such people be willing to spend public funds to benefit schools that they have no need of?

* Will they be willing or able to maintain their old and often poorly insulated houses?

Nancy Gerlach, director of planning for the nonprofit Philadelphia Corporation for the Aging, says many older persons don't take advantage of existing home-improvement programs because these require soliciting of bids, negotiating terms with contractors, and the like. The solution, she thinks, is access to grant, not loan, programs.

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* How much should younger heads of households have to bear the cost of water, gas, and other public services that are discounted for elderly persons?

Between them, the Philadephia water and gas utilities granted $24.5 million in discounts last year to ratepayers 65 or older. With gas prices certain to rise, these discounts seem likely to rise too.

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