You've Got Questions

(October 2012)

Looking forward to next Tuesday’s election, most voters are consumed by the presidential contest and other federal races, but Philadelphia voters will also be able to weigh in on a number of ballot questions that deserve some thoughtful consideration. Here is how I approach the tradeoffs involved with these issues.  

Question one asks voters to amend the Home Rule Charter to alter change the process for setting water and sewer charges. Currently, the Water Commissioner (appointed by the Mayor) has the final responsibility to set rates. The proposed change would permit City Council to create an independent rate-making body to set rates and regulate how those rates are imposed. 

Would involving political actors in setting water rates ensure that ratepayers aren't paying more than necessary?  First, I think we should all understand that the current process is definitely not totally removed from politics.  But involving more political actors in the process does not guarantee protection from unreasonable increases. In fact, if rates are too low, protecting against increases could leave the Water Department without the resources to maintain our water infrastructure and ensure that we are drinking clean water. With all the water main breaks of recent months, we should be careful that in holding rates down, we don’t place the system in jeopardy. 

When I served on the staff of the Philadelphia Independent Charter Commission in 1993-4 (the Commission empowered to rewrite Philadelphia's governing document), we considered this issue. The Chair -- former Mayor/Council President/Council Person John F. Street -- offered his take. "If we let politicians set water rates," he said. "We'll all be drinking mud." Nearly 20 years later, that remark, made by an official who was then in Council and stood to gain political power by taking responsibility for water-rate setting, has stuck with me. While the current process often devolves into meaningless theater where officials go through the motions of considering the impact of rate hikes on the public, the ballot-proposed process is instantly politicized in a way to turn water-rate setting into a game of political football. So, vote “yes” if you believe political actors will balance the need to keep rates low with the need to create a good water system. Vote “no” if you believe that too many politicians in the process will threaten the Water Department's ability to invest in the utility's assets.

I'll vote "no" -- not because I think the current system is perfect, but because I fear the proposed system will threaten the Water Department's ability to make badly needed investments in this crucial infrastructure.

Question two asks voters to authorize City Council to require publication of information about the costs and benefits of the Mayor’s budget proposals.  The current Home Rule Charter requires the Mayor to submit budget proposals to Council and this amendment would require additional data about programmatic efficiency and effectiveness.

While additional requirements placed on governmental actors will, undoubtedly, add cost and time to the work of City number-crunchers, the additional information could allow legislators and the public to better understand and consider City financial proposals. I like the concept. The only question is whether there will be effective and efficient follow through to match the spirit of the change. Vote “yes: if you believe the change will result in improved budget debate. Vote “no” if you think it will add additional information products that will gather dust on shelves as deals are cut behind closed doors anyway.  I'll vote "yes," as I believe more financial information will lead to better debates.

Question three asks voters to amend the Charter to authorize Council to provide a preference on civil service entrance examinations to the grandchildren of firefighters and police officers killed in the line of duty. The City currently offers a preference for children of those killed in service to their city.  This preference would make it a little more likely that the grandchildren of those who gave their lives for Philadelphia will be able to serve as police officers and firefighters.

On preference for grandchildren of officers, vote “yes” if you believe such a leg up is an appropriate recognition of family sacrifice and a tradition of service. Vote “no” if you do not want to hinder the chances of others to serve. I'll vote "yes" recognizing the debt we collectively owe to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our city.

Finally, question four asks voters to authorize the City to borrow $123,670,000 to fund construction and repair of transit facilities, streets, city buildings, park and recreation facilities, and museums. While that is certainly a lot of money, it is fairly routine for the City to borrow that much on a regular basis to invest in civic infrastructure.

On the bond issue, vote “yes” to give the City the ability to invest in its capital assets -- one could even argue that we should be doing everything we can to issue more debt to invest in our infrastructure with interest rates so low. Vote “no” if you want to tell City leaders that we need to practice austerity in these uncertain economic times. I'll vote "yes" to find the investments on the infrastructure we depend upon to improve our city.

Vote yes or no. But, please vote!