Ballot questions being put before Philadelphia voters next week run the gamut from routine borrowing for city maintenance needs to a measure that could pave the way for radically revamping how water rates are set.
The approval of a $123 million bond issue is an easy call for voters. The money would be used for five identified purposes: transit; streets and sanitation; municipal buildings; parks, recreation, and museums; and economic and community development. Only by ordinance could City Council change the specific allocations.
Similarly, a City Charter amendment that would make it easier to size up the mayor’s annual budget proposals merits support. The charter currently requires the mayor to submit to Council a proposed annual operating budget, capital budget, and capital program. This amendment would provide Council with additional information about the costs and benefits of the mayor’s proposals.
The need for a special hiring preference for the grandchildren of firefighters or police officers who die in the line of duty is less clear, but there’s no apparent downside for the city or its budget with this ballot question. In turn, the preference could help recruit police and firefighter candidates uniquely dedicated to this challenging and often dangerous public service.
With the proposal that City Council be authorized to set up “an independent rate-making body” to set water and sewer rates, the well-intended aim of those advocating this change is to give consumers a greater say.
It’s no accident that the ballot question was put forward just as the city Water Department is in the midst of proposing a 28.5 percent rate hike over the next four years.
For decades, water rates have been set by the department’s commissioner, who answers to the mayor. That system of clear accountability was designed to insulate water-rate decisions from politics and ensure that city homes and businesses are served with clean water no matter the dictates of a particular election season.
Unfortunately, the water-rate measure could backfire on water customers — city taxpayers, all — if Council doesn’t build in enough safeguards when creating the rate-setting agency to rule on Water Department rate requests.
The greatest risk would be that a politically appointed panel might shortchange department needs, leading to deferred maintenance and other problems that could cost consumers more down the road.
Also, there’s no good reason to believe that the addition of another layer of oversight would substantially reduce the water rates people and businesses pay.
Water costs around the nation have been on the upswing for years, as utilities meet higher water-quality standards, renew water mains, and deal with stormwater runoff problems triggered by overdevelopment.
While a seemingly good-government idea, the water-rate ballot question poses too many risks in its present form. Voters should reject it.