Ballot Questions: Know Before You Go

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 11, 2010

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Photo by PW Staff

During primary elections on Tuesday, we will have the opportunity to answer four ballot questions that deal with certain city departments and functions.

Ballot question No. 1 would change the City Charter to “confirm” Council’s power to require contractors doing business with the city to file economic-opportunity plans. The measure is part of ongoing city efforts to increase the amount of commerce conducted with companies owned by minorities, women and the disabled.

The economic-opportunity plans would inform the city on the percentage of employees falling into various minority categories, as well as track how many are residents of Philadelphia.

The city cited a 2004 disparity study by D.J. Miller & Associates showing that between 1998 and 2003, 97 percent of city contract dollars went to businesses owned by white men. OK, that’s pretty damning, but we are making progress.

“It is tremendous progress but that number has been flat for the last few years,” says Councilman-At-Large W. Wilson Goode Jr. “The Street administration had over 20 percent going to disadvantaged businesses, so we’ve actually slipped a bit.”

All sweet and dandy, but why revise the Charter?

As it turns out, Council passed a bill in 2003 to require contractors to document minority participation, but the city’s Law Department deemed it unenforceable. The Charter change would fix that.

Our vote: No. We’re all for supporting minority-owned businesses but the Charter change isn’t necessary. The various departments in City Hall are all working to increase opportunities for minority-owned businesses and already have wide discretion to decide who gets city contracts. There’s no need to rewrite the rule book.

Question No. 2 would make the commissioner of Licenses and Inspections an alternate L&I board member. This means that L&I becomes a five-member board instead of six; only three members need to be present to hold a hearing; and the commissioner could replace any absent member to form the obligatory ménage a trois.

We’ll punt the explanation to the Committee of Seventy: “The proposed Charter change would better ensure that meetings are not postponed for lack of a quorum, which has happened on a relatively regular basis with the current six-member Zoning Board. It would also facilitate an easier and more efficient way for the Board to conduct its business.”

Our vote: Yes. Who are we to argue with the Committee of Seventy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan good-government watchdog?

Question No. 3 calls for the dismantling of the Board of Revision of Taxes (BRT) and replacing it with two separate boards: one to assess properties, one to hear appeals.

The BRT is the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with Philadelphia. Incompetence, waste, patronage and, worst of all, abdication of any responsibility once the facts came to light. We’ve been following the saga on our website, but if for some odd reason you haven’t been reading, we’ll give a brief rundown as long as you promise to make PhillyNow your homepage from now on:

Last May, the Inquirer exposed the BRT as a steaming cesspool of cronyism and inaccuracy. Under-assessments are costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes, while other properties are over-assessed seemingly at random, burdening owners with untenable tax burdens.

In October, the Nutter administration signed a memorandum of understanding with the BRT taking over day-to-day operations, with a two-year plan to sort out property values.

This April, however, the BRT let the memorandum lapse. In retaliation, Council and the mayor teamed up to slash board members’ salaries for the part-time jobs from $70,000 a year to $150 a day, with the chair still receiving $50,000. If the ballot question is accepted, the whole board will be replaced come October.

Our vote: Oh God Yes. Re-watch the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally for a rough approximation of our enthusiasm for this one. This is a rare chance for citizens to actually fight back against corruption and waste in city government.

Question No. 4 asks if the city should borrow $65 million for infrastructure improvement. It breaks down as roughly $4 million for transit; $11 million for streets and sanitation; $30 million for municipal buildings; $18 million for parks, recreation and museums; and $2 million for community and economic development.

It seems kind of strange to talk about borrowing more money while staring into the abyss of a $120 million to $150 million budget deficit.

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