October 30th | Posted In Philadelphia

Your Official YIP 2014 Ballot Questions Guide

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On November 4th, Philadelphians will elect a governor, congresspersons, state legislators, and more. They’ll also vote on three ballot measures.

So what’s a ballot measure? What do they do? How can I be an informed voter when it’s my turn to vote “yay” or “nay” on these things?

Being an informed voter on ballot measures is surprisingly difficult. Even I, YIP Advocacy Vice Chair, had to call some seriously knowledgeable people to get anything close to real information on this. Google, sadly, fails voters sometimes.

Below is the text of the ballot initiatives, as well as a plain-text statement and a YIP-provided translation.  Happy voting!  [Disclaimer: YIP takes no official position on any of these questions.]


Question 1

Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to establish and define the functions of the Office of Sustainability, headed by a Director of Sustainability?


Plain English version:


The City’s current Office of Sustainability was established by the Mayor in 2008 to set sustainability targets and to evaluate the City’s progress in meeting those targets. The proposed Charter change would make the Office permanent by formally creating, in the Charter itself, an Office of Sustainability. The Office would be headed by the Director of Sustainability, to be appointed by the Mayor. The Office would be responsible for developing and coordinating the implementation of policies and programs to meet the City’s sustainability goals. These goals will relate to matters such as energy use, air and water quality, tracking of greenhouse gas emissions, solid waste management, access to open space and local and healthy food, tree canopy coverage and climate change preparedness planning.


What does it mean?


The Office of Sustainability was created in 2009 by an administrative order by Mayor Nutter. According to the Office’s website, it strives to set “15 sustainability targets in the areas of energy, environment, equity, economy, and engagement to make Philadelphia the greenest city in America by 2015.”


Is Philadelphia the greenest city? Maybe a bit ambitious. Portland, Oregon still exists, after all (and the Maine one, too). But, as of now, this office is subject to the whims of the current mayor. Our next mayor could disband the office entirely.


This ballot measure would prevent that from happening by making the office permanent by adding it to the City Charter. Not much about what the Office does would be any different; it would just be permanent.


Question 2

Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to transfer responsibility for managing and operating the City’s jails from the Department of Public Welfare and the Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons to a new Department of Prisons and Board of Trustees?


Plain English version:


Currently, the City’s Home Rule Charter assigns the responsibility of operating the City’s prisons to two entities. The Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons is responsible for the direction and control of the management of the City’s prisons, which includes selection of the Superintendent of the City’s prisons, who administers the City’s prisons. The Department of Public Welfare (commonly referred to as the Department of Human Services, or “DHS”) has general supervisory responsibility in connection with the City’s prisons.

The proposed Charter change would create a new Department of Prisons, responsible for operating the City’s prisons. The Department would be headed by a Prisons Commissioner, who would supervise the management and operation of the City’s prisons. He or she also would be responsible for maintaining a program for facilitating the reintegration of individuals returning from incarceration. The Prisons Commissioner would be appointed by, and would report to, the City’s Managing Director. The Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons would be responsible for adopting standards and guidelines to be considered by the Prisons Commissioner when making policy relating to the City’s prisons.


What does it mean?


If you thought Question 1 was getting deep into the bureaucratic weeds, boy does Question 2 have a surprise in store for you!

Right now, City jails are run by the Department of Human Services (DHS) – the same Department that’s responsible for abused and neglected children, as well as for employing your humble author.  Foster care and prison probably don’t go together, but this is how things were set up for some ancient reason.

Technically, then, the Department of Prisons is subordinate to DHS. Functionally, it operates pretty independently.  This ballot measure would pull Prisons out and make it its own, full-grown Department. In addition, the Mayor’s Office of Re-entry would join the new Department of Prisons, putting all of the City’s prison eggs into one concrete-and-barbed-wire basket.

This would also allow the new Prisons commissioner to appoint his/her own deputies (each commissioner gets a certain set number). In theory, this would allow the commissioner to have greater control over the department by allowing him/her to install employees that will best work towards whatever vision the commissioner sets forth.  Right now, deputies are either pre-existing civil-service employees or appointments generously bequeathed by the DHS commissioner.

There doesn’t appear to be any pushback on this by the labor unions.

Just to clarify: this initiative will not result in the building of more prisons.  It’s a common misconception.  This is just a bureaucratic shuffle.


Question 3


Should the City of Philadelphia borrow ONE HUNDRED THIRTY-SEVEN MILLION TWO HUNDRED NINETY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS ($137,295,000.00) to be spent for and toward capital purposes as follows: Transit; Streets and Sanitation; Municipal Buildings; Parks, Recreation and Museums; and Economic and Community Development?


Plain English statement:


This ballot question, if approved by the voters, would authorize the City to borrow $137,295,000 for capital purposes, thereby increasing the City’s indebtedness by $137,295,000. Capital purposes means, generally, to make expenditures that will result in something of value with a useful life to the City of more than five years, for example, acquisitions of real estate, or construction of or improvements to buildings, property or streets.

The money to be borrowed would be used by the City for five identified purposes, namely, Transit; Streets and Sanitation; Municipal Buildings; Parks, Recreation and Museums; and Economic and Community Development, all in specific amounts identified in Bill No. 140511 (approved September __, 2014). City Council would have authority, by ordinance, to change the intended allocation of these proceeds.

What does it mean?


OH MAN IT SOUNDS LIKE SO MUCH MORE MONEY WHEN YOU PUT IT IN ALL CAPS!  Alright, here’s the deal: The City has decided that it needs more money to fix stuff or buy stuff that it needs. To get the cash quickly, it wants to borrow that money in the form of a bond.  Any such debt would have to be paid off in the future.

Governments do this sort of thing all the time. Maybe you think this is a good thing, maybe you don’t. I’m not an economist, so I can’t help you there.

The practical implications are important but relatively limited. The only real danger to the City is if we fail to pay the bond back. That would hurt our credit rating (which is pretty good right now, a reflection on the City’s good track record of paying back loans). A poor credit rating would make future borrowing more expensive, or even could prevent the City from borrowing altogether.


Special thanks to Patrick Christmas, Senior Policy Analyst at the Committee of Seventy, for his insight and advice

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