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Water Rate Controversy Among Four Questions On Philadelphia Ballots

(A Philadelphia voting machine.  File photo)

(A Philadelphia voting machine. File photo)

Mike Dunn Mike Dunn
Mike Dunn is City Hall bureau chief for KYW Newsradio 1060. He covers...
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By Mike Dunn

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Voters in Philadelphia tomorrow will face four ballot questions, one of which proposes changing one of the oddities of the 60-year-old Philadelphia Home Rule charter.

At issue: whether the water commissioner should have the final say on rate hikes.

The city charter approved in the 1950s has the water commissioner proposing rate hikes, and then, after a series of public hearings, the commissioner approves the rate hikes.  City Council president Darrell Clarke thinks that’s crazy.

“The water commissioner gets to approve his own request!  And I’ve never seen a situation like that,” Clarke tells KYW Newsradio.

So he has authored a referendum that city residents will vote on tomorrow, to change the process.

“We think that there should be an independent commission,” Clarke says, although it is still unclear who would appoint members of the commission.  That would be worked out by City Council and the mayor if tomorrow’s referendum is approved.

The Nutter administration, though, opposes Clarke’s referendum.  The mayor’s spokesman says a rate-setting commission would only politicize a process that has brought fiscal stability to the Philadelphia Water Department.   And he says such a change would erode Wall Street’s confidence in the water department, potentially driving up the price of the department’s borrowing for capital needs.

UPDATE: After our story appeared, the mayor’s spokesman told reporters that the Administration in fact no longer opposes the Water Department ballot referendum. The spokesman, Mark McDonald, said negotiations on the details for a rate-setting commission are proceeding between the Administration and Clarke. And McDonald said the mayor now feels that through those negotiations, “we will get to a rate-making board that will minimize the problem” of the new board’s potential impact on borrowing.

The three other city ballot questions are:

  • A charter change proposed by Councilman Bill Green that would require a mayor to provide additional budget reports to City Council.  Green wants city government to move toward what’s called “program-based budgeting.”  Nutter administration officials say they support the concept philosophically but oppose the charter change because they currently lack the information technology infrastructure to provide the level of reporting that the referendum would mandate.
  • UPDATE: The Nutter Administration also no longer opposes this ballot question.
  • A charter change to extend the current hiring preference now given to children of slain police and firefighters to their grandchildren as well.
  • A $123-million borrowing for the city’s capital needs, including mass transit and parks.

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