By Mike Dunn
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A long-planned overhaul of how water rates are set in Philadelphia is about to finally become reality.
City Council President Darrell Clarke three years ago proposed to change the city charter’s antiquated method of setting water rates, replacing it with an independent water rate board. City Council this week is expected to approve the five members who will make up that board, and Clarke is pleased.
“We obviously have people who are in the industry, a former water commissioner, individuals who are dealing with bond ratings on a daily basis. So I think this process is a much fairer process. Having people who are knowledgeable on this particular board: I think this is a good move, and I think people will be very excited about the outcome.”
The board may soon be called to action, as the current water commissioner says a rate hike may be proposed later this year.
Until now the Water Commissioner had his staff propose a rate hike, and then after public hearings, the Commissioner himself would decide on the increase. The method was laid out in the 60-year old Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, and Clarke thought it was crazy.
“The notion where the department can ask for a raise when it also has to approve the increase in people’s water rates is something that made no sense to me, and most other people.”
Among those chosen to serve on the new water rate board is Bernard Brunwasser, a former water commissioner for the city. He thought the rate-setting process in the charter was a good one, as it helped the city escape the politicization of water rates that plagued Philadelphia in the 1930s and 40s. But he also is optimistic about the new five-member board.
“The board is a cross-section of interest groups. In fact there’s a consumer advocate on the board. Hopefully the board will have the will to raise rates, if its appropriate.”
The Nutter administration had originally opposed Clarke’s plan, saying a rate-setting commission would in fact politicize the process and would erode Wall Street’s confidence in the water department, potentially driving up the price of the department’s borrowing for capital needs. But the mayor later dropped his opposition, and one of the nominated board members is his own Treasurer, Nancy Winkler. Her presence is aimed at re-assuring Wall Street that the Water Department will not now fall prey to politicization.
At the nomination hearing, attorneys with Community Legal Services opposed Winkler’s nomination, arguing that having a city Treasurer on the water board poses a conflict of interest. But the city council committee ignored that argument and approved all five nominations, sending them to the full council for approval later this week.
Also nominated to serve is Sonny Popowski, the Pennsylvania state consumer advocate.