Two weeks ago, a group of civic-minded Washington Square West residents touched off a firestorm when they tossed a proposal to create a Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) out for their neighbors to consider. The opposition to this idea was so vehement that the members of the Washington Square West Civic Association board who were the prime movers behind it withdrew it from consideration at the June board meeting.
A similar proposal in the Callowhill neighborhood went down to defeat in a mail ballot, as called for by the state law that authorizes such districts.
NIDs are nothing new in Philadelphia. To date, however, all of those in existence are business improvement districts (BIDs) that cover only commercial areas. The reason businesses accept them is the same reason some residents want them: They provide extra services City Hall cannot — things like sidewalk cleaning, pedestrian-scaled street lighting, and extra security patrols. The reasons residents reject them: The districts pay for these services by levying assessments on property owners — and those who don’t pay can have liens placed on their property by the districts. Yet the districts are governed by boards that may or may not be directly accountable to those who pay those assessments. In other words, taxation without representation.
Like suburban homeowners’ associations, these BIDs and NIDs function as quasi-governments. While they may not impose the sorts of regulations the homeowners’ groups do, they do provide services like those a municipality would, yet they are only tenuously accountable to the businesses and residents they serve.
So why not turn them into actual municipalities?