It’s Time to Bring Philadelphia County Back From the Dead

Flaws with NIDs notwithstanding, the city’s neighborhoods crave more control over basic services. Why not turn them into actual municipalities?

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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?

The drive to create these districts is an expression of an old American tradition: local control of local resources. The closer the government is to the people, the more responsive — and effective — it can be.

Philadelphia once had a bunch of these governments. They had names like Frankford, Germantown, Blockley, Moyamensing, and Lower Dublin. All of them were extinguished in 1854, when the City of Philadelphia became one with both its county and the other 20-odd municipalities in it.

It was the right solution for the problems of the day. The consolidated city could provide better infrastructure and a professional fire and police department.

Today, however, communities seek to provide at least some of those services at a level their residents can relate to. Others may wish to offer more of these services than they can get from City Hall. They should be allowed to do so by reviving municipal federalism.

The idea never went away in Europe. Three of Europe’s largest capital cities — Berlin, London and Paris — have governmental structures in which elected local councils — boroughs in London and Berlinarrondisssements in Paris — provide basic services; some run schools, some don’t. Over these are “metropolitan” governments that handle issues affecting the entire territory: transportation, public welfare, education policy, and the like.

Here, a revived Philadelphia County would serve as the “metropolitan government” while reconstituted boroughs and cities would handle those basic matters residents care about most. Issues such as equitable funding for schools and the social safety net could be dealt with at the county level, as counties in Pennsylvania do have the ability to levy and collect property taxes. One level down, borough mayors and councils could collect the taxes to fund enhanced services local residents want.

If this sounds like something you’ve heard before, it is: Mark Alan Hughes of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design made this same argument in the local press back in 2000. But with the increased interest some Philadelphians have shown in coming up with neighborhood-based solutions to neighborhood problems, perhaps it’s time we took a fresh look at the idea.

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