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?


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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  • Dude

    No one wants to drop on the population charts.

  • Ken Hamilton

    Is the Balkanization of the city really a good thing? How about electing politicians that know what they’re doing instead of someone from the same tired batch of loonies like Mayor Nutjob.

  • thegreengrass

    I like it. The city of Philadelphia should have as little responsibility as possible, given how badly it treats its current assets.

  • PAPlan

    I wasn’t digging this idea at all until you got to the part where you suggested a metropolitan government could handle larger policy issues. I’d be supportive of this if the metropolitan government was a true metro government, taking in Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties. Pulling those affluent communities into the fold provides a much larger tax base, and coordinating transportation and education decisions and funding at the metro level would be a huge boon to the region.

    • Tark Blimtrep

      Pull in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties in SJ too. Then create the state of Philadelphia. It makes sense!

    • Veillantif

      What’s in it for Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester counties? Why would they agree to this?

      • PAPlan

        A stronger region.

        There would be huge outcry against it of course because people don’t understand the benefits and are prejudiced. But that doesn’t mean isn’t actually what is best for the region and state. By creating a stronger central city you create a more attractive region to employers and to new residents.

        But it doesn’t matter, because it’ll never happen.

        • Veillantif

          I must admit to not seeing the benefits, either. “Philadelphia does such a good job with their education decisions, why don’t we have them play a greater role in ours?” is not something people in the suburban counties often say.

          • PAPlan

            Philadelphia has some of the best public schools in the state and country. That is in spite of the fact that the per-pupil spending is lower than almost all of the suburban districts. It also has a lot of the worst. Those worst schools happen to be in poor neighborhoods where students are more worried about where their next meal will come from or if they’ll get shot today than if they should study to get into college. It is not policy decisions or mismanagement that is hindering PSD, it is the fact that their students face some massive challenges in their day to day lives. A broader tax base would allow for more equal education spending and would go far toward helping those students that need help the most.

            Just because people in the suburban counties think that they know the cause of the problems doesn’t mean they are correct. And just because they’d like to keep their tax dollars in their little fiefdoms and pretend that they’re not a part of the Commonwealth that we all live in doesn’t mean it is moral.

          • Veillantif

            Funny, I can’t remember the last time Lower Merion spent $75 million on a brand new, state-of-the-art high school only to hand control of it to a politically-connected real estate developer whose other charter schools were already failing.

            We can be pretty sure that if that’s how Lower Merion made their “education decisions,” they wouldn’t be the top school district in PA for much longer.

  • kclo3

    As long as it greatly reduces the power of Council.