The Three Philadelphia Ballot Questions Voters Will See Tuesday, in Plain English

A big bureaucratic re-org? A permanent office of LGBT affairs? A $156 million bond?

Philadelphia voters will be asked three ballot questions in Tuesday’s primary election, but they’ll be awfully difficult to understand if you’re seeing them for the first time when you’re in the voting booth. Here, courtesy of the city, is each question broken down into sort-of plain English. Then we break it down into even plainer English, with some help from the Committee of 70.

No. 1: Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to establish and define the functions of the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Affairs, headed by a Director of LGBT Affairs?

In English: This proposed amendment to the Home Rule Charter would add a new Office to the administrative branch of City government: the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Affairs. The Office would be headed by the Director of LGBT Affairs, appointed by the Mayor.

Even Englishier: The office isn’t actually that new — the current office was created in 2008 by Mayor Nutter right after he entered office. G Philly reports, however, that what one mayor giveth, another can taketh away — adding the office to the home charter makes it permanent and ensures no future mayor can disband the office. (Thought it should be noted the likely next mayor, Jim Kenney, has been a longtime supporter of LGBT rights.) “Permanency will provide uniformity and clarity to the ongoing work of this important office so that Philadelphia can continue to be a leader in LGBT rights,” said Rue Landau, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

No. 2 Shall the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to create a new Department of Planning and Development, headed by a Cabinet-level Director, to oversee the City’s planning, zoning, development services and housing and community development functions; put the Historical Commission in the Charter and create a new Housing Advisory Board; and attach the City Planning Commission, Historical Commission, Art Commission, Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Housing Advisory Board to the new Department?

In English: This proposed amendment to the Home Rule Charter would create a new Department of Planning and Development. The Department would be headed by the Director of Planning and Development who would be a member of the Mayor’s cabinet.

The Department would have three divisions: the Division of Development Services,the Division of Planning and Zoning,and the Division of Housing and Community Development. The Division of Development Services would coordinate among various City and non-City agencies in providing support to development projects. The Division of Planning and Zoning would provide administrative support to the Planning Commission, the Historical Commission, the Art Commission and the Zoning Board. The Division of Housing and Community Development would be responsible for developing and carrying out the City’s housing and community development programs. (There’s even more to this “in plain English” explanation at the Committee of 70 website — you can read the rest of it there.)

Even Englishier: This ballot measure is byzantine in its details, but Council President Darrell Clarke boiled it down nicely in a letter released to the public: “Currently, the 10 offices and agencies that regulate, approve, and are involved in planning and development in Philadelphia are not connected or accountable to each other. This can result in a disjointed approval process and lengthy and frustrating experience for those who want to build and grow in Philadelphia.”

He concluded: “If Ballot Question No. 2 is approved, the buck will stop with one Department head who reports directly to the Mayor. This reform not only streamlines various City functions and makes them more user-friendly, it also creates accountability by vesting this responsibility in a single Department.”

In other words: One bureaucracy is better than 10.

Draft versions of this question generated quite a bit of controversy and speculation that Clarke was pushing the ballot question in order to expand Council’s influence over land use management. The legislation was altered considerably before it left Council, however, and some of the groups that were initially most concerned now support the ballot question.

City Bond Question: Should the City of Philadelphia borrow ONE HUNDRED FIFTY-FIVE MILLION NINE HUNDRED SIXTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS ($155,965,000.00) to be spent for and toward capital purposes as follows: Transit; Streets and Sanitation; Municipal Buildings; Parks, Recreation and Museums; and Economic and Community Development?

In English: This ballot question, if approved by the voters, would authorize the City to borrow $155,965,000 for capital purposes, thereby increasing the City’s indebtedness by $155,965,000. Capital purposes means, generally, to make expenditures that will result in something of value with a useful life to the City of more than five years, for example, acquisitions of real estate, or construction of or improvements to buildings, property or streets.

The money to be borrowed would be used by the City for five identified purposes, namely, Transit; Streets and Sanitation; Municipal Buildings; Parks, Recreation and Museums; and Economic and Community Development, all in specific amounts identified in Bill No. 150507 (approved June 18, 2015). City Council would have authority, by ordinance, to change the intended allocation of these proceeds.

Even Englishier: Actually, that’s pretty clear: The city wants to borrow a lot of money. These borrowings are a routine, normal part of how City Hall (and other local governments) operate. The city just needs voter permission to borrow the cash. What’s that money being used for? Here’s the rough breakdown:

  • Transit: $3.9 million
  • Streets and Sanitation: $33 million
  • Municipal Buildings: $76.2 million
  • Parks, Recreation, and Museums: $22 million
  • Economic and Community Development: $20.8 million

Total: $155.9 million.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.

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