The Three City Charter Questions on Tuesday’s Ballot, in Plain English

Getting past the legalese to understand your vote.

There are three questions up for vote 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, with some help from our friends at the Committee of Seventy, is each question broken down into plain English. Then we break it down into even plainer English.

Question 1

Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to establish and define the functions of the Office of Sustainability, headed by a Director of Sustainability?

In Plain English: “The City’s current Office of Sustainability was established by the Mayor in 2008 to set sustainability targets and to evaluate the City’s progress in meeting those targets. The proposed Charter change would make the Office permanent by formally creating, in the Charter itself, an Office of Sustainability. The Office would be headed by the Director of Sustainability, to be appointed by the Mayor. The Office would be responsible for developing and coordinating the implementation of policies and programs to meet the City’s sustainability goals. These goals will relate to matters such as energy use, air and water quality, tracking of greenhouse gas emissions, solid waste management, access to open space and local and healthy food, tree canopy coverage and climate change preparedness planning.”

Even Englishier: If you like the environment — clean air and clean water — this would order City Hall to make this office a permanent part of government, instead of existing entirely at the mayor’s pleasure.

Question 2

Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to transfer responsibility for managing and operating the City’s jails from the Department of Public Welfare and the Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons to a new Department of Prisons and Board of Trustees?

In Plain English: “Currently, the City’s Home Rule Charter assigns the responsibility of operating the City’s prisons to two entities. The Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons is responsible for the direction and control of the management of the City’s prisons, which includes selection of the Superintendent of the City’s prisons, who administers the City’s prisons. The Department of Public Welfare (commonly referred to as the Department of Human Services, or “DHS”) has general supervisory responsibility in connection with the City’s prisons.

“The proposed Charter change would create a new Department of Prisons, responsible for operating the City’s prisons. The Department would be headed by a Prisons Commissioner, who would supervise the management and operation of the City’s prisons. He or she also would be responsible for maintaining a program for facilitating the reintegration of individuals returning from incarceration. The Prisons Commissioner would be appointed by, and would report to, the City’s Managing Director. The Board of Trustees of Philadelphia Prisons would be responsible for adopting standards and guidelines to be considered by the Prisons Commissioner when making policy relating to the City’s prisons. “

Even Englishier: In recent decades, the city’s prison system has essentially (and unofficially) operated as its own agency — but operated officially under the auspices of the Department of Public Welfare. The charter change would make its standalone status official — and give the director of the system a rank in the city hierarchy equal to that of the police and fire commissioners.

City Bond Question

Should the City of Philadelphia borrow ONE HUNDRED THIRTY-SEVEN MILLION TWO HUNDRED NINETY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS ($137,295,000.00) 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 Plain English: “This ballot question, if approved by the voters, would authorize the City to borrow $137,295,000 for capital purposes, thereby increasing the City’s indebtedness by $137,295,000. 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. 140511 (approved September __, 2014). City Council would have authority, by ordinance, to change the intended allocation of these proceeds.”

Even Englishier: This is one time where reducing the issue to one or two sentences probably doesn’t add clarity. You get that the question means that the city takes on $137 million in debt. What does that money pay for? So we called Mayor Nutter’s office and asked. His spokesman, Mark McDonald, emailed the following:

The ballot question for the $137.3 million bond issuance is the annual request for voter approval to issue bonds to fund the City’s capital budget. The City’s capital budget funds improvements to streets, recreation centers, police and fire stations, health centers and other city facilities. While the budgeted amount falls below the City Planning Commission recommendation to spend $185 million per year in investment, it is higher than previous years.

Key projects for neighborhood investments include:

  • $14.7 million for the Departments of Parks and Recreation capital projects which fund capital improvements to Parks and Recreation trails, parks, pools, recreation centers, cultural facilities and infrastructure across City neighborhoods.
  • $16 million for the Streets Department for Reconstruction/Resurfacing and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Ramp Reconstruction on neighborhood streets throughout the city.
  • $5 million for improvements at Neighborhood Commercial Centers. The improvements include upgrade for curbs, sidewalks, lighting, landscaping and parking in commercial corridors to complement public and private reinvestment.
  • $3.9 million for improvements and structural site work renovations at Fire facilities throughout the city.
  • $3 million Police facility renovations in several police districts, police academy and completion of the former Woodhaven U.S. Army facility for police use.
  • $2.2 million for improvements to several library facilities for HVAC, infrastructure and interior and exterior renovations.

Other key projects in the FY15 capital budget include:

  • $24 million for the Office of Innovation and Technology for citywide technology improvements. This is part of a $120 million multiyear commitment to improve the City’s technology, and increase the efficiency of the City’s operations.
  • $10 million for the Office of Fleet Management for the purchase of large vehicles, such as medic units, pumpers, tiller ladders, compactors, backhoes, tractors, sweepers, wheel loaders, and paving machines.
  • $5 million for the Office of Innovation and Technology for a message switch system, which will improve public safety information exchange between the City and State.
  • $5.8 million for security system improvements, infrastructure and other renovations at the various Prison facilities.

Those numbers don’t add up to $137 million, of course, but on a long list of projects, they represent the big-ticket items.

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