What’s All the Money For? A Sunshine Project Guide to the 2016 City Bond Ballot Question

By Austin Nolen

When Philadelphia voters go to the polls tomorrow, they’ll notice a confusing ballot question.

Actually, they’ll notice two, but the misleading ballot question about the retirement age for judges has been exhaustively explored elsewhere. There’s been less talk about the latest ballot question authorizing new borrowing by city government.

That ballot question asks only “Should the City of Philadelphia borrow ONE HUNDRED EIGHTY FOUR MILLION THREE HUNDRED THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS ($184,303,000.00) 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?”

Because of debt restrictions set on the City by the Pennsylvania Constitution, virtually any new borrowing has to be approved by voters. But the question presented to voters provides virtually no information about where the money will actually be spent.

The “plain English” statement on the bond question isn’t much clearer:

This ballot question, if approved by the voters, would authorize the City to borrow $184,303,000 for capital purposes, thereby increasing the City’s indebtedness by $184,303,000. 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 [a City Council ordinance].

So, The Declaration decided to find out what specifically city government wants to spend this new borrowed money on.

The money is all part of the City’s 2017 capital budget, which finances the types of projects outlined in the “plain English” statement, such as constructing new city buildings and maintaining old ones.

Mayor Kenney’s 2017 capital budget proposal explains which agencies fall into each of the five categories: Transit money goes to SEPTA. Economic Development funds go to the Department of Commerce. Parks, Recreation and Museums funding goes exactly where you’d guess. Streets funding goes to, well, the Streets Department.

The largest line by dollar amount, however, is the Municipal Buildings category. This covers just about every other department’s capital costs. The City Council ordinance authorizing the bond vote shows the breakdown of money among the different categories.

Together, all of the categories get about $177 million in new capital funding. According to Philadelphia’s deputy budget director Peilin Chen and mayoral spokesperson Mike Dunn, the City plans to spend the largest portion of the $177 million in new funding on public safety capital projects, which are part of the Municipal Buildings category.

Of special interest to readers of The Declaration, the Police Department will receive $12.55 million, largely for repairs and improvements on existing police buildings. $500,000 of the new funds are being allocated for the design phase of the construction of a new police facility. The City anticipates spending a total of $30.5 million over six years on this new facility as part of a comprehensive Public Safety Facilities Master Plan.

Other large expenditures included in the $177 million are $9.8 million for new Fire Department vehicles and $8 million for new Streets Department vehicles.

The remaining $7 million out of the $184,303,000 on the ballot will go to the costs of issuing the bonds, including payments to lawyers and financial advisors who help write the bonds and banks who underwrite them, according to Chen.

We won’t tell you how to vote, but hopefully you now have more of the information you need to decide for yourself.

You can view the full 2017 capital budget proposal here and the 2017 capital budget adopted by City Council here.

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