Tuesday, March 8, 2011
On Friday, the federal government assumed control over the Philadelphia Housing Authority. For months, The Inquirer in Philadelphia had been reporting about corruption and mismanagement in the Housing Authority's finances, including "$38.3 million in legal expenditures since 2007." "That tab included conflict-laden payment to the law firm of [the son of former Mayor Street, who also just resigned as chair of the Housing Authority]." In addition, it included $11.7 million to Ballard Spahr, where former Gov. Ed Rendell is a partner now (and was prior to being governor). As a point of comparison, the Housing Authority paid $10.3 million (16,700 units of housing and 14,800 vouchers) in legal fees in 2010, while New York City's housing authority paid $8.6 million (180,000 units of housing and 99,000 vouchers). The Philadelphia's Housing Authority's executive director was fired in September (for, among other things, settling sexual harassment complaints against him for $648,000) and the board resigned last week.
This all led me back to an article I wrote 5 years ago critical of public authorities, focusing primarily on the lack of relationship between public funds and the democratic process. At the time, public authorities issued more debt per year than all the cities and states combined (i.e. borrow) and they held more debt than all the cities and states combined (i.e. borrowed). Many states had the majority of their debt held by public authorities. New York, for example, had about 90% of its debt held by public authorities. I then discussed how typical elections for mayor, governor, representatives, and councilmembers have little impact on the decisionmakers at public authorities (see, e.g., Gov. Mitt Romney's desperate attempts to remove the head of the Mass Turnpike Authority). This lack of oversight and accountability, I argued, allows for mismanagement, corruption, and graft.
With so many of public authorities existing (more than all cities combined) and performing significant land use functions including, housing, transportation, economic development, water, sewer . . . etc, I wonder how, if at all, infusing more democracy into the control of these functions would impact land use today. Would placing these functions under a city or state allow for more integration of land use issues? Would it allow cities to be more flexibility in spending on land use issues (see, e.g., Philadelphia's unsuccessful attempt to gain access to Philadelphia Parking Authority's funds, generated from land in Philadelphia)? How would it impact the democratic process? I'm not sure where these functions should reside, but with each new revelation of public authority corruption, I question whether we have the most efficient system.