In a move described as a first in Philadelphia history, local business owners have taken steps to begin dismantling a neighborhood agency that for years has been tasked with cleaning local streets — a job they say was not getting done.
More than 100 commercial property owners in Germantown — frustrated by a mounting trash problem — this month defeated the reauthorization of the Germantown Special Services District, the municipal authority that collects money from neighborhood commercial landlords to fund the cleaning of public areas, among other projects. The Germantown Special Services District, known as GSSD, is designed to operate as a small-scale version of the Center City District, the organization that cleans downtown sidewalks, manages parks, and does outreach to vulnerable populations.
But GSSD, unlike the Center City District, lacks a key resource: money. Special services districts, which operate similarly to BIDs, or business improvement districts, exist only because a neighborhood’s commercial property owners agree that, in exchange for extra services, they will pay a fee levied on their property tax assessment. For the Center City District, which collects fees from some of the city’s most prominent high-rises and corridors, raising money for cleaning isn’t a challenge. In 2018, the organization pulled in more than $21 million in assessments, its budget shows.
GSSD, which in 2018 expected to collect just $142,000 from property owners, operates in an entirely different league.
It would be easy to chalk up what is happening in Germantown to a local spat — the result of a few prominent personalities disagreeing over how a neighborhood organization should be run.
But the move to curtail GSSD’s operations underscores the issues that communities outside of Center City face maintaining their streets. With property assessments typically lower than other Philadelphia neighborhoods, organizations like GSSD start at a disadvantage with lower budgets. Combined with the usual complications of actually collecting assessments from property owners, plus the challenges of operating with little paid staff, observers say, BIDs and special services districts in low-income communities often struggle to reach their goals.
“No one should look at BIDs as panaceas for distressed areas with a lot of vacancy and not many resources,” said Paul Levy, the longtime president of the Center City District. “To me, the takeaway is that in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods ... a BID that is freestanding may not be sufficient and should be married to [another] revenue stream."
In an ideal world, street and sidewalk cleaning would not be the financial responsibility of local businesses — and instead would come from the city.
For a while, it did.
From 1947 to 1959, Philadelphia was named the “National Cleanest Town” by a national trade group, and the tidiness continued for years, until a declining population and revenue woes sapped the city’s sanitation budget. Finally, in 2008, Philadelphia discontinued residential street sweeping altogether — making it, until recently, the only major U.S. city without a comprehensive program. (Philadelphia recently launched a residential sweeping pilot in six neighborhoods; however, it has already hit a snag.) Even so, the city has said, it maintained sweeping along major commercial corridors throughout this time.
In reality, however, the city’s corridor street sweeping was no match for the trash that accumulates along commercial blocks. And so came the idea of BIDs and special services districts. (Both provide largely the same services, often focusing on cleaning and safety. The difference is largely related to the legislation that establishes them.)
GSSD was launched in 1995, four years after the Center City District, becoming the fourth district of its kind in Philadelphia. Unlike Center City, which was beginning to see signs of growth, Germantown was faltering. The hope was that by cleaning Germantown’s two major corridors — Germantown and Chelten Avenues — the neighborhood could revive its commercial strength.
Within years, however, the GSSD, lacking robust assessments that could fund its budget, encountered fiscal problems — even while Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce provided community development block grants and other funding. And while GSSD tried to continue cleaning, it was plagued by problems and allegations of mismanagement, culminating in the agency’s ceasing operations in 2011. It was revived by Councilwoman Cindy Bass two years later, not long after she was elected to represent the 8th District, which covers Germantown.
Still, business owners said, trash mounted again. Executive directors cycled in and out. In August, GSSD apologized in a blog that it “dropped the ball” in making sure that Ready, Willing & Able, the organization it hired to clean, was paid "in a timely manner.” And last September, GSSD missed a deadline needed to reauthorize for another five years — meaning it could no longer collect new assessments from business owners, which typically amount to 12 percent of a building’s property taxes.
“The last few years have been very rocky, and the streets have not been consistently cleaned,” said Ken Weinstein, a Mount Airy developer who is working on a $12 million project to revitalize Wayne Junction. “There has not been much transparency or accountability. And other stakeholders in Germantown have become more upset about the situation. Which we finally decided this year could not be continued.”
So this month, 101 of 230 business owners in the district wrote letters to the Philadelphia Chief Clerk’s Office opposing GSSD’s reauthorization. Only one-third were needed for the reauthorization to fail.
Trapeta Mayson, GSSD’s interim board chair, said this week that the recent effort to diminish GSSD’s operations was spearheaded by “four business owners” who led a “coordinated effort” to get opposition letters “submitted in bulk.” Mayson, who was appointed in January, acknowledged that while street cleaning “was not at the same level," the GSSD had been making strides to improve.
“We were surprised because we were having conversations with these individuals about how we move the organization forward,” Mayson said, noting that, in recent months, GSSD had aimed to be more transparent with its governance and had brought on an external accountant. She emphasized that while GSSD can no longer collect new assessments, it can still operate and collect past-due payments.
In a statement, Bass called the failed reauthorization a “devastating mistake” and said that “it’s unfortunate that a small group of individuals from outside the neighborhood co-opted an initiative that, up until very recently, was working well.”
“Germantown business owners should not let these individuals, who have a direct financial interest in controlling Germantown’s business landscape, dictate the type of commercial corridor system this community has," Bass continued.
For now, cleaning services have resumed for three days a week, thanks to funds provided to GSSD by the Germantown United Community Development Corp., the neighborhood nonprofit that works to support existing businesses and attract new ones. That agreement was struck in March and will expire this month.
In July at a community meeting, Weinstein said, property owners will determine how they want to proceed. Weinstein has suggested exploring the idea of replacing GSSD with a business improvement district (BID). While the services would be largely the same, the change, he believes, would give business owners the opportunity for more representation on the district’s board. Previously, the board’s members were selected by Bass.
Levy, from the Center City District, said Germantown should explore possible additional revenue streams, a model that other Philadelphia BIDs and special services districts have pursued. He pointed to agencies that have combined their BIDs with community development corporations to consolidate missions and expenses. He also noted that other BIDs have supplemented their budgets with parking or festival revenues, for example.
Bob Stokes, an associate professor at DePaul University who, while, at Drexel University, studied GSSD, suggested that Philadelphia officials should take a more active role. New York City, for example, collects assessment fees on behalf of the BIDs, which it then distributes back to the agencies — a move that can help put more pressure on property owners who may not pay.