Having unceremoniously demolished a carefully constructed offer to relieve Philadelphia of its antiquated gas utility, Darrell Clarke has alluded to alternatives that would be acceptable to him and perhaps his strangely silent partners on City Council. The trouble with these half-formed pipeline dreams is that they tend to evanesce under examination.
While unreasonably ruling out any sale to a private buyer - even though no other gas utility as large as Philadelphia's remains under municipal ownership - Clarke enigmatically posits a "public-private partnership." However, the examples of such ventures cited by the Council chief don't seem particularly relevant or auspicious.
As The Inquirer's Andrew Maykuth reported this week, one of Clarke's favorite examples - a liquefied natural gas venture in Jacksonville, Fla. - was dissolved in less than a year. Another public-private partnership he has cited, a fiber-optic network in Memphis, Tenn., was sold after seven years at a loss to ratepayers of $28 million.
Two other arrangements mentioned by Clarke and examined by The Inquirer are public-public partnerships in Pennsylvania. In Harrisburg, a state lease of city parking assets helped pay down debts that forced the city to file for bankruptcy. And in Allentown, a lease of the city's water system to a county utility helped defray pension liabilities - one major forgone benefit of the Philadelphia Gas Works sale proposed by Mayor Nutter.
However, both deals depended on public entities that were willing and able to give financially stressed cities what amounted to large government loans, allowing transfers of public debt from one constituency to another. In Harrisburg's case, for example, the state had an urgent interest in righting its insolvent capital city. What that has to do with Philadelphia is anyone's guess.
The larger problem is that all of Clarke's highly theoretical possibilities were arrayed against a concrete $1.86 billion offer extensively vetted by the Nutter administration. That Council refused even to consider that deal should cast a cloud over the political prospects of any of its self-styled mayors-in-waiting.