Time to focus on PGW sale

    Maybe we need guys in hazmat suits to figure out why, months after it was transmitted, Philadelphia City Council won’t introduce Mayor Michael Nutter’s bill authorizing the sale of the city-owned gas works. I figure the little paper jacket of the bill must be radioactive.

    I can’t remember a case when a previous mayor couldn’t get a single Council member to introduce a piece of his legislation. [Update: I knew this would happen – someone remembered a similar case. In 2001, Council delayed introduction of Mayor Street’s proposed Neighborhood Transformation Initiative for months.]

    The bigger issue, of course, isn’t whether Council permits introduction of the bill, but whether Council agrees with Nutter that selling the Philadelphia Gas Works is a good idea.

    It’s a huge, complicated, far-reaching question, and Council has an obligation to consider it carefully. It makes all kinds of sense for Council to hire its own technical experts to get an independent read of the issues, and, from what I hear, their consultant, Concentric Energy Advisors, is top notch.

    I’ve seen this movie before

    I’ve been around long enough to see City Council take on a few of these big, complicated mayoral proposals. I’m talking about deals worth hundreds of millions, from construction of the Convention Center and two stadiums, to long-term contracts for landfills and such.

    The deals are usually presented as bags of treats that will more than pay for themselves and make everybody happy, and criticized as big, hairy monsters with warts and horns. There’s usually some truth in both perspectives, and I fully believe City Council review of these things has proved valuable, even though it takes time and costs money.

    The best example is a proposal back in the mid-’80s for the city to invest a fortune in what would be a privately owned trash-to-steam plant to burn hundreds of tons of the city’s trash to produce energy. There was a terrible landfill shortage at the time, and Mayor Wilson Goode and business leaders couldn’t believe City Council wouldn’t embrace this clearly superior solution. Dopes, right?

    Wrong. Council balked, the plant never was built, and the city saved a fortune as a result. Had Council approved the deal as proposed, the city would have been locked into high-priced tipping fees for its trash for a couple of decades. In a few years, new landfills were permitted, recycling increased, and the city found much more affordable options than the trash-burning plant.

    What about PGW?

    I’m inclined to favor selling the gas works just because I’ve seen enough sorry decision-making and political meddling in PGW over the years to make me think the current era of enlightened management is an aberration. If PGW looks good to private investors now, maybe we should take the money and shed the headaches of running the utility.

    But I could be wrong, and there’s no way I’d vote to sell PGW until I knew a lot more about the specific risks and benefits. Council hearings are a great way to bring all that to light, and I’m looking forward to hearing the whole thing vetted in public.


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