Germantown Special Services District troubles prompts push for a BID

Germantown Special Services District, one of 12 Special Districts or municipal authorities in Philadelphia, is in turmoil.

On its fourth executive director in five years, a reported $27,000 in debt and having its board president replaced after she failed to turn over the organization’s bank account information to the rest of the board, Germantown leaders are calling for the GSSD’s replacement with a Business Improvement District.

The GSSD is a municipal authority that is funded by a property tax assessment on properties within its service area. Its board was appointed by City Councilwoman Cindy Bass in 2013. While the organization is authorized as a municipal authority until 2025 through City Council, GSSD must renew its service plan and budget every five years in order to levy a fee on property assessments in exchange for providing effective cleaning services within the business corridor.

The first sign things were going wrong with the district was when trash began to pile up in the street last summer. Business owners demanded answers.

The problem, it appeared, was that the district had failed to pay the party responsible for keeping the streets clean. In an apology letter published to its website in August, GSSD wrote it “dropped the ball” with the vendor in charge of cleaning. The vendor simply hadn’t been paid.

In September, the problems escalated. The district’s executive director, David Rose, resigned after property owners failed to pass a new service plan and budget. All special service districts in the city need to be reinstated every five years through a vote by property owners.

Since then, there have been two attempts to complete the reauthorization process, sending the district’s budget to property owners for a vote. Both times, the vote to authorize the district failed.

Last month, another obstacle to reinstating the service district was discovered when an independent review of GSSD’s books last month found $27,000 in debts. At that meeting, the board voted to remove its unresponsive board president, Ingrid Shepard, when she declined to turn over important financial information to other board members.

With the GSSD’s future in doubt, business leaders in the community, including some formerly on the GSSD board, are calling for the creation of a new business improvement district, which advocates say would be a more democratic and responsive organization. Both Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy have business improvement districts.

One of those BID advocates is Sharrieff Ali, a Germantown resident and business owner, who also served on the GSSD’s Clean and Safe and Outreach and Communications committees for three years.

“Simply starting over with a democratically elected board versus one completely appointed for the community is a governance key,” said Ali, a member of the Maplewood Neighbors Community Organization. “I believe the neighborhood was shifting in population at the time GSSD was re-enacted a few years ago. Today’s business owners are younger and more of the social entrepreneur mold like the owners of Germantown Expresso and Uncle Bobbies; they are looking for ways to contribute and integrate with the community.”

Ken Weinstein, a real estate developer who helped started the Mt. Airy Business Improvement District and is a significant investor in Germantown, also said a business improvement district would be a better model for Germantown.

The problem with the GSSD, Weinstein said, is that current business owners who have to pay the mandatory assessment fee have no voice on the special service district board.

“So it really is a case of taxation without representation,” he said. “I am confident that if GSSD goes back to property owners for reauthorization, they will not get approval based on their track record and based on property owners not having a voice.”

The GSSD, in the meantime, is trying to get back on its feet. In a letter on the district’s website, the organization said it had replaced former board president Shepard with an interim chair, Trapeta Mayson. It also has an executive director in place: Germantown native Jamar Kelly.

Kelly said he believes under new leadership, GSSD will become a strong, active organization fulfilling its mission of creating a vibrant Historic Germantown Commercial Corridor.

“It is our belief that we should work within the current process and the current parameters of authorization to reconstitute the board,” he said. “This is the perfect opportunity to do so. There is no need for a BID.”

He said that although GSSD doesn’t have an authorized budget, it hasn’t shut down completely. The district, however, can’t issue new tax assessments on properties until it’s authorized. He said GSSD is currently pursuing delinquent accounts and will file liens this month to get funding owed to it.

Those funds will help to shore up the funding levels of the organization in the short term to be able to cover staff, clean the district and pay for the mailing to notify property and business owners of the public hearing for the reauthorization.

If 30 percent of all property owners object to the new service plan and budget, however, the re-authorization will fail again.

Bass, who made the special service district a priority when she first ran for council, said she preferred the special service district to a BID.

“A special service district allows for input from business owners, property owners, renters and engaged community members,” she said. “A BID would only allow property members to have input, effectively shutting out very many voices.”

She added that the current difficulties with the district were not a good reason to give up on it.

“GSSD has worked for five years,” she said. “My office is open to changes and ideas, but I caution against prematurely dismissing GSSD, which has had only a few short months of difficulty compared to several years of success.”

She was also confident that property owners would approve the re-authorization process.

The next GSSD board meeting will be held at 9 a.m. on Feb. 8. at 57 W. Maplewood Mall.

For more information about GSSD, go to germantownssd.com, or call (215) 821-8145. Sue Ann Rybak can be reached at sueann@chestnuthilllocal.com or 215-248-8804.