by Pete Mazzaccaro
Self determination is in fashion. It was narrowly defeated last week in a popular election in Scotland where a majority decided to remain a part of the United Kingdom. In California, a ballot will go before state voters to split the state into six states, the idea being that carving the large state into more locally focused governments will better serve those local populations.
What if independence fever took Chestnut Hill? Could it break away and become an independent borough? A part of Montgomery County or still part of Philadelphia County? It’s an interesting thing to consider.
Many years ago, the Philadelphia Daily News columnist and Penn professor Mark Allen Hughes wrote a series of columns that considered the pros and cons of dividing Philadelphia into a number of smaller municipalities, again with the assumption that a more local municipal government would more easily to be held accountable by voters.
In those columns, Hughes weighed the benefits of a smaller, more responsive government with what would be some serious income disparities among those municipalities. He considered keeping all the new small towns part of Philadelphia County, where county taxes would help provide funds for police and schools across the county.
What would an independent Chestnut Hill look like?
At first glance, Chestnut Hill has a lot that supports an argument for borough-hood. It has a larger population than nearby boroughs like Jenkintown and Ambler (10,000 to 4,500 and 6,600 respectively). It has a much larger median income than both boroughs ($58,000 to $44,000 for both Jenkintown and Ambler) It has a strong core of civic institutions like the Community Association, Historical Society, and Business Improvement District. If Ambler and Jenkintown can do it, it’s hard to imagine that a larger, wealthier Chestnut Hill could not sustain an independent government.
It has a public school that is presently not as well equipped with facilities as Jenkintown or Ambler, but is close to the Water Tower Recreation Center for athletic fields, etc.
What Chestnut Hill would need to do: Create its own school district, establish its own police force and form its own government with all the offices and departments required – from a recreation department to a tax collector. It’s possible, but no small task.
While it would be an effort, the clear benefit would be a tight municipal government that could much more easily respond to Hill residents in everything from pothole repair to crime prevention.
The obvious downside for independence is likely not in the work required to create and house these new government entities, but the redirection of tax revenue to Chestnut Hill from the City of Philadelphia. If every well-to-do neighborhood of Philadelphia decided to strike out on its own, it would leave a city that would be much worse off than it is now. The blow to local public schools alone could be catastrophic.
Would Chestnut Hill voters ever vote themselves independent? For every person I know who believes Chestnut Hill would be better off setting its own course, there are those who would rather continue to say they live in Philadelphia. I don’t know what the result would be, but I suspect it would be a close contest.