By now, you've probably heard that the people of Charleston will elect a new mayor in a few weeks. Ordinarily, a local mayoral election in a town the size of Charleston might merit, at best, a few half-hearted attempts at a couple of candidate forums or a handful of Q&As in the local papers, but this election is unique. For the first time in 40 years it won't end with Joe Riley returning to City Hall.
On the plus side, this means there's been a generous amount of coverage of the candidates and their positions, including right here in the City Paper. Unfortunately, some of what they have to say is of some concern.
When the candidates are asked about their plans to fix the Holy City's various woes and challenges, one phrase pops up again and again, "public-private partnerships." Whether the candidates are talking about creating new housing, increasing the number of minority-owned businesses, or tackling the combined issues of traffic, infrastructure, and public transit, the idea of a public-private partnership is floated as the best way to approach the problem. This strikes me, and plenty of other people, as odd.
First off, there doesn't seem to be a clear idea about what a public-private partnership really is. Since our economy is neither purely socialist nor purely capitalist, aren't all public projects public-private partnerships, whether it's the construction of city buildings, schools, or bridges? After all, the city solicits bids from private companies to build them and then hires the one firm officials believe is most ideally suited to take on the job at hand.
But that doesn't really cover how public-private partnerships operate, at least today. Instead of just building roads or stadiums, these partnerships are increasingly finding their ways into other aspects of public life. Shopping centers and housing developments or, as they are now known, mixed-use developments, are more and more often seen as a public-private venture. It's often not clear who's winning out in the deal. Yes, the community might get a much needed boost to its quality of life when a mixed-use development brings new housing, retail, restaurants, entertainment venues, and parks to an area, but what are the private businesses who helped fund the project getting out of it?
In some cases, they're getting quite a bit. The most obvious are the corporate names attached to sports arenas. The less obvious ones are the arrangements whereby a construction firm which builds a new toll road gets to collect the tolls on the road they built with a combination of private and public funds.
Still, it's not quite clear why so many elected officials and business leaders believe public-private partnerships are not only necessary, but the only way to complete public projects.
The reason for this public-private partnership insistence is complicated, but it seems to rest on two things: there is less tax revenue in a city's coffers so it needs more money to pay for projects and the powers-that-be have an increased desire to put more of the public realm in the hands of for-profit businesses for reasons that may or may not help business associates, campaign donors, family, or friends. Now, I can't speak to the overall ups and downs of Charleston's tax revenues over the last few years, but if they are falling, shouldn't the government be interested in finding out why and fixing that problem? And, if they aren't, why enter into a public-private partnership which, ostensibly, lowers revenue even further by transferring public dollars to private accounts?
So, tax revenues aside, we're left to consider that some people, both currently in local government and those seeking to lead the City of Charleston, either seek to funnel public money into private hands (a model that worked well enough in the past to build roads and schools) or give private entities the right to profit off of public works, whether through collecting tolls on roads or branding public buildings or some other revenue-generating manner.
When it comes down to it, we need to ask ourselves, and the men and women running for mayor, are we willing to allow our public spaces to be branded with corporate logos if it means that we can have new parks, new developments, or new services, like, say, a functional high-speed rail system? Just as important, we need to ask whether or not we can trust the private sector to adequately supply the public with what it needs — and nothing less — instead of what a company can sell us at a lower cost to them?