By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Compared to some other states, Pennsylvanians rarely get a chance to decide whether or not a new tax will be enacted.
Remember 2007’s much-maligned Drink Tax? All that took was a vote by Allegheny County Council and a quick stroke of then-Chief Executive Dan Onorato’s pen. But, in 2011, city voters by a two-to-one margin approved a .25 mill levy that has provided about $3 million annually to the Carnegie of Pittsburgh Library for operation and maintenance costs. Last fall, however, a countywide tax to provide about $18 million for children’s programs (known as the Children’s Fund) was turned down by voters.
Now, coming up on Nov. 5, city voters will get their say on whether to enact a .5-mill property tax increase to raise about $10 million annually to pay for maintenance and capital improvements at the city’s 165 parks — needs that require roughly $400 million to take care of. The measure is being led by the nonprofit Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to address what PPC Executive Director Jayne Miller calls a dire need.
The PPC was born in 1996 because of the parks’ poor conditions, Miller said on a recent episode of the Pittsburgh Current Podcast. She says the conservancy is the nonprofit partner of the city, whose job it is to raise private dollars to “augment” the parks’ budget.
“Since we were created, we’ve raised more than $124 million dollars, about an average of $8 million a year to make improvements in the parks,” Miller says. “And, I think most people can recognize the improvements that we’ve made.
“But in the scheme of things, it’s really been just a drop in the bucket relative to the significant backlog of needs and annual maintenance needs that the park system has.”
Miller says the PPC set out to find out to take a “comprehensive look” at the park system to see exactly what the needs were and what the public’s priorities were, where did they want to see the money spent. “From there, we started taking a look at where the money was going to come from,” she says. “Because the needs are so great, the park system needs about $33 million additionally per year. We can’t raise that privately and these are public assets.”
So what does the tax look like in simple math? If you own a home that is assessed at $100,000, you would pay an extra $50 annually. The assessed value of a home is most often considerably lower than a home’s current market value and the amount paid will be prorated based on assessed value (a $50,000 home would be $25 a year, and so on). This year, the city allocated $56 million to care for the city’s parks. So even with an additional $10 million in tax revenue, which the conservancy hopes to match with $10 million in private donations, which still leaves a $13 million shortfall.
Of the city’s 165 parks, five, including Schenley, Highland and Frick are known as regional parks and do receive funding from the countywide Regional Asset District. The other 160 are left to fight over whatever the city can throw their way. For example, thanks to RAD dollars, the city has 69 full-time employees working in the five regional parks. The remaining neighborhood and community parks have 33 maintenance workers for 160 parks.
“That shows how large the funding disparity is between the regional parks and the smaller parks,” Miller says. That has also led to parks in poorer, underserved neighborhoods falling into extreme disrepair. Miller says those parks will be first in line for much-needed capital improvements. The PPC has put information about how the tax dollars will be spent online at pittsburghparksforall.com. The parks were evaluated based on need and a list was generated showing investment priority (see graphic above). The list above shows the first 20 parks that will see investment. All are in underserved neighborhoods.
While most everyone agrees that there is a need for more money going to the parks system, not everyone agrees that an additional tax is the way to do it. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto supports the tax. However, Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb does not. A recent story from Pittsburgh Public Source summed up Lamb’s opposition this way: “Lamb said he worries that using a referendum to fund progressive causes could be abused and take power away from city leaders who are supposed to manage such projects.”
However there are some states that require a tax referendum nearly any time an increase is required. In neighboring Ohio, for example, every school district, county and municipality that wants to raise taxes has to take it to the voters.
Moira Kaleida, a Pittsburgh Public School Board Member and chief of staff for Pittsburgh City Councilor Anthony Coghill, says she has concerns about “putting public tax dollars into private hands.”
Kaleida says she is concerned about how much control taxpayers will have over the money in terms of how it is spent. “The PPC will tell you that Council has final say, but that simply isn’t true. Once an agreement is put into place, Council will have no ability to move around the funding,” she says. “The fund, if held by PPC, would potentially (not be subject to open record requests), lack transparency, and lack oversight by a democratically elected body.”
Miller says that “all funds received from the parks tax will go directly to the City and will be under the control of the City.” The Parks Plan, she says, “is the plan for how the funds will be spent in the parks. How the City determines who (i.e. the City, the Conservancy) does the work laid out in the Parks Plan is up to City Council.
“The City currently has agreements with the Parks Conservancy … to supplement work done in the parks. This measure doesn’t change this arrangement; it only changes the volume of work that will be done in our parks and its secures dedicated parks funding.” Miller also says the “Parks Conservancy would have the same level of public accountability, requirements and transparency as any public entity for use and spending of public dollars.”
Kaleida says the city is “all kind of behind the times on many issues.” Of course, she says, parks need more money and attention but, “I don’t like to get into a compare and either/or situation, but I cannot help to point to the lack of more than 17,000 affordable housing units in our city. Until we address issues of people being unhomed, unfed, and generally uncared for, I’m not sure I can throw support behind something else.”
Kaleida says she did support the 2011 library tax but that libraries “didn’t already receive public funding. Kaleida and Pamela Harbin, another PPS board member said that they were also concerned that recent campaign finance reports showed that more than $700,000 was put into the campaign by the conservancy to push the referendum. Pump Pittsburgh, which uses the city’s parks for its adult recreational sports leagues, donated $45,000. All told, $760,000 was put toward the effort. The pair say they wonder, since the city gives money to the conservancy, if any of those funds were used as contributions to the campaign.
“The Parks Conservancy spent $760,000 on this campaign and taxpayers will never know where this money came from. I hope it wasn’t me (as a taxpayer),” Harbin said “This lack of transparency should lead voters to ask themselves why they would expect any transparency in how their tax dollars will be spent going forward.”
In response, Miller says that the conservancy has gone to great lengths to include the community in its processes and has put its findings and its plan on its website. Miller says she doesn’t understand the point in pitting one community need against another.
“Why should city residents have to choose one or the other?” she said regarding the comparison to affordable housing. “Why can’t Pittsburghers have both? Great cities have great parks. Parks transform cities. They are free, and the most democratic spaces in a city. They fuel the economy, improve our health, clean and cool the air, clean and manage stormwater, renew the spirit, and create community. These are not simply ideals. The Parks Conservancy and the City have spent so much time and energy on this initiative because we truly believe in the good that it can bring to everyone who lives or cares about this city and region.”