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Petition against Wilkinsburg annexation argues the law guiding the process was repealed this summer

Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Protestors shouted down the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation and Allegheny County officials at a press conference in January.

An effort to annex the Borough of Wilkinsburg into the City of Pittsburgh —which has been plagued with setbacks over the last year— is now facing another challenge. A petition filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court argues the state law guiding the effort was repealed over the summer — and that the petition filed to start the process should be voided by the court.

The annexation effort, led by the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation, has followed a seemingly untested 1903 state law. Under those procedures, a petition signed by Wilkinsburg residents was filed in September for a court order requiring Pittsburgh City Council to approve or reject the annexation. Wilkinsburg voters would get to vote on annexation, but Pittsburgh residents would not.

But a local judge last summer noted that he couldn’t find evidence of a similar annexation. And in a petition filed Thursday, a group of Pittsburgh residents opposed to annexation noted that the 119-year-old law was repealed when the state enacted Act 41 in July.

In the filing, attorney Charles Pascal argues that the Pennsylvania Constitution requires allowing voters in both municipalities to approve the annexation. That is the process that should be followed, he wrote — “not the skewed, inequitable and unconstitutional process outlined in the 1903 Annexation Law.”

Similar arguments against the current annexation attempt are echoed in legal filings made by two other Wilkinsburg residents and an additional Pittsburgh resident.

The petition that sought to launch the annexation process acknowledged the repeal of the 1903 law. But supporters of the bid argued the repeal was invalid due to procedural errors — and because when lawmakers voided the old process for large cities to annex municipalities, they failed to create a new one.

“Because a repeal of the 1903 Annexation Law would leave Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with no statutory framework for local government reapportionment, any attempted repeal would violate … the Pennsylvania Constitution,” wrote attorney Clifford Levine, who represents the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation. “The 1903 Annexation Law remains valid, operative law.”

But Pascal's filing objects that even if the 1903 law hadn't been repealed, it would violate a state constitutional requirement that elections be "free and equal."

Under the law, he wrote, "the voters of the Borough of Wilkinsburg would get to vote on the question of annexation but the voters of the City of Pittsburgh would not" — even though “annexation would inevitably effect questions involving the city budget, city tax rates, distribution of resources" and other matters.

This is the third attempt by the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation to begin the process. They argue annexation would foster more development in the Borough and bring down the property tax rate, which is three times the state average. A group of Wilkinsburg residents opposed to the annexation has protested press conferences with borough, city and county officials.

The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation originally hoped to get the ballot question out during the fall 2021 general election. But in the face of criticism from both Borough and City Councils, the group stopped its first attempt to gather more community input.

The CDC then sought to get the question to Wilkinsburg voters last spring but withdrew their effort when it again became clear that Pittsburgh City Council would not support it. Critics argued a clear path for merging municipal services, school districts and other agencies has not been spelled out.

That spurred a round of talks between city and county officials leaders and the Wilkinsburg CDC. Councilor Ricky Burgess —whose district would likely absorb most or all of Wilkinsburg — vowed to spend a year studying the implications of the annexation. It is not clear where that process stands.

A court hearing on the latest legal dispute is scheduled for Oct. 18.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.