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As City Prepares For Future Tax Increase, Council Still Has Questions

Last month, Pittsburgh residents narrowly passed a referendum to pay for city parks improvements with an increase in the property tax. But City Council has to pass legislation in order to collect the tax — and some councilors have made it clear that they'll be asking some tough questions first. 
Residents' taxes will go up $50 for every $100,000 a resident's property is worth. In all, the new levy is expected to raise $10 million a year, money which will go into a designated trust fund.

But some city councilors, especially those in districts where a majority of voters opposed the hike, still have doubts. And as a result, they introduced legislation to for a deeper look at the city's dealings with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which championed the tax. Four councilors - Anthony Coghill, Deb Gross, Darlene Harris and Theresa Kail-Smith - said a review was needed for transparency and oversight. In a statement, the Parks Conservancy said all agreements with the city were approved by the City Council and are available to the public.

The conservancy has compiled a list of priorities at the city's 165 parks, and says that with the tax passed, it will raise more contributions from the private sector to match the new tax revenue. But at a recent council meeting, Smith faulted the Conservancy for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars backing the tax.

"I feel like the taxpayers were almost scammed because nobody had the money to run a counter-campaign," Smith said at the end of council's Nov. 20 meeting. 

At the same meeting, Council President Bruce Kraus observed that city councilors sit on the board of the Carnegie Library system, which similarly benefits from designated property tax revenue. He said there should be comparable oversight with this tax.

The conservancy has long been active in the city's largest parks, and hopes to expand efforts citywide. But the money for improvements "will come straight to the city" and City Council will have final say over how the money is spent, said Conservancy President and CEO Jayne Miller. And she said that while taxes will increase, there is also a cost to doing nothing.

"Yes, prices may go up but it's also about making your neighborhoods better. And the flip side of the argument is we don't do anything and neighborhoods aren't improved," Miller said.

The parks tax is set to go into effect next year.