Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Contact 90.5 WESA with a story idea or news tip:

Parks Backers Urge Tax Vote, While Skeptics Worry The Field Is Uneven

Chris Potter, 90.5 WESA-FM
Jim Griffin says a collapsed wall in Schenley Park reflects the need for a property tax hike to benefit city parks

Considering it’s wedged between the Parkway North and downtown Pittsburgh, Spring Hill Playground looks almost bucolic – at least at first. 

The baseball infield is carefully groomed, and there's no graffiti. But Jayne Miller, who heads the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, sees problems: uneven asphalt, broken glass, a  basketball court whose backboards face each other at an angle, like the court was laid out around a street corner. And such conditions, she says, can be found in many of the city’s 165 parks.

“As a country, we don’t invest in our infrastructure," she said. "And when you combine that with the fact that this is an older park system and the economic challenges Pittsburgh has faced, it’s no surprise that parks and other infrastructure are in the condition they’re in.”

And while Miller credits Mayor Bill Peduto for increased spending on parks, she says that given the city’s current budget needs, it could take up to a century to address problems like the $400 million in needed capital improvements.  That's why the conservancy launched a campaign to place a ballot question before city voters in November, to raise property taxes by half a mill. That's an extra $50 for every $100,000 home is worth. The expected $10 million in new revenue will be earmarked for parks.

It's similar to a successful 2011 tax referendum that benefited the Carnegie Library system. But skeptics worry that, as sympathetic as the parks are, the referendum is another step toward creating a city in which the big employers aren’t taxed, and big policy questions aren't decided by elected officials.

Among the critics is City Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith. At a Sept. 11 council session, Kail-Smith said a tax debate that focused on parks ignored bigger problems.

"If you're gonna raise taxes, I want you to raise it to stabilize neighborhoods, to stabilize the hillsides that are coming down all around,” said Kail-Smith, referring to a spike in landslides that have plagued the region in recent years. “This is not the first time, it's not the last time, that we're going to see these efforts to raise taxes through a referendum."

‘How are we supposed to ask our residents for more money?’

Big city parks like Schenley and Frick already receive money from a county sales tax. And City Controller Michael Lamb says that while the parks need help, so do roads and other infrastructure.

“There’s no doubt the need is real” in city parks, he said. He said he was a supporter of the conservancy and lauded it for having taken “a hard look at our park infrastructure … and recognized it’s going to take a big infusion of dollars to do what you need to do.”

But he said that city residents had been asked repeatedly to pay for progressive causes. In addition to the library tax hike, the city has raised its deed transfer tax to finance the construction of affordable housing. Meanwhile, he said, this new tax would leave big nonprofits like UPMC — who are largely tax-exempt — off the hook.

"How are we supposed to ask our residents for more money when our large nonprofits continue to pay nothing?"

That’s a common enough question that Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff, Dan Gilman, addressed it before even being asked at council’s Sept. 11 session.

“The idea that all the sudden the corporate community, the nonprofit community, is suddenly going to write checks to the city is just not going to happen at the level we’re talking about,” Gillman told councilors.

That raised eyebrows, since Peduto has long promised the creation of a fund for nonprofits and others to contribute to. The so-called OnePGH initiative would allow such entities to support causes related to their missions – and the improvement of the neighborhood park system is among the dozens of specific goals identified. The unveiling of the initiative has been delayed multiple times, but draft versions of the OnePGH proposal viewed by WESA envision both the passage of a parks tax and outside financial support. 

In an interview, Gilman said that “to achieve the goal of a world-class park system, it’s going to take both support from the nonprofit and the corporate community and a tax increase.” Outside funders, he said, would be more likely to contribute to capital projects – one-off projects with a high upfront cost – while taxpayers would step up to pay for day-to-day labor and maintenance.  

Taxpayers, of course, will be asked to pay their share of the burden now. But since the tax dollars will be earmarked for parks, “We’re not asking the taxpayers to take us on faith” about the benefits, said Gilman. Still, he added, “Showing that we’re putting skin in the game will help us leverage all kinds of opportunities.”

‘Our little, small parks get no recognition’

While Lamb and others call for a fairer distribution of the tax burden, the conservancy’s Miller says the tax will help advance social equity.

"Underinvestment in neighborhoods of color, and low-income neighborhoods — to equalize and provide the same level of quality parks in a community is really important,” she said. That’s in part because “a lot of research shows that if you live close to a park that you can walk to in 10 minutes … your health indicators are much better.”

Prior to advancing the tax, the conservancy held months of community gatherings to discuss parks priorities across the city. Miller estimates that 10,000 of the city’s 300,000 people attended in all. The conservancy compiled resident feedback with an assessment of park conditions, and combined that with data on racial and income disparities to determine top priorities.

In recent weeks, the conservancy has undertaken another round of meetings during a “listening tour” made up of visits – sometimes as many as two a day – to neighborhood groups.

The gatherings aren’t explicitly political. Residents aren’t urged to vote in favor of the tax, but the issue does come up. When a conservancy staffer discussed the tax at a recent block watch meeting at Homewood’s Faison K-5 school, for example, the half-dozen residents who attended were initially skeptical. But that was before they learned that three area rec facilities were on the conservancy’s list of top 20 priorities for increased spending. Nearby Baxter Park ranks first on the list.

After the meeting, resident Kimberly Burley said she hadn't known about the tax before coming to the meeting, but would support it now.  

Echoing the concerns of others who felt Homewood parks had been overlooked, she said, "Our little small parks get no recognition. So I will push this issue to all of the residents on my street, and hopefully they'll pass it on and push it to their family members."

Nobody who opposed the tax was there to disagree. So far there's no organized opposition at all — even as the conservancy says it could spend $800,000 on TV ads and other outreach. That’s in addition to the listening tour and similar efforts which the conservancy bills as “educational.” Lamb says all that spending could skew the results of what will likely be a low-turnout off-year election. 

"We're talking about an organization that has the ability to spend upwards of $1 million on unchallenged TV marketing,” he said.

“You’ve got these advocacy groups for libraries and parks – there’s no one advocating for Washington Boulevard” where periods of heavy rainfall have caused dangerous flooding, Lamb said. “Those are the kind of infrastructure problems that we face right now. Our priorities need to be set by a public process that involves council and the mayor. And moving infrastructure problems away from that is a bad idea.”

Lamb also says that the use of ballot questions could become a Pandora’s box, where other well-heeled groups – some more controversial than nonprofit advocacy groups – try to shape policy without having to consult with city officials. And while a city ordinance limits campaign contributions to elected officeholders, there’s almost no limit on what can be spent on a ballot question – or on who can provide the money.

“I think you’re probably going to see more of that. … I wouldn’t doubt that there are businesses looking at various things to do around here” with a ballot question, Lamb said. “The question is, if someone wanted to put a ballot initiative on that was out of favor with the mayor’s office, what would happen then?”

‘We'll never get back to being whole’

Jim Griffin has seen the debate over parks funding from both sides: He’s headed up the city’s parks department and worked for the conservancy.  And he says that the city’s current budget simply can’t cover the need.

“We are nostalgic for what was. At one time the city funded these parks, [so] why can’t we do that any longer? Well, that model was when we had 600,000 people when we had 165 parks. Now we only have 300,000 people.”

As an example of the challenges the city faces, Griffin points to the collapse of stone wall along Serpentine Drive this summer.

“It's been here for almost 90 years” he said, estimating it would cost $2 or $3 million to fix. “And we have so many walls, so many historic features, and we'll never get back to being whole unless we have a strategy to get back."

On the flip side, Griffin says a tax hike would allow the parks to grow beyond such immediate needs – expanding improvements the city has done only piecemeal. Spray parks built for communities like Hazelwood and Beltzhoover could be repeated across town, he said.

Miller emphasizes that the ballot initiative is nothing more than an effort to “let the voters decide if they want to tax themselves extra to make an investment in parks. We all know that’s a hard thing to do for elected officials.”

The election is Nov. 5.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.