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Parks Tax Bill Moves Ahead As Coghill Drops Funding Demands

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Pittsburgh City Councilors Anthony Coghill and Deb Gross backed off from some of the requirements they sought to impose on spending from a parks tax voters approved last year

An amended proposal they offered Wednesday morning dropped a requirement that money from the tax be shared equally among council's 9 districts. Instead, the new version requires "equitable funding for parks," which backers of the tax have said was the goal all along. 

Council agreed to that and other amendments, and voted to schedule a public hearing on the amended bill. A vote on the bill will come at a later date, after the hearing.

Coghill said he will still advocate for equal spending in each district, though.  

"I still want that and I'll still be fighting for that," he said. "But what we did today was decided to cooperate with the rest of council ... now it's going to be a collective bargaining process." 

Coghill's original proposal addressed concerns that his South Hills district would see little investment from the tax, whose supporters said it would target neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty and people of color. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which supported the tax, compiled a priority list of city parks facilities that needed investment, and neighborhoods in Coghill's district were well down that list. But his proposal antagonized tax supporters including Mayor Bill Peduto, and ran counter to pledges made when the tax -- an 0.5 mill property-tax hike which voters approved last fall -- was being debated.

The tax is expected to generate $10 million a year.  

The amended language also cleaned up a section that envisioned a "governing board," made up of the nine council members, which would control spending of tax proceeds. The city's Law Department said that provision, along with numerous others, was illegal. 

"Council is a governing board and that's where the Law Department really highlighted," Gross said. "By calling the deciding board a governing board, we just needed to take that out. [But] City Council still gets to vote on the allocations, which its supposed to do because this is tax money." 

She added that the legislation is now "cleaner."

"We can really talk about the core issues, which is how are we going to do these allocations," she said. "Some members want to go more specifically by what the Parks Conservancy wants to do." 

City Councilor Ricky Burgess, who criticized the original bill, said he still wants more equity when discussing how the funds will be spent. 

"Equity looks to me like fulfilling the promises made to the voters during the campaign that we would fix the parks with the greatest needs," Burgess said.

He said the parks in his district are among the city's neediest: A list of parks prioritized by the Conservancy included a handful of parks in Homewood, his homebase, among the top 20 parks most in need of investment.
"Equity always is difficult for those who have received disproportionate resources over time," Burgess said. "[S]ometimes the medicine for curing systematic racism is unpleasant ... but necessary."  

Coghill said his parks would not get the attention they need for a while if they go by the Conservancy's list. 

"I always say equal amounts -- equal then equitable, meaning it touches every part of the city," Coghill said. "If you designate one-ninth of those funds into any district, then it's up to that council district to be equitable to their small parks. I look forward to making that argument and seeing where it goes from there." 

Even Gross, who co-sponsored the bill with Coghill, said she disagreed with splitting the funds equally. But Coghill said if he doesn't get five members to agree to his plan, he could still make an argument that parks in his district deserve early investment. 

"If you saw the lack of investment in my parks ... I just want a certain amount of our tax dollars coming into my neighborhoods," he said. "I can't wait for 25 parks to be fixed as I wait."