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City Council Closes Out Year With Final Approval Of Parks Tax

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
The coronavirus pandemic halted discussion of a parks tax -- but City Council approved the tax in its final meeting of 2020

Pittsburgh City Council delayed action for months on a parks tax that was approved by voters in 2019. But it took less than five minutes to approve when council held a final vote on the issue at its last meeting of 2020.

The parks tax will cost property owners an additional 1/2 mill on their property taxes, resulting in an additional $50 in taxes for every $100,000 of a property's value.

The tax will be effective January 1, 2021 – council had to amend the legislation to change the start date from 2020. “It’ll be in your tax bill in the next couple months,” said City Controller Michael Lamb, who added that he expected future bills to include the tax as a separate line-item, much as a similar library tax is broken out.  

The vote in favor of the tax was 6-3, with councilors Anthony Coghill, Deb Gross and Corey O’Connor voting no. There was only brief discussion of the issue, with Coghill and Gross both objecting that it was unwise to raise property taxes at a time when the city was reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think this is a terrible time to be increasing millage on people who are already cost-burdened in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Gross. “And I believe that this is going to be an extra burden on both the households and especially on renters who will have this burden passed through to them.”

Council President Theresa Kail-Smith had been wary of the tax increase early on, and said as late as mid-December that she was till undecided on it. But she voiced support for it in a preliminary vote last week, citing the elevated demand for parks amid a pandemic that has shut down so many other gathering places and attractions.

On Monday she acknowledged, “I don't think this is perfect timing,” but said help was available for people struggling with tax obligations. “I think that by the time we put this all into place and that there is help available, hopefully this pandemic will be over with and people will be back to work."

Backed by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the tax was billed as a means to rehabilitate neighborhood parks, especially those serving neglected communities and those with concentrations of poverty. Voters approved it in a November 2019 referendum by a margin of 52-48 percent. Imposing the tax still required the approval of City Council, whose discussions of the tax in early 2020 were sometimes heated.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic shut down that discussion for months, as residents grappled with new health threats and job losses and city officials tried to reckon with the budgetary impact. But the tax surfaced again in the waning days of 2020, with little fanfare and just as the city’s 2021 budget process was wrapping up.

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.