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Advocates Slow Down Effort To Merge Wilkinsburg With Pittsburgh

Lucy Perkins
90.5 WESA

Wilkinsburg residents won’t be voting on whether to have their borough annexed by the city of Pittsburgh in November. A committee in favor of the merger announced Monday it will delay a referendum on the issue in favor of gathering more community input first.

“After productive meetings with Pittsburgh City Council, community stakeholders and the public at large, we have concluded that the compressed schedule required to place the referendum on the November 2021 ballot would not allow for the productive dialogue appropriate to address important details related to the seamless integration of the two municipalities,” said Tracey Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation.

Though the Wilkinsburg CDC gathered more than enough signatures to submit the petition to court, the referendum would need to be approved by Pittsburgh City Council before Wilkinsburg voters could weigh in.

The group said Monday it wanted to give Pittsburgh residents and city council more time to consider the citywide implications of the merger. Nearly 400 borough residents participated in planning and visioning sessions about the annexation.

Advocates will have to re-collect signatures before the next election cycle to petition the court. The Wilkinsburg CDC is in the process of rewriting the petition to submit as early as next spring, according to Evans.

Marita Garrett, the borough’s mayor, has been a strong advocate of the merger.

“Wilkinsburg needs to be a true part of the City’s family in order to reach its full potential and as history has proven with existing shared services contracts, this can and will be a win-win,” Garrett said in a statement announcing the extension of the effort.

She supports more municipalities in Allegheny County consolidating. “We have 130 municipalities in one county. That’s wild to me,” she said. “We’re seeing how there can be a disservice because we’re not getting equity across the board with all this fragmentation.”

Other local officials advocating the borough's annexation include Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb, who expressed support for the merger during a press conference last month.

“It’s incumbent on us to always be talking with our neighboring municipalities about mutual aid, about consolidated services … including annexation,” Lamb said at the time.

“Storm water doesn’t know municipal boundaries, opioid deaths know no municipal boundaries, crime knows no municipal boundaries.".

Supporters of the annexation note the borough would benefit from access to the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority’s programs and services. Garrett argued homebuyers might also take a second look at the borough under the city’s lower property tax rate.

“Right now, our tax rate is oppressive and prevents home ownership, wealth generation and job creation for mostly black residents who are leaving the borough as a result,” Garrett said.

Property tax rates in Wilkinsburg are more than twice those of Pittsburgh.

“Five of my neighbors have left to move to Mt. Lebanon [Township],” because the tax rate is lower, Garrett said. If the referendum passes, she added, “people will be willing to have a conversation about moving to Wilkinsburg because the taxes won’t be that immediate barrier.”

Members of Wilkinsburg Borough Council have spoken out against the annexation. Six of nine council members approved a resolution in April to remain an independent borough. All but two agreed to an amendment that would require council’s involvement in future talks about merging the borough with the city.

But Garrett says council members have been invited to focus groups and public discussions on the long-considered merger.

“Borough Council has been invited many times to not only participate [in talks] but the WCDC has offered to come give presentations on some of their data, but there’s been no response,” she said.

Delaying the referendum will allow officials more time to iron out how the merger could affect borough jobs, according to Garrett. Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh already share services like the fire department and garbage collection. Wilkinsburg children attend Pittsburgh Public Schools from seventh through twelfth grade.

The merger would extend city programs like park services and youth programs to Wilkinsburg residents. Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police would have jurisdiction over the borough if the referendum passed.

Evans said community meetings through the summer and fall will be scheduled to answer questions about how the merger would affect Wilkinsburg and city residents.

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.