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Politics & Government

Pittsburgh City Council wants to hear what residents think of a plan to annex Wilkinsburg

wilkinsburg borough municipal building.jpeg
Rebecca Reese
/
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council will host a public hearing Saturday about a proposal to annex Wilkinsburg. The effort to make the borough part of Pittsburgh has relaunched after it stalled earlier this year.

The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation began advocating for a referendum that could result in Wilkinsburg becoming part of the city over the summer. A successful signature drive seemed to be headed for a court petition until Pittsburgh City Council expressed concern about the fast pace of the effort. Advocates initially hoped to put the issue to voters on the November ballot.

Without Pittsburgh City Council signing off, the Wilkinsburg CDC paused the effort and re-collected signatures this fall. Multiple community meetings about the annexation have been held in the borough by the CDC and community groups over the last year to discuss how the annexation would affect Wilkinsburg residents.

The annexation would increase income taxes from 1% to 3%, but property taxes in Wilkinsburg would see a sharp decline to about half of what Wilkinsburg residents currently pay.

The two municipalities already share fire services and Wilkinsburg’s middle and high school students attend Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Pittsburgh City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith said the hearing is needed because it’s unclear to her whether the public supports the effort.

“We’ve received a lot of phone calls from people, and so I want to give them an opportunity to speak both in support and in opposition,” said Kail-Smith. “We still have a lot of questions.”

It’s also still unclear how much support the annexation has in City Council, which would be needed to move forward. Most council members did not reply to WESA’s request for comment on the matter.

According to Kail-Smith, there isn’t overwhelming support from members at this point.

She doesn’t support the annexation, citing concerns about city residents in south and west neighborhoods getting neglected as a result of absorbing 15,000 new residents in the eastern part of the city.

“We have several thousand residents waiting for city services to be distributed evenly and fairly to them currently,” she said. “And we’re going to add additional residents?”

Kail-Smith feels the city has prioritized East End neighborhoods at the expense of her district.

“Although we’ve been very fortunate with [Peduto] that he’s started paying more attention southwest of the river and doing projects on this side of town… it’s not been to the magnitude as it has been for the Hill [district] or the East End,” she said.

The effort does have some support on city council, though.

District 5 Councilor Corey O’Connor, who represents neighborhoods including Regent Square which borders Wilkinsburg, supports the annexation. He considers it a win for both sides because it could result in more state and federal funding.

“More people in the city of Pittsburgh means we can get more funding for a number of items when you look at federal, state grants and things like that,” O’Connor said. “A higher population will help us.”

O’Connor thinks concerns about shared services could still be ironed out. He said the conversation is still in its earliest stages, so he’s looking forward to hearing from residents.

“All we do right now is hear rumors from both sides,” O’Connor said. “So I think it’s good to open it up and hear from our residents… and from Wilkinsburg residents as well.”

Wilkinsburg Mayor-elect Dontae Comans said he’s looking forward to the hearing Saturday. His main concern is that officials take their time educating residents about the pros and cons of annexation before any vote.

The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation has said the effort is well-timed with the decennial redistricting process expected to kick off in early 2022.

Comans also expressed concern that becoming part of a city district would result in Wilkinsburg residents getting lost in the shuffle.

“I don’t support the way it’s been put out there as a ‘merger,’” he said. “[In] a merger you can negotiate things, you can be promised things. An annexation is just a sweep up… we would be sitting right in the middle of the East Hills and Homewood.”

Outgoing Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett has been a strong advocate of the annexation. She supports the overall consolidation of Allegheny County’s many municipalities.

“We’re seeing how there can be a disservice because we’re not getting equity across the board with all this fragmentation,” she told WESA earlier this year. “We have 130 municipalities in one county. That’s wild to me.”

In a letter sent to Pittsburgh council members this week, an attorney representing the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation took issue with the council calling a public hearing on the subject when the CDC has not yet petitioned the court for a referendum.

“This hearing would simply be an informational session and not a public hearing under the applicable state law,” the letter reads. “Further, we would expect…a reasonable opportunity to present to the Pittsburgh City Council the benefits of such an annexation to both Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg.”

Pittsburgh City Council will hold another meeting on the matter next Thursday to hear from Wilkinsburg Borough Council among others. Some borough council members have been outspoken against the annexation. Not invited to the meeting is the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation.

The Wilkinsburg CDC “already have a communications team in place… I feel like we have not heard a lot from the Wilkinsburg Borough Council, the people that the people actually elect," said Kail-Smith.

Members of the public interested in speaking at Saturday’s virtual hearing must register by 10:00 a.m. Saturday by filling out a form online or calling the city clerk’s office at 412-255-2138. Written statements may be submitted to cityclerksoffice@pittsburghpa.gov.