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Wilkinsburg annexation plan faces uncertain future after Pittsburgh City Council meeting

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Councils for the City of Pittsburgh and Borough of Wilkinsburg met Thursday to discuss a plan to annex the borough into the city. During the meeting, it appeared the plan does not have enough support to move forward.

Pittsburgh City Council would have to vote in favor of the annexation to allow a referendum to be put to Wilkinsburg voters. Pittsburgh Council president Theresa Kail-Smith said she called for the Thursday meeting to hear the opinions of borough council members. Borough council does not have any official authority in the process, according to state annexation laws.

The majority of Wilkinsburg council spoke out against the annexation.

Wilkinsburg Borough Council President Pamela Macklin said residents benefit from a diverse nine-member council that has been able to keep the borough solvent and avoid raising taxes.

Macklin and others expressed concern about how the annexation could dissolve borough jobs. Others worried about labor union negotiations for Wilkinsburg School District teachers and staff as well as Wilkinsburg Police officers.

Robert Swartzwelder, president of the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police, has said police would follow a similar process to the merger done between fire departments in 2011 if the annexation moves forward.

“Pittsburgh command staff would work out the details on a possible Wilkinsburg substation, similar to what was done with fire with the goal of providing residents with the best possible public safety,”Swartzwelder said in a statement.

Macklin urged Pittsburgh council members to hold off on a vote to move the process forward until both municipalities can spend time ironing out how a transition would work.

“I think you make these decisions not in six months or a year, or two years. If it’s something that you’re looking at you really need to study it. The governments need to study it,” she said.

The plan has been promoted by the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation, an independent nonprofit, as a way to lower property taxes and incentivize development. They have not yet petitioned the court with the required signatures to kick off the process that would next require a City Council vote.

Several borough council members expressed distrust toward the nonprofit in their comments Thursday.

“It’s just been a big mass of confusion and misinformation. The people signing the petition, they’re confused,” said Wilkinsburg Councilor Linda Atkin. “It distresses me that [annexation] would be done this way based on a lot of misinformation.”

A Wilkinsburg CDC annexation committee has held meetings with residents to discuss the implications of the annexation in the last year.

Wilkinsburg Councilor Yvonne Edmunds accused the nonprofit of lying to residents but did not specify what those lies were. She objected to the nonprofit employing people who don’t live in Wilkinsburg to collect signatures.

Wilkinsburg Council members Ariel Haughton and Ian Petrulli said they favored annexation.

“Ultimately Wilkinsburgers will decide,” Petrulli said. “I don’t understand why so many people are afraid to give them that opportunity.”

Pittsburgh City Council is left with more questions than answers

Only two Pittsburgh City Council members have expressed support of the annexation as of Thursday: Councilors Corey O’Connor and Anthony Coghill. Five members would need to approve the plan in order for it to move forward.

O’Connor was not present at Thursday’s meeting, but told WESA last week that he sees the annexation as an opportunity to grow Pittsburgh’s population and earn more investment and aid from state and federal governments.

On Thursday, Coghill said he couldn’t see another route to decrease property taxes in Wilkinsburg enough to drive development there.

Other Pittsburgh Council members said they need more information on school district finances, vacant properties and plans to consolidate borough services. The two municipalities currently share fire services and garbage collection. But it’s unclear how or if the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority would absorb the Wilkinsburg Water and Sewer Authority.

Absorbing the Wilkinsburg School District into Pittsburgh would increase the service area for city school buses, according to Ira Weiss, solicitor for Pittsburgh Public Schools. The districthas already struggled this year to provide buses for its current students.

Pittsburgh Councilor Deb Gross said she received some information about these issues from the Wilkinsburg CDC, but that it wasn’t enough.

“There are summaries and there are highlights. And they are not satisfactory to me,” she said. “I don’t feel that any of us on council or members of the public have seen hard numbers.”

City Councilors Bobby Wilson and Erika Strassburger also said they needed more information.

Councilor Ricky Burgess, whose district shares a border with Wilkinsburg, said he would vote against the annexation. Burgess took issue with the process not involving Pittsburgh voters or Wilkinsburg Council.

Kail-Smith suggested council form a task force to do an independent analysis of annexations.

“I want to do it in a way that’s going to keep people there and help people in their communities,” she said. “I’m going to be very cautious as we proceed.”

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.