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Pittsburgh City Council will vote down Wilkinsburg annexation, but it's not over yet

Pittsburgh City Councilor Ricky Burgess stands with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to announce the start of a council-led investigation into annexing the Borough of Wilkinsburg.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh City Councilor Ricky Burgess stands with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to announce the start of a council-led investigation into annexing the Borough of Wilkinsburg.

Pittsburgh City Council has axed an effort to annex the Borough of Wilkinsburg.

Council members announced Wednesday they would vote against the current annexation proposal, but some say they would support it in 2023. But first, the council will begin studying how the annexation will impact Pittsburgh and allow residents more time to weigh in at public meetings.

Last month, a bill to deny the annexation was introduced to council, but Wednesday’s announcement leaves the door open for a future attempt.

Councilor Ricky Burgess, who has been among the loudest critics of the annexation, is among those in favor of reconsidering it next year.

“I am now completely convinced that the annexation of the borough of Wilkinsburg would be beneficial to both Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg,” he said at a press conference Wednesday. “In 2023, if brought before me, I will vote in favor of Wilkinsburg annexation.”

As the District 9 representative, Burgess would likely absorb most of Wilkinsburg if the annexation were to proceed.

Burgess previously said he disagreed with the speed of the annexation procedure, comparing it to a “shotgun wedding.”

In recent months, Burgess argued that he wanted to use a collaborative approach that took voters from both municipalities into consideration. However, Pennsylvania’s 1903 annexation law does not give Pittsburgh voters a chance to weigh in.

Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are excluded from using the state’s municipal consolidation procedure due to the size of the cities. That process uses a joint agreement to combine municipalities. Burgess later conceded that the 1903 procedure, which only gives a direct vote to Pittsburgh city councilors and Wilkinsburg residents, is the only path forward.

Councilors Anthony Coghill and Corey O’Connor also have spoken in favor of annexing the borough. Both have argued the annexation would boost Pittsburgh’s population and drive development in Wilkinsburg by bringing down property taxes.

At least five council members would need to support the annexation for it to move forward. While some councilors are hesitant to take a stance yet, others remain outspoken against annexing Wilkinsburg.

Council president Theresa Kail-Smith said Wednesday that she looks forward to investigating how it could proceed but still opposes absorbing Wilkinsburg.

“I’m not convinced,” she said. “I’ve not committed my vote, but I have committed to a process.”

Kail-Smith said she hopes to see the city consider annexing boroughs to the south and west of Pittsburgh.

District 3 Councilor Bruce Kraus sharply condemned the annexation at a council meeting Wednesday, arguing it would bring the gentrification seen in East Liberty to Wilkinsburg. He admonished the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation for remaining at odds with the Wilkinsburg Borough Council.

“A development corporation, against the wishes of the [borough’s] duly elected body, wishes to see this happen for one reason and one reason only … development,” he said.

Most members of Wilkinsburg’s council have been strongly against the annexation.

Pittsburgh’s council will begin a six-month investigation into how the annexation could impact the city’s finances, emergency services, school systems and other matters.

That process began Wednesday afternoon when council members heard from a list of speakers from city and county government, the police union and realty and financial experts.

Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg already share trash and fire services. Middle and high school students who live in Wilkinsburg attend Pittsburgh Public Schools.

But a solicitor for Pittsburgh Public Schools, Ira Weiss, argued there are many unknowns about how the districts would merge employees, transportation and assets.

An analysis conducted by the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation found that Pittsburgh Public Schools could expect to net between $550,000 and $760,000 by taking on the Wilkinsburg district.

But Weiss argued the report failed to analyze some key issues, including pensions, union negotiations and charter tuition rates.

Another critical question council hopes to answer is how the city will manage water service for Wilkinsburg residents. The Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority serves Wilkinsburg and Penn Hills residents.

Over the coming months, the council will attempt to answer these questions and allow residents to voice their concerns. District 7 Councilor Deb Gross argued there must be a clear plan for how the city will absorb each sector of Wilkinsburg before the issue is sent to borough voters.

“The citizens of the City of Pittsburgh and of Wilkinsburg deserve to have those answers in front of them,” she said. “And we don’t have those answers yet.”

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.