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Parks Conservancy calls on Pittsburgh to spend parks tax on neglected parks, not equipment

A local nonprofit, and some city leaders, say that Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey's proposed 2023 spending budget could break promises made to taxpayers when they passed a parks tax three years ago.

The parks tax costs property owners $50 for every $100,000 their property is worth. And Mayor Ed Gainey’s 2023 capital budget proposal sets aside $1.6 million in revenue from the levy to purchase two dozen trucks, tractors and other vehicles. Pittsburgh’s Office of Management and Budget director, Jake Pawlak, argued at a recent budget hearing that the city needs to replace its outdated park maintenance equipment. After that, he said, money should be spent on new projects.

“It’s mostly the replacement of vehicles that have reached the end of their useful life,” Pawlak said. He claimed many trucks used by the parks maintenance division are at least 14 years old, which is beyond the 10-year standard set by the city.

But in 2019, supporters touted the parks tax — which narrowly passed by a margin of 52-48 percent — as a means to rehabilitate long-neglected neighborhood parks, especially those in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of poverty. And the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the nonprofit that led the campaign for the tax, wants the city to spend the money on new projects instead.

“The city’s proposed use of the parks tax funds for vehicles and existing staff are items that are standard municipal expenses, not additional investment,” said Catherine Qureshi, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

Pawlak said the parks maintenance division has a “disproportionate concentration” of older vehicles compared to other city departments — and that such vehicles are more expensive to maintain. He said addressing the problem with revenues “that are by definition dedicated only to parks” would reverse a failure to prioritize investment in previous administrations.

“All of the expenditures we’ve proposed … are all things that we know we would not have been able to include within the general fund,” he said.

Gainey’s budget proposal does invest in some parks the Conservancy has said should be prioritized. The administration seeks to spend more than $2.8 million on improvements at McKinley Park. Slightly more than $1 million of that money comes from the parks tax. McKinley Park, located in the city's southern "hilltop" neighborhoods, ranked second on a priority list compiled by the Conservancy.

McKinley Park
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
McKinley Park

But Gainey’s proposal calls for an even larger investment of parks tax revenue — $1.3 million — on a new refrigeration system for the ice rink at Schenley Park in Oakland.

Qureshi objected to that as well. Back in 2019, tax advocates stressed that parks tax money should not be spent on large destination parks, like Schenley, that already qualify for money from Allegheny County’s 1 percent Regional Asset District sales tax. And the Schenley ice rink project itself will get $2 million in RAD support next year, according to the city budget.

“The spirit of the parks tax was and still is to invest in parks that have seen historic disinvestment,” Quershi said. “[T]he parks tax should prioritize neighborhood and community parks that are not eligible for RAD dollars.”

Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb, who opposed the tax in 2019, echoed those concerns. Lamb notes the city legislation which enabled the tax is vague enough that the city isn’t necessarily breaking any rules. But he said it may be breaking promises.

“What was clear about the parks tax was that it was to be new money for new projects,” said Lamb. “That’s what people voted on. And they’re not living up to that standard with this budget.”

But Maria Montaño, Gainey's spokesperson, said the Schenley refrigeration system is a key priority to keep "the only publicly-owned ice rink in the city" functional for years to come.

"It's important for us to do the work to keep this rink open," she stressed.

The Conservancy has also criticized the city for not allocating money to the nonprofit itself. According to a spokesperson, the group proposed a $2.9 million allocation in the city budget, most of which would go toward projects that can begin immediately.

The Conservancy stresses that doing so would be a wise move since the nonprofit could stretch the tax dollars further by using them to leverage support from other charitable foundations.

“We could match those funds from foundations and other private gifts, thereby enabling significantly increased investment in Pittsburgh's parks,” said Alana Wenk, director of Philanthropy and Public Engagement at the Conservancy. “We have funders committed to providing those matches only if the City allocates Parks Tax funds to the Parks Conservancy.”

But while Lamb agreed the tax revenue should be spent on projects the conservancy would support, he pushed back on the idea that the Conservancy itself should receive funding.

“I don’t think that their name would ever appear in the capital budget,” he said. “There would be a funding of projects, not a funding of organizations.”

City Council president Theresa Kail-Smith said she’s been reviewing the matter and meeting with council members to hear about priorities. “That’s what the budget will reflect” when it receives final approval, she said.

She said council is consulting its legal team to determine whether it’s appropriate to allocate revenue to the Conservancy.

Kail-Smith doesn’t doubt that the parks division needs to upgrade its equipment.

“The question is whether or not the money for equipment should be coming from the parks tax,” she said. “I think an argument can be made for both.”

Qureshi is hopeful conversations with the city could redirect funds to more closely align with the Conservancy’s priorities. She said the organization “looks forward to working more to [improve] the community and neighborhood parks that have not seen investment in decades.”

Corrected: November 28, 2022 at 7:00 AM EST
This story was updated to correct the parks tax rate.
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.