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Pittsburgh City Council questions Gainey's plan to spend parks tax

Playground at McKinley Park
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Playground at McKinley Park

Pittsburgh appears poised to dedicate a portion of its parks tax revenue to stabilize the city’s parks division before making major investments in new areas. City leaders debated how the tax will be spent during a budget hearing Thursday.

Jake Pawlak, deputy mayor and director of the city’s Office of Management and Budget, said the city has a responsibility to make up for public works maintenance that was put off for years the city spent under financial oversight.

“Recovering and rebuilding our ability to do what we can in-house in the early years of collecting the taxes is necessary in order to achieve a basic service level,” he said.

The administration’s proposal sets aside $1.6 million in revenue from the levy to purchase two dozen trucks, tractors and other vehicles. Pawlak argued the city desperately needs to replace parks maintenance vehicles, and said using parks tax dollars to do so would ensure park improvements sooner.

The parks tax is a 0.5-mill levy on property within the city. It costs $50 for each $100,000 of a property's assessed value. Voters passed the tax in 2019.

Gainey’s capital budget proposal —which is separate from the city’s operating budget — calls for spending $13,426,497 in parks tax revenue. That includes the $9 million in 2022 revenues plus unspent money from 2021. Most of that would be spent on capital projects like recreation centers, and an upgrade to the ice rink at Schenley Park.

But spending parks tax dollars on trucks and one of the city’s biggest parks — one that qualifies for other tax support — has drawn criticism from some parks advocates and city council members. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a nonprofit that championed the parks tax when it narrowly passed in 2019, has argued the plan doesn’t align with the “spirit” of the tax, which was advertised as revenue for new parks and projects.

Pawlak and other city leaders refuted that Thursday, noting that the city only plans to spend about 34% of the money on parks operations, including maintenance and salaries for 53 employees. The remaining 66% would go toward capital projects.

“We’re achieving, I think, the voter’s intention in accelerating the process by which we invest in our parks through the use of the fund as proposed here,” Pawlak said.

Councilors Erika Strassburger and Bobby Wilson also expressed concerns about the city’s decision not to spend parks tax money through the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. The city invited the nonprofit to submit a budget proposal earlier this year, but did not approve it.

Councilor Erika Strassburger noted that the Conservancy could stretch whatever investment the city provides by finding matching support through private philanthropies.

“It feels like we're leaving money on the table,” she said. “I’m concerned that could disappear if we don’t take advantage of it.”

Councilor Bobby Wilson cited similar concerns that the city was missing an opportunity.

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“They’re willing to take on the work and they can leverage more money. Isn't that cheaper for us?” he asked.

Others, including Councilor Deb Gross, argued that the city charter states that the city may partner with a conservancy, but that it doesn’t have to.

“It’s not prescriptive,” she said. Gross said the city has 53 active agreements with the Conservancy and works well with them, but she added that she was concerned about potential steps toward privatizing park operations.

The Parks Conservancy’s proposal would have dedicated most of its $2.9 million request to starting projects in McKinley Park in Beltzhoover and Allegheny Commons in the North Side. It also sought to begin planning stages for projects in Homewood, the Hill District, Spring Hill Highland Park, and Downtown.

The nonprofit’s CEO Catherine Qureshi said the parks were chosen according to an equitable investment strategy. The Conservancy produced a prioritized list of park investments in 2019.

Pawlak said the city has begun work on 15 of the top 20 projects on the list. He also noted that the city is funding that effort through multiple revenue streams, not just the parks tax.

The tennis courts at McKinley Park.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
The tennis courts at McKinley Park.

The 2023 proposal seeks to spend more than $2.8 million on improvements at McKinley Park, slightly more than $1 million of which comes from the parks tax. McKinley Park ranked second on a priority list compiled by the Conservancy.

Qureshi told WESA that the city should lean on the Conservancy’s expertise for trail upgrades at McKinley and work with them to find other funds to bolster the effort.

While a budget allocation for the Conservancy doesn’t appear to be forthcoming as the city moves towards a vote on Gainey’s proposal, Pawlak stressed that Gainey officials “celebrate and fully embrace” their relationship with the nonprofit. He said he expects to coordinate funds through the group in the future.

But for now, the city is dedicated to investing in its own capacity to care for its parks.

“I think the key question for us here is less the method of deployment of public funds and more so the necessity to catch up on our obligation, our responsibility as a city proper to make maintenance investments in assets that have been ignored for too long,” he said. “We recognize that there are basic things that we need to deliver first.”

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.