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City controller suggests Pittsburgh's parks tax spending priorities are misaligned

McKinley Park
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
McKinley Park

As Pittsburgh begins shaping its 2024 budget, a familiar argument about a controversial tax is echoing through the City-County Building. In a report released Tuesday, City Controller Mike Lamb criticized city leaders for spending parks tax revenue on equipment instead of improvement projects in disinvested parks.

City voters approved the parks tax in 2019 by a narrow margin of 52% to 48%. Supporters touted the tax — a 0.5-mill levy on property within the city that costs $50 for each $100,000 of a property's assessed value — as a means to rehabilitate long-neglected neighborhood parks, especially those in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of poverty.

But in his report Lamb argues, "It’s hard to look at how the funds have been spent so far and say the city has been living up to those promises.”

The tax generated $9.7 million in 2021 and another $9.6 million last year. Even so, “Members of City Council and two separate mayoral administrations have struggled to find consensus as to how allocations should be made,” Lamb said.

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The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which led the charge for the tax in 2019, set a priority list of projects ranked by “community need,” based on factors like park conditions, high neighborhood poverty rates, and the local population of youth and elderly residents.

But Lamb found that under former Mayor Bill Peduto, only three of the 13 capital investments made with parks tax revenue in 2022 were ranked in the conservancy’s top 20 priorities. In 2023 under Mayor Ed Gainey, just four of the 33 capital investments with parks tax revenue ranked among the Conservancy’s top 20.

Lamb pointed out that both Peduto and Gainey spent part of the tax revenue on vehicles instead: The city has spent about $3 million in parks tax money on public works vehicles.

Lamb’s concerns echo those expressed by some members of City Council last year as well as the Parks Conservancy, which was extremely critical of the 2023 budget after their request for a $2.9 million allocation was denied.

Administration officials have defended the vehicle investments in the past. "Recovering and rebuilding our ability to do what we can in-house in the early years of collecting the taxes is necessary," deputy mayor Jake Pawlak told council last year.

The debate seems likely to emerge once again this year: Gainey’s preliminary budget spends another $716,400 on public-works vehicles. Pawlak has argued that this investment too is needed to help reverse years of neglect of its public works fleet. He said often public-works vehicles are neglected in favor of police, fire and EMS equipment.

“It’s certainly supplementing what we would be spending on vehicles and equipment,” Pawlak said of the parks tax expenditures earlier this month.

Unlike last year, the 2024 preliminary budget envisions spending $1.3 million in parks tax proceeds to support four major park upgrade projects — in Mellon, Frick, McKinley and Riverview parks — with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

But Lamb criticized the use of tax dollars on regional parks like Frick and Riverview, which already have a designated source of funding. Those parks, along with Schenley and Highland parks, are guaranteed a share of proceeds from Allegheny County’s 1% Regional Asset District sales tax.

As the rules are currently written, city parks tax dollars can be spent on larger parks too. Lamb argued the language that authorizes the tax is too “vague,” and said the city needs to set “clear and fair guidelines” about spending.

The Controller’s report includes its own ranking of park needs, and while its priorities differ sharply from assessments made by the conservancy, the city's budget hasn't prioritized those assets either. The city's expenditures have bypassed all but four of the parks the report identifies as most in need of investment.

And while the report acknowledged its priority list was “limited in scope," it called on City Council to draft more rigorous guidelines about determining eligible use for tax proceeds. That would, it said, “prioritize equity as originally envisioned.”

He suggested that Council allow a set percentage of revenue to cover “citywide neighborhood park needs,” which could include vehicles and equipment. The report recommends collaborating community stakeholders to create an equity scoring system to set ensure the tax met its "original purpose of building park equity in underserved neighborhoods.”

Council could earmark a set portion of parks tax revenue to purchase vehicles and other infrastructure that would serve the park system as a whole, the report suggested.

“With the right spending guidelines in place," Lamb said, "we can revitalize parks in the worst disrepair, reduce inequities in the delivery of city services, and bring a world-class park system to all of our residents."

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.