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Pittsburgh parks tax spending draws little fire in council session

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

The Pittsburgh parks tax has been a source of controversy since voters narrowly passed it in a ballot question four years ago. But a discussion of the issue before City Council drew few fireworks Monday, with some councilors saying they were not displeased with how the proceeds are being used.

The post-agenda discussion came several weeks after City Controller Michael Lamb’s office issued a report on the use of parks tax funds. The report contended that proceeds from the tax, a property levy that amounts to $50 for each $100,000 of a parcel’s value, were not being allocated consistent with promises that the money would be targeted toward areas with the greatest need.

“A lot of the money that has been budgeted hasn’t been spent, and a lot of the money that has been spent hasn’t been spent in a way that was originally envisioned,” Lamb told council on Monday.

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He noted that the 2019 campaign in favor of the tax, spearheaded by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, had stressed that the money should be used to enhance parks in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and other indices of need.

Lamb, who opposed the tax, said "the campaign that was built around it talked almost exclusively about new money for new projects. And what we're seeing is that the spending hasn’t really done that. The spending has been [for] more maintenance-type expenditures.” And he said there was little sign that spending targeted needy communities, as measured either by a Conservancy metric or one devised by his office.

Officials with Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration, which has been administering the tax proceeds since he took office in 2022, disputed that account.

Deputy Mayor Jake Pawlak argued that viewing spending in terms of only parks tax revenue, which is disbursed from a trust fund, is misleading.

“When you look at parks tax revenue and bond revenues going to parks and other forms of investment,” Pawlak said, “our total investment, I think, does align with those prioritization mechanisms” used by the Parks Conservancy and Lamb’s own report.

Pawlak also pushed back on criticism that parks tax money had been used to purchase trucks, and to invest in large regional parks such as Schenley and Riverview, which already are slated to receive funding from a county sales tax. The city’s expenditure of more than $1 million to upgrade Schenley’s ice rink provoked criticismfrom the conservancy last year.

But Pawlak said the trucks would be used outside the parks only to help plow streets in snow emergencies, and he argued that city residents benefit from amenities such as the Schenley ice rink, too.

“None of our community parks have an ice rink,” he said. “So, we think it’s a disservice to all residents to not use additional funding if we need it” to make improvements on such features.

In any case, several council members — including those who vocally opposed passing the 2019 tax — made clear they didn’t feel particularly bound by promises made by tax supporters on the city’s behalf.

During that effort, the Parks Conservancy released a list of city parks ranked by their need for investment, as gauged by a number of demographic and other factors. But Lamb’s report offered its own ranking of need, and there was often little overlap between the two lists.

And on Monday, Councilor Deb Gross said such measurements were imprecise and “did not look at our people who have needs. We still have the opportunity to correct that mistake, and we should.”

Gross also said that taking care of parks “doesn’t have to be just a brand-new piece of playground equipment. … When your spray park feature isn’t working, we just need to fix it.

“Maintenance really truly is investment,” she said.

“I have to say that I’ve been hearing a lot of good feedback from folks at Riverview in terms of maintenance and some of our other parks,” said Bobby Wilson. “It does feel good to hear that feedback because once all those workers are in place, all the trucks are in place, that will only get better.”

Nor did councilors object to the idea that a truck purchased with parks tax money might be used during a snowstorm: Anthony Coghill jokingly asked, “Can we justify a fire engine?”

While Coghill was a vocal foe of the parks tax, he said, "I’ll be honest with you: I’ve been happy with the investment made in Moore Park,” a Brookline facility that has recently received improvements to its pool and other features.

And unlike in 2022, where the Conservancy complained of being left out in the cold by Gainey’s capital budget for this year, the nonprofit is expected to handle $1.3 million worth of improvements in the year to come.

Lamb himself acknowledged later in the meeting that the city has done “moderately well” in using parks tax money to make new investments.

“The fact that we are bringing new resources to maintenance that we weren’t before satisfies the goal” to some extent, he said. But he added, “I would still argue that we're still spending some of that money on things that weren't intended. When we are buying vehicles and those vehicles are not exclusively intended for the parks, well, that's money that is not intended for the parks.”

Councilors did acknowledge a need for a more systemic approach to parks investment, likely as part of a citywide comprehensive plan effort to begin next year. The plan, which will entail broad changes to zoning and other rules, would consider the needs of neighborhoods not just in isolation but as part of a whole.

“There’s value in saying, citywide, ‘Here’s what’s important,’” said Daniel Lavelle.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.