Pittsburgh City Councilor Ricky Burgess introduced legislation Tuesday that would adopt a nonprofit group's plan for determining how to spend money generated by a new parks tax.
Voters narrowly approved a “parks tax” property hike of 0.5 mills last fall, after a campaign in which the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy spent upwards of $1 million to encourage a "yes" vote. In Council chambers Tuesday morning, Burgess said that money from the tax should be spent according to the Conservancy's own vision.
"There was a campaign to get voters to vote for the tax and this plan was the vehicle by which the campaign was justified," Burgess told reporters after the meeting. "Since the vote of the residents was based on this plan, we should adopt it as officially the city's plan so that the voters will receive the benefits as they were promised."
The Burgess legislation continues a debate that council has been having all year: how best to divide the $10 million the tax is supposed to create.
Burgess’ bill adopts a Conservancy proposal titled “Restoring Pittsburgh Parks,” which the conservancy touted as the result of a protracted public-outreach campaign last year. The plan recommends spending more on parks maintenance and upkeep across the board. But when it comes to making long-term capital improvements, the plan envisions prioritizing parks in communities with large minority populations and high rates of poverty.
The Conservancy said it is "pleased" with Burgess' bill.
"The Parks Plan, developed by the Parks Conservancy in partnership with the City of Pittsburgh, is a comprehensive equitable investment strategy, driven by data and community input," it said in a statement. "Ultimately, it is the plan that the people of Pittsburgh voted ‘yes’ to on November 5, 2019."
The Conservancy plan lists 20 parks it said were top priorities based on such factors. Burgess’ own District 9 has a handful of parks that appear on that list, but not every city neighborhood has as much to gain.
Only four of the Conservancy’s priority parks are south of the rivers. Only one, McKinley Park, is located in council District 4, where a majority of voters opposed the tax. District 4 Councilor Anthony Coghill originally sought to spend the money equally in all nine council districts.
Burgess said Tuesday he had been frustrated by the debate over parks spending, which he said ignored the fact that parks in minority neighborhoods had long been neglected.
"Part of my chagrin has been that I think we have been talking about it without understanding its input,” he said. “It's designed to help every district, every community in the city of Pittsburgh. In context, every person in every resident in every neighborhood gets touched. It's just the capital, where we are rebuilding the parks, calls for an equity component."
Coghill later abandoned his proposal to spend equal sums in each district. Council President Theresa Kail-Smith assigned he and Burgess to jointly represent council in talks with the mayor’s office about how to implement the tax.
Coghill said Tuesday that didn’t happen. “I had zero notice of it,” he said of Burgess’ bill.
On Tuesday afternoon, Kail-Smith said she wanted to speak Burgess directly about his new legislation. "I’m sure he’s just trying to force a conversation that he really wants to have about fairness and equity. But at the same time, they [Burgess and Coghill] were working together. ... I just want them to work together to come up with a legislation."
The mayor's office said it received Burgess’ bill on Tuesday, and was reviewing it.
Coghill also said that he and councilor Deb Gross are still awaiting the completion of an audit from the City Controller's office, which is reviewing the city's contracts and agreements with the Conservancy. He said he's hesitant to move forward with the organization until that work is completed.
Gross, too, expressed doubts about adopting the Parks Conservancy plan outright.
"Even though voters - by a slim margin - supported the referendum, that was not an endorsement of the Parks Conservancy as an organization," Gross said. "Nor was it, I don't see it, as an endorsement of this plan that I do not believe many public citizens have read or know about. ... I am not sure why anyone would rush off and commit to a plan that most citizens have not endorsed, or let alone, read."