City Council Introduces Legislation Scrutinizing Parks Conservancy

Nov 19, 2019

Four city councilors introduced legislation on Tuesday that would scrutinize the city's relationship to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, calling for a review of all working agreements with the organization. 

The legislation would authorize the city controller to audit all the nonprofit group's contracts, agreements and leases with the city of Pittsburgh. 

The move comes after Pittsburgh voters narrowly approved a ballot question to raise property taxes in order to fund improvements to city parks. The conservancy supported the tax increase with TV ads, mailers, and other outreach likely to cost upwards of $1 million.  

But voters in three City Council districts rejected the tax, and their representatives — Anthony Coghill, Darlene Harris and Theresa Kail-Smith — joined with Deb Gross to co-sponsor the new legislation. Coghill, who represents District 4, said council will start the conversation about how the money from the taxes and Conservancy will be allocated. Tuesday's auditing bills, he said, are the first step. 

"There's a lot of concern about it," he said of how the tax will be implemented. "I'm concerned about it."

Coghill said the legislation is not due to any distrust of the Conservancy, but because it is important to scrutinize any group who wants to partner with the city by using taxpayer money. 

"It opens up a can of worms, whereas, what's to stop any [non-profit] from doing this in the future," he said. "It sets a bad precedent, more than anything. ... If you're not happy with the way I'm allocating your taxpayer dollars, you have a chance every four years to oust me. If you're not happy with the way Parks Conservancy is allocating your dollars, well, you cannot fire their director." 

The ballot question voters approved will create a trust fund to collect and administer the proceeds of the half-mill tax — the equivalent of $50 for every $100,000 of a property's assessed value. That's expected to produce about $10 million in revenue each year. The Conservancy says the money will address long-overdue capital projects and badly needed upkeep throughout the city's 165 parks. It has already been engaged in a months-long process of determining which parks have the most pressing needs for such investment. The conservancy has said it hopes to find additional private-sector funding to match the increased investment of taxpayer dollars, and that it hopes to partner with the city on the improvements.

But council must pass enabling legislation to create the fund. Coghill said councilors are waiting for the Parks Conservancy to give its plan for review. The tax is slated to go into effect next year.

The auditing legislation appeared to catch some officials off-guard. A spokesperson from Mayor Bill Peduto's office said "the administration, as usual, is happy to share with Council whatever documents it has."

The conservancy declined to comment on the legislation Tuesday. But in the past, it has said that City Council would have final say over any expenditure of taxpayer dollars.