City Parks Tax Passes Narrowly, With Pledge To 'Improve Every Park' In Pittsburgh

Nov 5, 2019

Supporters of a city of Pittsburgh ballot initiative to pay for park improvements with a property tax hike declared victory Tuesday night. With all but a handful of voting districts reporting in, the measure appeared to have won the approval of just over half of city voters.

That margin was good enough for Jayne Miller, the president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Tuesday night she said the win was the result of “a lot of incredible hard work with lots of people” and hailed the fact that the tax was approved by voters in seven of nine city council districts.  

The levy voters approved will raise property taxes by a half-mill — the equivalent of $50 on a property valued at $100,000. The proceeds will be placed in a trust fund that has yet to be created. 

“The next step is working with the city ... to implement this plan and determine what will the city do, what will the conservancy’s contribution [be]. And let’s implement it and improve every park in every neighborhood in the city,” Miller told reporters.

The tax was championed by the conservancy, which argued that the city’s 165 parks required some $400 million in deferred capital spending, exacerbated by yearly shortfalls in maintenance. Miller said making up the backlog at the city’s current rate of spending would take a century. And she touted the initiative as a social-justice measure, one that would prioritize spending in long-neglected neighborhoods with concentrations of poverty.  

Skeptics, meanwhile, worried that the conservancy would have too much control over how tax proceeds would be spent, and argued that it was unfair to raise taxes on residents when some of the city’s largest employers – including nonprofit behemoths like UPMC – remained largely exempt from local taxation.  

While it isn’t necessarily easy to convince voters to approve a tax hike on themselves, Tuesday night’s outcome isn’t entirely surprising. City voters approved a similar 2011 ballot question to raise taxes to shore up the library system, and backed a proposal to create a fund for children’s services (though the latter initiative failed countywide).

This year’s measure was backed by Mayor Bill Peduto, and campaign finance records showed the conservancy was on track to spend the better part of $1 million on political ads – often in the form of mailings and TV ads – alongside an “educational” outreach effort to let voters know about park priorities.

Opposition to the tax, by contrast, was more scattershot, voiced by a handful of Pittsburgh city councilors and other officials.

“There was significant money being spent for the pro-parks message, and it went virtually unanswered,” said City Controller Michael Lamb, a vocal foe of the tax. Given that fact, and an election where turnout was in the range of 25 percent, “It’s hard to say it means anything when there’s a void on the other side.”

The debate over the proposal is not over. City Council must now pass enabling legislation to create the trust fund as envisioned by the ballot question itself. Lamb says that decision will be “the real opprtunity to control the funding. It’s the one thing they have. You have to make sure the money doesn’t get released from the trust fund without council’s approval.”

City Councilor Deborah Gross said she had already begun conversations with her colleagues. Some may argue that council should defer to whatever agreement the Peduto administration works out, she said, but “I think there are issues about accountability and how equitably the funds are being distributed. We each have a vote, and I would call on them to make sure we have the transparency and equity we need.”