In Council Hearing, Differences Over Tax Hike Goals, Tactics

Sep 12, 2019

Members of Pittsburgh City Council met Wednesday to discuss a ballot measure that would raise $10 million a year for the city’s 165 parks. 

And while much of the discussion focused on the tax burden the initiative would place on residents, the meeting also aired concerns over a nonprofit’s role in the political effort, which may involve more than $800,000 in political spending.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is leading the campaign for the new tax, and it argues that the parks need $400 million in new investment. Homeowners would foot the bill through a property tax hike of $50 for every $100,000 in assessed real estate value.

But at Wednesday’s meeting, Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb said it would be a mistake to raise taxes.

“We live in a city that is among the most highest-taxed for real estate purposes in the country,” Lamb said. “And so now we’re throwing another tax on.”

Lamb added that it would be “unconscionable” to ask homeowners to pay more when large employers – such as Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC and Highmark – continue to dodge property taxes because they are nonprofits.

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy CEO Jayne Miller argued, however, that the new tax would allow for more equitable funding of the city’s parks.

“Research demonstrates … how important it is that people [are] within a 10-minute walk of a park,” Miller said. “Their ability to connect with their neighbors is better. … It improves environmental sustainability.”

While Mayor Bill Peduto supports the ballot initiative, some councilors worried they would not have enough say in deciding how to spend the revenue it would raise. Miller assured them that city council would still decide how to distribute it.

“Yes, we may manage and operate elements of the park system,” Miller said. “But we don’t own anything. They are publicly owned by the residents, and owned by the city.”

Lamb and Miller also differed over when the Parks Conservancy would be required to report campaign expenditures. Miller indicated that the conservancy would outline its spending in a form filed with the Internal Revenue Service and that it would meet the same deadlines as nominees for elected office.

“We are going to be following all of the campaign finance reporting requirements,” she said.

“I appreciate that [Miller] has suggested that they’re going to comply with the law,” Lamb said. “[T]here’s very little requirement with respect to disclosure and reporting on these kind of races.”

He added that he was troubled that the Parks Conservancy has begun to run television commercials highlighting its work. Miller said they are not campaign ads, but Lamb was skeptical.

The ads, Lamb said, are meant “to set up the next ad, which will be the advocacy ad for this [ballot] question.”

There have been rumors that the Conservancy could spend $800,000 to $1 million on campaign ads, lawn signs and other outreach to voters.

In a separate interview, Miller told WESA that those estimates were in the ballpark of what she expected to spend. Much of that money would come from the Conservancy’s own pocket.

A successful 2011 campaign to pass a tax to benefit libraries was similarly backed by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Campaign finance records show the library system spent nearly $330,000 of its own money on a campaign that cost nearly $500,000.

Miller said the Conservancy's political spending is separate from a related effort the nonprofit has been carrying out, in a series of public meetings across the city, to determine park needs and priorities.

“That’s a huge piece of what we’re doing, is making sure we educate people and they understand what the public told us and the investment strategy and why we developed it the way it was,” Miller said.

As for the political spending, Miller said, “We’ve raised over $124 million that has been invested in the city parks. So if $800,000 or $1 million is used, and we can then have hundreds of millions of dollars go back into the parks, I think that’s really important. And the reality is, that’s what it takes to run in an election these days. It’s no different than Michael Lamb’s own campaigns.”

For candidates, at least, the city of Pittsburgh has campaign-finance regulations that go beyond those outlined in state law. Those regulations limit the amount of money that a donor may give to a political candidate, and require candidates to file monthly reports of financial activity in the months leading up to an election. But those rules do not apply to ballot questions, and under state law, the conservancy would only be required to file a single spending report, less than two weeks before the election.

“There’s not a lot of transparency about where the money’s coming from, or how much money it is,” said Lamb in a separate interview with WESA.

There has already been some controversy about claims made by those circulating the petitions needed to get the measure on the ballot. The conservancy used a mix of volunteers and paid petition gatherers, and some voters have reported that circulators told them, falsely, that if the ballot measure didn’t pass, swimming pools or other parks facilities could close down.

Miller acknowledged that in some cases, circulators “would stretch things. As soon as we became aware of it, we talked to them. … We were unhappy with that but we also addressed that.” She noted that the conservancy ultimately delivered petitions with over 29,000 signatures attached – well over twice as many as it needed.

“It takes time, energy, people to make all of those things happen,” Miller told WESA.

Pittsburgh voters will decide on the proposed tax in the Nov. 5 election.