Pittsburgh City Council Weighs Parks Tax Proposal

Jan 21, 2020

Pittsburgh City Council resumed discussion of the city's parks tax on Tuesday, with the introduction of legislation to collect and spend the proceeds. And some council members want strict rules about who oversees spending, and guidelines for contractors paid for by it.

City voters approved the parks tax — a half-mill levy on property values — to invest in the city's long-neglected park system last fall. The tax is to go into effect this year, but council has yet to pass the necessary enabling legislation before it can be collected. 

On Tuesday, District 4 Councilor Anthony Coghill and District 7's Deb Gross introduced legislation that would create the trust fund. The bill envisions dividing tax proceeds — which are expected to be about $10 million a year — equally among all nine council districts. 

But Councilor Ricky Burgess, of City Council District 9, said splitting the tax equally among the districts counters what the tax was initially created for. 

"Divided up into nine equal shares, you will absolutely make it an inequitable distribution," he said. "The campaign was based on building parks in communities of color and communities of low income. And to take those dollars and to redistribute them so that middle class and wealthy communities get an equal distribution of those resources is absolutely against the spirit of the tax."

In fact the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which advocated strongly for the tax, argued that it would address social-equity needs by prioritizing parks according to neighborhood poverty rates and other factors. Several of the parks it ranked as top concerns were in Burgess' district, where voters supported the tax. Coghill's constituents, meanwhile, voted no. His district's parks would only receive a fraction of the fund, according to the Conservancy's priority list. 

"I don't feel like anybody should be short-changed," Coghill said of his proposal. "[The parks] should all be up and running and in dynamite shape."

"We have to send a message that our taxpayer dollars are not for sale," Coghill said. Noting that the Carnegie Library system is also supported by an additional property tax, he said, "If you look at your property tax bill now it says city, school library, and now parks." 

Other provisions of the legislation introduced Tuesday would require that any outside contractors paid out of the trust fund would adhere to city wage and residency requirements. Under the proposal, the trust fund would be overseen by all nine City Council representatives. In a statement, Coghill said the legislation "sends a message that the democratic power of our voters is not for sale to private organizations." 

The Parks Conservancy declined to comment on Tuesday. But it has long maintained that City Council ultimately has final say over how the tax money is spent. Still, critics on council have been wary of farming out decision-making power to the nonprofit.

"We're not going to pass the buck or throw a hot potato or reallocate decision-making," Gross said. "The decision-making stays in the public's hands."

Council President Theresa Kail-Smith introduced her own bill to create a task force that would study how best to disburse the tax. She said four city councilors would serve on the task force, which could draft an alternate version of the legislation Coghill and Gross proposed today. During council discussion, she named three councilors she envisioned as taking part in that work: Burgess, Gross and Daniel Lavelle.

However, councilor Bruce Kraus said he does not think Council's voice will be heard if only a few members are on the task force. 

"Every vote counts and every vote matters," Kraus said. "It's extremely important that every voice has an equal opportunity." 

The bills are slated for further discussion next week. 

Chris Potter contributed to this story.