Several Pittsburgh City Council members and Controller Michael Lamb expressed concerns Wednesday over a proposed November ballot referendum asking city voters for an 0.5 mill property tax increase that would exclusively fund improvements to city parks.
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which spearheaded the initiative that is supported by Mayor Bill Peduto, said city parks face a $400 million funding gap in deferred maintenance and improvements and an annual $13 million shortfall in maintenance funds each year.
The tax increase would cost property owners $50 for every $100,000 of assessed value and is expected to raise about $10 million annually. The conservancy’s goal is to match that with private foundation funding, according to Jayne Miller, the conservancy’s president and CEO.
The money would be held in a trust fund to be used exclusively for park maintenance, capital projects, repairs and programming.
Miller said the conservancy has raised about $7.5 million a year on average.
“Our intent is not only to use the referendum dollars, but continue our private fundraising so that in total our goal is to bring $20 million to the table to take care of the park system,” Miller said after a council fact-finding meeting on the initiative. “If we’re able to bring an additional $20 million between the referendum and what we raise privately, that’s really significant in terms of closing the gap.”
The city has 165 parks, including the Emerald, Frick, Highland, Riverview and Schenley regional parks, that receive annual funding from the Allegheny Regional Asset District. RAD funding comes from one-half of the proceeds from the 1% sales tax in Allegheny County, collected in addition to the 6% state sales tax.
Councilwoman Darlene Harris and Lamb said homeowners, particularly the elderly and low-wage earners, are overburdened by real estate taxes and suggested the city pay for park improvements through annual budget allocations. They also said large nonprofits, which have resisted attempts for years by the Peduto administration for an agreement to pay annual contributions in lieu of taxes, should fund the park initiative.
“You have the large nonprofits out there who do not give one dime to the city,” Harris said. “This is a tax on anyone who owns a home in the city and this hurts our most vulnerable people who live here.”
Lamb noted that nearly every city asset was underfunded for more than a decade when the city was facing bankruptcy and under state financial oversight. The city is now generating annual surpluses amounting to millions, he said.
“We’re finally coming out of a horrible financial situation and the fact that the parks are going to have to catch up just like everything else is just reality,” he said.
Other city council members expressed concerns over control of the trust fund and parks.
Under the plan, the parks would remain city property and Pittsburgh would share management responsibilities through an existing agreement with the conservancy. Council would have oversight of all money expended from the trust fund.
All parks would be eligible for funding, but those with the most needs will receive the first attention.
Peduto said his goal is to have a park or playground within a 10-minute walk of every home in Pittsburgh.
“A lot of people have asked why not just use the budget. We have disinvested so far from our neighborhood playgrounds, our courts, our parks that they are now in such a state of disrepair that they need a major overhaul, just like when they were created over 100 years ago,” he said. “Our goal is to have a great park system in the city that will be something that would make people want to live in the city.”