Vote “No” on the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Tax Referendum

Another year, another ballot referendum trying to circumvent the “no taxation without representation” theory of governance.

This time it is the Parks Conservancy which wants funding for parks and doesn’t want the hassle of going through the normal City budgeting process. So 2018.

The question would ask voters whether they support raising property taxes starting in 2020 by 0.5 mill — about $50 on every $100,000 of assessed real estate value — to pay for maintenance, rehabilitation, capital projects and programming at the city’s 165 parks, particularly the smaller community and neighborhood parks.

And allocation decisions would be made by a board, not City Council – you know, the folks we elect to make tax and spend decisions whom we can then hold accountable at the ballot box. The board? The public doesn’t elect them. Or unelect them.

Why can’t we just raise City taxes to cover the admittedly important needs to maintain our City parks? The Mayor says the money isn’t there. So why can’t the City raise property taxes directly instead of through an unelected public-private cooperative?

I have an answer, but let me focus on a more pressing issue.

The parks, while important, are NOT the most pressing issue facing the City of Pittsburgh. Not even in the top five. And we have City verified data to confirm this. In fact, two of the MORE critical issues facing the City of Pittsburgh include the quality of life for Black residents and affordable housing.

Just this past week, the City released “Pittsburgh’s Inequality across Gender and Race” a 96-page report detailing the confirmation that Pittsburgh is NOT the most livable at all.

“What this means is that if Black residents got up today and left and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S., automatically by just moving their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up as well as their employment,” said study co-author Junia Howell, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Better parks are probably not going to have a direct impact on that reality. Indirectly and over time, yes. But the Gender Equity Report illustrates that there are immediate life-threatening needs for our Black residents that the City must address yesterday including income disparity, maternal health, and police referrals from our public schools.

With regard to affordable housing (certainly an issue when it comes to inequity), the City has struggled to prioritize funding to address the lack of affordable housing for City residents. But in spite of that taxation with representation approach, the City lags in this area – another City report found that we have a gap of 20,000 units. And that’s just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to the struggle for affordable housing.

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It seems like the Conservancy is doing okay with the resources they have. The parks are flourishing, they can provide meals, childcare, and accessibility at public meetings, they have investments from local foundations. They have 38 employees. They have a budget of more than $7.7 million. They were able to spend $200,000 to pay people to gather signatures. They were able to hire boutique political consulting firm Ampersand to manage this effort.

This all suggests that they would be solid stewards for an innovative public-private partnership to improve our parks. I’m not disputing their qualifications to address what are serious problems with an important local resource. Being able to rally these resources to pass their referendum suggests they know what they are about.

  • I’m questioning if we should prioritize $10 million in property tax revenue for parks when we have more urgent needs on the table.
  • I’m questioning if a board that is not elected by the taxpayers should be managing tax revenue.
  • I’m questioning the disproportionate tax burden on low and moderate income homeowners, especially with so many tax decisions coming down the pike (think PWSA and green infrastructure mandates.)
  • I’m questioning why the Mayor shies away from budgeting $10 million for parks or going on the record raising taxes to do so. I suspect it may be a way to deflect further criticism along the lanes of “Bikelane Bill” but still participate in the benefits of more robustly funded parks. To be fair, I think the bike lanes are great and it is a silly distraction by his opponents.
  • I’m questioning the lack of attention to urban wildlife and homeless domestic animals, as well as adult human beings, who live in these parks and are not part of the policy discussion.

I’m not the only one with questions.

Brian O’Neill at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has questions.

Carrick residents have questions.

Much like the failed effort to tax County residents to fund children’s programs, I find this to be an improper use of public funds and resources. If I had to pick, I’d rather pay extra each year to fund children’s programming and supports, to be honest, because there’s a more likely immediate benefit for the most vulnerable among our neighbors. The same cannot be said for parks improvements.

As with the failed Children’s Fund effort, I agree that taxation by ballot referendum is ridiculous. This feels like an elaborate work around for the Mayor to tamp down his reputation for bike lanes and that’s not good governance.

Democrats should be willing to grapple with taxation, not dodge it.

I don’t dispute that parks are important and conservancy is critical, particularly in the wake of growing awareness of the impact of climate change. But all things considered, I do not believe this is the best use of tax dollars. Much like our elected officials, we must consider all things – the big picture – when making these decisions, even if it is “just $50” for most homeowners. So let the Foundations step forward and let us find more creative solutions to fund our park needs. But let us also keep perspective on the actual most important asset of the region – the people who live here. If we cannot afford to prioritize park conservancy right now, that’s a reality we must accept and address.

These referendums are piecemeal approaches to systemic issues. We need a coordinated, comprehensive plan around conservancy of land, water, air and wildlife to be funded. Our Commonwealth has terrible strangulations on local authorities resulting in ridiculous taxing structures. These are real problems. We can’t referendum our way out of them.

Mayor Peduto has 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.”

Our goal should be to address more fundamental reasons why people do not want to or cannot live in our City.

Now, what are we going to do about the effects of racism on City residents?


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  • Just say no . The PPC is a nemesis to public parks . Occupy Frick , Occupy Schenley .

  • The PPC gets RAD monies, city funding, but does not have to answer to the people of PGH . Just like our non public libraries. They take our tax money , but not our input. I supported the tax for libraries but certainly not the Dowd Grab . The PPC got $ 20 million for that absurd FEC -Frick Environmental Center. FEC is an oxymoron . Environmentalism cannot be taught from a building where a park and natural habitat had bee, That old Frick was razed, bulldozed , wildlife decimated to make that FEC monstrosity. No moral claim what so ever to teach, unless they are teaching fraud and mendacity. The new head of PCC gets close to a quarter million dollars a year. Tell the PPC to take a hike. I also want to see the electric bills for the so called net zero bamboozel. I am sure if the FEC were really net zero they would be more $ 25, 000 signs along Forbes to taut it. YES , 25 signs for ?25,000 each to say “Frick Park ” Thieves , take our public parks back. Occupy Schenley , Occupy Frick,

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