Wilkinsburg voters may soon be faced with an existential question about the future of their community: whether or not to become part of the city of Pittsburgh.
Residents of the district around 15,000 are conducting a signature campaign which, if successful and approved by Pittsburgh City Council, could trigger a referendum in the November general election. The registered voters from Wilkinsburg would then have the final say.
Proponents of annexation, including Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett, say the move is critical to the future of the community and would relieve residents of unusually high property taxes. The local council has, however reprimanded the mayor in recent months and voted against a merger in February.
Here’s what you need to know about the situation:
Pittsburgh’s borders have changed little in the last century. Absorbent Wilkinsburg’s 2.25 square miles would be Pittsburgh’s most significant annexation since the annexation of Allegheny City in 1907. But the border between Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg has been in recent years through shared services like The fire department and a School partnership, and economic conditions could push the community to take this unusual move.
Garrett who was elected mayor 2017the district said it was proud of its economic progress over the past few years. But “the only thing stopping us from taking it to the next level is taxes,” she said.
Wilkinsburg property taxes are more than twice that of Pittsburgh. Residents of Wilkinsburg pay approx $ 48 for every estimated value of $ 1,000 on their property while those in Pittsburgh pay about $ 23.
Tracey Evans, the director of Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation and one of the leaders in the merger effort said property taxes are so high because Wilkinsburg pays more per capita for services like public safety because it provides robust services to a small number of people.
She said Wilkinsburg is an urban area “run on a suburban-style budget.” She said the CDC conducted a 10-year analysis and found that taxes would eventually need to be increased even more to properly fund the district and school district.
Some opponents fear that annexation would be followed by gentrification. Garrett acknowledged concerns about gentrification, but noted that the district is as it is and not losing housing shortages, which cites high property taxes as an equally big problem.
“Low-income residents are hardest hit by staying in Wilkinsburg,” said Evans.
George Dougherty, Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the University of Pittsburgh, said local property tax rates are not the driver of gentrification. He said redevelopment costs are far more important to budding developers, and since these are generally high in Wilkinsburg, rampant gentrification is unlikely, at least in the short term.
Is there any contradiction?
It is unclear what percentage of the population is in favor of a merger, but it is clear that the effort will face resistance.
The nine-member local council voted 6: 3 in February Condemn the merger efforts and instruct the CDC “to involve the Wilkinsburg Council or to cease to act”.
The February 3 resolution states: “The residents of Wilkinsburg have successfully governed themselves through our duly elected officials with demonstrated community, sensitivity and democracy.
“So let it be resolved now … we will remain an independent district and reject any attempt to merge with the City of Pittsburgh.”
The state nexus law governing the petitioners does not give the district council any authority over the procedure. Only one council member responded to requests for comment. Alderman Andre Scott, a homeowner and 20 year old Wilkinsburg resident, said he had mostly heard opposition from local residents and still showed the benefits of a possible merger.
“I voted against because there was never a conversation with the council,” said Scott. “As a resident, I would reject the merger because I was not given the benefits. As a council member, I leave it to what the voters decide. “
When asked why the Council voted so firmly against the merger effort, Garrett said, “The change is frightening, and that would make you councilors.”
Garrett will not run for re-election this fall.
Long-time resident of Wilkinsburg Dorine Lowery-Coleman, a 34-year-old mother of two, rejects the merger primarily because of the education. She has a kindergarten and a third grader, and while Wilkinsburg middle and high school students attend city schools, she doesn’t want her children in Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] before.
She said she was impressed with the Wilkinsburg schools’ response to the pandemic, noting that they received study packs within two weeks of the March 2020 shutdown and iPads within a month. She contrasted this with the much slower response from Pittsburgh Public, saying she has no confidence in the attention they give each student.
Another reason for their rejection is the fear of gentrification. She saw what happened in Parts of Pittsburgh like nearby East Liberty, and she doesn’t want developers to come to dilapidated parts of Wilkinsburg and “build apartments that people can’t afford.”
What do Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg already share?
Wilkinsburg began sending middle and high school students PPS’s Westinghouse Academy in 2016, and Both sides agreed on June 23 to extend the agreement for six years. Garrett said that partnership saved Wilkinsburg enough money to create a slight tax cut two years ago.
The Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire has covered Wilkinsburg since 2011 under a similar agreement that Evans said she saved $ 850,000 in the first year.
Evans cited the partnerships as further evidence that a merger would improve services and costs across the board.
What’s in it for Pittsburgh?
Pittsburgh City Council would need to be signed before a referendum can appear on the ballot.
Most council members did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but two said they needed to learn more about the consequences of a possible annexation before they could take a position. Council President Theresa Kail-Smith said she was against the annexation. She met with CDC officials in Wilkinsburg on Thursday and said the meeting took her from “hell no to no”.
Kail-Smith’s borough is south of the Ohio River, southwest of downtown and across from Wilkinsburg, and she said she was against annexation because existing neighborhoods, especially in her district, need more money and support from the city.
“We’re fighting for crumbs in my district, and now [the city is] will there be 15,000 more people? ”said Kail-Smith. “Lots of people in the city need help. We’re not reaching everyone we need to reach now. “
She said she softened her opposition a bit after the recent meeting, as there could be financial benefits for the city, although she hasn’t seen any concrete figures yet.
Should the merger take place, Pittsburgh would collect property and wage taxes from residents of Wilkinsburg and, in turn, provide and pay for all of the services it provides to the city’s existing neighborhoods.
Evans said the district has improved its finances enough in recent years that a merger could be a “break-even proposition” financially for Pittsburgh.
“It’s much more attractive to have this conversation when things are in good shape,” said Evans. “We know Wilkinsburg has a lot of assets, we know the real estate potential, we know it wouldn’t be a huge burden and some of our numbers might not be a burden.”
Evans said the CDC team plans to meet with Pittsburgh city councils as the process progresses. Garrett said she had early conversations with city officials and received “positive feedback” but refuses to be specific.
Major Bill Peduto declined to comment by a spokesman. A spokesperson for Ed Gainey, the Democratic candidate and likely the next mayor, said Gainey would look into Pittsburgh councilors before taking a position. If the efforts lead to a referendum, Gainey would not seek to influence Wilkinsburg voters one way or another, the spokesman said.
Wilkinsburg’s population is currently about 5% the size of Pittsburgh. The annexation would make the city more diverse – Wilkinsburg is 55% black while Pittsburgh is 66% white, according to 2019 US Census estimates.
What happens next?
The petitioners are acting under a Pennsylvania annexation law that Dates to 1903. Clifford Levine, Attorney at Dentons Cohen & Grigsby who represents the Wilkinsburg CDC, said they had informally reviewed the law with Allegheny County officials and were confident it applied to this situation – although he is not aware of any past example of its use.
The first step in this process is collecting signatures. The petition must contain signatures corresponding to at least 5% of the Wilkinsburg registered voters, that’s about 640. Evans said she thinks they have collected enough already, but the collection will continue through June.
Evans said they plan to file the petition with the Court of Common Pleas in late June. The court must find it valid and submit it to the Pittsburgh City Council for review. In the meantime, Evans said, the CDC will host a public information campaign and have a series of community discussions before each vote.
If the city council agrees with a majority, a referendum is called. Pennsylvania law provides that the referendum be added to the ballot if the petition is approved between three months and 30 days before a general election.
If voters vote for the merger, Wilkinsburg would become part of Pittsburgh on January 3, 2022.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Corps member of Report for America. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @chwolfson.