Wilkinsburg voters may soon be faced with an existential question about the future of their community: whether or not to be part of the city of Pittsburgh.
The inhabitants of the district of about 15,000 are running a signature campaign that, if successful and approved by Pittsburgh City Council, could trigger a referendum in the November general election. Registered voters in Wilkinsburg would then have the final say on the matter.
Supporters of annexation, including Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett, say the move is vital to the community’s future and would relieve residents of unusually high property taxes. However, the borough council has berated the mayor in recent months and voted in February to oppose a merger effort.
Here’s what you need to know about the situation:
Pittsburgh’s borders have hardly changed over the past century. Absorbent The 2.25 square miles of Wilkinsburg would be Pittsburgh’s largest annexation since the annexation of Allegheny City in 1907. But the border between Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg has been partially blurred in recent years thanks to shared services like firefighters and one school partnership, and economic conditions may prompt the community to take this unusual step.
Garrett, who was elected mayor in 2017, said the borough should be 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.
Property taxes in Wilkinsburg are more than double those in Pittsburgh. Wilkinsburg residents pay approximately $ 48 for every $ 1,000 of assessment on their property, while those in Pittsburgh pay about $ 23.
Tracey Evans, Director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation and one of the leaders of the merger effort, said property taxes are so high because Wilkinsburg pays more per capita for services such as public safety as it provides robust services to a few of people.
She said Wilkinsburg is an urban area “running on a suburban style budget”. She said the CDC carried out a 10-year analysis and found that taxes would eventually need to be raised even more to properly fund the borough and school district.
Some opponents fear that gentrification will follow annexation. Garrett acknowledged the concern with gentrification, but pointed out that the borough is losing population as it is and does not have a housing shortage, presenting high property taxes as an equally serious problem.
âLow-income residents are hit the hardest by staying in Wilkinsburg,â Evans said.
George Dougherty, Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the University of Pittsburgh, said local property tax rates are not the engine of gentrification. He said rehabilitation costs are much greater for potential developers, and because they are generally high in Wilkinsburg, widespread gentrification is unlikely, at least in the short term.
Are there any objections?
It is not known exactly what percentage of the population supports a merger, but it is clear that the effort will meet with opposition.
The nine-member borough council voted, 6-3, in February condemn the merger effort, ordering the CDC “to involve the Wilkinsburg Council, or cease and desist.”
The February 3 resolution stated: âThe residents of Wilkinsburg have successfully governed themselves through our duly elected representatives with a proven track record of community, sensitivity and democracy.
“Now, therefore, be it resolvedâ¦ we will remain an independent borough and reject any effort to amalgamate with the city of Pittsburgh.”
State annexation law guiding petitioners gives the district council no power over the process. Only one member of the borough council responded to requests for comment. Councilor Andre Scott, owner and resident of Wilkinsburg for 20 years, said he had mostly heard opposition from residents and had yet to show the benefits of a potential merger.
âI voted against because there was never a conversation with the board,â Scott said. âAs a resident, I would say no to the merger because I did not benefit from it. As a board member, I will leave this open to whatever the voters decide. “
When asked why the board voted so forcefully to rebuke the merger effort, Garrett said, “The change is frightening, and with that, they wouldn’t be board members.”
Garrett is not running for re-election this fall.
Long-time resident of Wilkinsburg Dorine Lowery-Coleman, a 34-year-old mother of two, opposes the merger mainly because of upbringing. She has a kindergarten and a third grade, and although Wilkinsburg middle and high school students attend city schools, she doesn’t want her kids to attend Pittsburgh public schools. [PPS] before this date.
She said she was impressed with the Wilkinsburg schools’ response to the pandemic, noting that they had received learning kits within two weeks of the March 2020 shutdown and iPads within a month. . She compared this to the much slower response from Pittsburgh Public and said she was “not confident in the attention they give to every student.”
She said another reason for her opposition was fear of gentrification. She saw what happened in parts of Pittsburgh like East Liberty nearby, and she doesn’t want developers to come to run-down Wilkinsburg and “build apartments that people can’t afford.”
What do Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg already share?
Wilkinsburg began sending middle and high school students to PPS Westinghouse Academy in 2016, and the two sides agreed to extend the agreement for six years on June 23. Garrett said this partnership saved Wilkinsburg enough money to enable a modest tax cut two years ago.
The Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire has covered Wilkinsburg since 2011 under a similar deal which Evans said saved $ 850,000 in the first year.
Evans pointed to the partnerships as further evidence that a merger would improve services and costs across the board.
What’s in Pittsburgh?
Pittsburgh City Council is expected to sign before a referendum can appear on the ballot.
Most council members did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but two said they still need to find out more about the consequences of a possible annexation before taking a position. Chair of the Board Theresa Kail-Smith says she is opposed to annexation. She met with representatives of the Wilkinsburg CDC on Thursday and said the meeting had taken her from “hell no to no”.
The Kail-Smith neighborhood is south of the Ohio River, southwest of downtown and across from Wilkinsburg, and she said she opposes annexation because the city’s existing neighborhoods, especially in her district, need increased funding and support from the city as it is.
“We’re fighting for crumbs in my neighborhood, and now [the city is] going to have 15,000 more people? Kail-Smith said. âA lot of people in the city need help. We are not reaching everyone we need to reach now.
She said she had softened her opposition slightly after the recent meeting as there could be financial benefits for the city, although she has yet to see specific numbers.
If the merger took place, Pittsburgh would collect property taxes and payroll taxes from residents of Wilkinsburg and, in turn, provide and pay for all of the services it provides to existing neighborhoods in the city.
Evans said the borough had improved its finances enough in recent years that a merger could be a “balance sheet proposition” for Pittsburgh financially.
âIt’s a lot more engaging to have this conversation when the going is good,â Evans said. “We know Wilkinsburg has a lot of assets, we know the real estate potential, we know it wouldn’t be a big burden and maybe it wouldn’t be a burden on some of our numbers.”
Evans said the CDC team planned to meet with Pittsburgh city councilors as the process progressed. Garrett said she had early conversations with city officials and received “positive feedback”, declining to be more specific.
Mayor Bill Peduto declined to comment through a spokesperson. A spokesperson for Ed Gainey, the Democratic candidate and possibly the next mayor, said Gainey would engage with Pittsburgh council members before taking a stand. If the effort results in a referendum, Gainey would not try to influence Wilkinsburg voters in any way, the spokesperson said.
The population of Wilkinsburg is approximately 5% of the size of Pittsburgh today. Annexation would make the city more diverse – Wilkinsburg is 55% black while Pittsburgh is 66% white, according to estimates from the 2019 U.S. Census.
What happens next?
The petitioners are proceeding under a Pennsylvania Annexation Act which date 1903. Clifford Levine, lawyer at Dentons Cohen & Grigsby who represents the Wilkinsburg CDC, said he reviewed the law informally with Allegheny County officials and is confident that it applies to this situation – although he knows of no examples of its use in the past .
The first step in the process is collecting signatures. The petition must include signatures equal to at least 5% of registered voters in Wilkinsburg, which is around 640. Evans said she thinks they’ve collected enough already, but the collection will continue until June.
Evans said they plan to submit the petition to the Court of Common Pleas in late June. The court must find it valid and forward it to Pittsburgh City Council for review. In the meantime, Evans said, the CDC will facilitate a public information campaign and hold a number of community discussions before any votes are taken.
If the City Council approves it by majority, a referendum will be scheduled. Pennsylvania law states that if the petition is approved between three months and 30 days before the general election, the referendum will be added to the ballot..
If the electorate votes for the merger, Wilkinsburg would become part of Pittsburgh on January 3, 2022.