Airport credit & that parks tax

Airport credit & that parks tax

Perhaps the most bended, folded, stapled and otherwise mutilated part of the Pennsylvania Constitution is Article VIII, Section 8:

Commonwealth Credit Not to Be Pledged

The credit of the Commonwealth shall not be pledged or loaned (sic) to any individual, company, corporation or association nor shall the Commonwealth become a joint owner or stockholder in any company, corporation or association.

But, of course, that prohibition never has stopped government types of all stripes from doing just that. Raise the point of order that is Article VIII, Section 8, and officials either feign ignorance or allow their ignorance to shine.

Which brings us to the $1.1 billion (at least) rejiggering of Pittsburgh International Airport. While officials like to claim that no “local tax dollars” will be used, there’s plenty of public money in the project.

Actually, since the airport is run by the Allegheny County Airport Authority – a public authority — any money involved is “public money.”

But more to the constitutional point, because the authority plans to use state-allocated dollars – think gambling money – to leverage even more money, the state is, in fact, guaranteeing the debt of the Airport Authority.

And that, dear constitutional aficionados, is in direct violation of Article VIII, Section 8.

Authority officials likely will rationalize that since the Airport Authority is not an “individual, company, corporation or association,” the commonwealth is not proscribed from lending its credit by helping to guarantee its debt.

Of course, it would be the same authority and its board-appointing puppet masters, operating as if they answer to no one, who have balked at having any state oversight on its board of directors.

Oh, the irony of the dichotomy.

The push is on by those seeking the 12,467 petition signatures required to put a tax referendum on the November ballot that would raise City of Pittsburgh property taxes to help fund city parks, now “run” by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

The tax — $50 on each $100,000 of assessed value – would raise an estimated $10 million annually. Local philanthropies supposedly would match that amount.

Five of the city’s 165 parks already receive money from the Regional Asset District (RAD), its funds derived from a countywide piggyback sales tax. Parks officials say they need millions more dollars annually, and from another source, to maintain and upgrade the rest of the city’s parks.

What a shame, however, that diving deeper into taxpayer pockets always seems to be the default position of those promoting this or that form of “renaissance.”

After all, there are other pots of existing taxpayer dollars that could help cover these parks expenses.

Let’s start with the $3 million in RAD money that annually goes to the Port Authority of Allegheny County. Considering that a county transit support fund already easily meets its obligations (to provide a 15 percent match for state transit funding) from drink and car rental taxes, the RAD could earmark that money for city parks needs.

Then there’s another pot of money that could be tapped, as Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill astutely noted this month.

It’s an estimated $9.5 million total between now and 2026 from expiring 10-year tax abatements under LERTA, the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance program. That’s about another $1.6 million a year.

So, there’s $4.6 million already available, yearly and at least into 2026, in easily identifiable dollars, nearly half of what’s supposedly needed for the philanthropic match. Surely a harder look-see could shake loose the $5.4 million balance, yes?

And, just as surely, that’s a far better option than slapping yet another tax on City of Pittsburgh property owners.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).