Ballot question on parks: a look at 2020 city spending

Ballot question on parks: a look at 2020 city spending

In two weeks Pittsburgh voters will decide a home rule charter amendment that would create a trust fund for parks with an additional 0.5 mill property tax.  Based on budgeted city property tax collections ($147 million for 2019) and current millage (8.06) a 0.5 mill would raise around $9.1 million annually. Approval would add a new article to the city charter.  

The charter has been amended 17 times but never to raise a city tax. The City Clerk’s office was not aware of any defeated questions that sought to do so.  In 2011 voters approved a non-charter property tax levy of 0.25 mill for the Carnegie Library System. 

A look at the proposed 2020 operating and capital budgets sheds some light on how the city plans on spending money related to parks next year:

  • On the operating side, there is the Department of Parks and Recreation, budgeted at $4.7 million with 46.5 full-time equivalent employees (FTE). 
  • The Department of Public Works operations division is budgeted at $12 million and 267 FTE; it is not clear from the budget what portion of this division constitutes the six park maintenance divisions in Public Works.   
  • There are at least five current trust funds related to parks.  Funding from the 1 percent Regional Asset District (RAD) sales tax is directed to two to support the five parks designated as regional assets: one for Public Works and one for Parks and Recreation.  Combined the budgeted expenditures are $7.4 million with 75.6 FTE. 
  • On the capital side there are three items that are explicitly related to parks: reconstruction at $8.5 million, reconstruction for RAD parks at $2.3 million and play area improvements at $0.4 million.  Another three-quarters of $1 million is related to trails, sport facilities and a golf course. 

From the proposed article it appears that the parks trust fund would hold revenue from the 0.5 mill tax, “monies and contributions from additional sources” which would include the five existing trust funds and any private donations to the parks.  It would be the responsibility of the City Controller’s office to annually audit the fund, a task that would be quite complex given the relationship between the city, RAD and the Parks Conservancy, the major backer of the ballot question. 

As voters prepare to head to polls and are deliberating the question they need to consider how the proposed tax increase would affect their property tax payments and how the city plans to spend on this existing function next year when the proposed tax would go into effect.  Amending the charter once the tax and the trust fund are created and placed into it would be a major obstacle.