Parks matter. They matter to people, neighborhoods, and cities. They belong to the people, are free, and are the most democratic spaces in a community.
And Parks make a difference. They fuel local economies, improve our health, clean and cool the air, clean and manage stormwater, increase personal wealth, renew the spirit, and create community. Multiple studies prove these are not just starry-eyed claims. There are national and global examples of the transformative impact of well-cared-for park systems.
But in Pittsburgh, we have for decades starved our 160 community and neighborhood parks of the resources they need to matter and truly make a difference. What resources the City has had, or that the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has been able to raise from private sources, have been devoted to our five biggest parks.
On Nov. 5, voters in the City of Pittsburgh will have the opportunity to approve a referendum that would generate approximately $10 million annually dedicated solely for the restoration of the parks system. This additional funding would be generated through an increase of .5 mills on all assessed real estate within the City. The tax amounts to $50 on every $100,000 of assessed real estate value. The Parks Conservancy would work to match these funds. Currently, the Conservancy raises close to $8 million annually.
Dedicated City workers and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy worked for the last year quantifying the need in each of Pittsburgh’s 165 parks. The numbers are staggering — a minimum $400 million backlog on capital projects, plus an annual maintenance deficit of $13 million. Over a 20-year span, this amounts to an annual parks budget deficit of $33 million. The Parks Conservancy and City together developed the Parks Plan, a long-term equitable and detailed investment strategy that will provide much-needed resources to all 165 parks for maintenance, rehabilitation, capital projects, and programming. For example, the Parks Plan will provide $33.6 million for park maintenance and rehabilitation in the first six years.
A handful of the larger city parks are already funded through the Regional Asset District (RAD) tax. However, monies collected from the RAD tax, amounting to approximately $7.5 million in 2019, can only be applied to the five largest parks in the system, the regional parks, consisting of Frick, Schenley, Highland, Riverview, and Emerald View. This leaves 160 parks without this funding stream. The real-world impact can best be seen in the breakdown of the Department of Public Works’ (DPW) workforce. DPW employs approximately 70 workers to maintain the regional parks, those with RAD tax funding, leaving slightly more than 30 workers to maintain and upkeep the 160 parks that do not have this additional revenue stream. It’s an impossible task.
Questions have been raised about the parks referendum, including where the money will go and who will determine how the money will be spent. All funds received from the parks tax will be under the direct control of the City. How the City determines what organization (i.e. the City, the Conservancy) does the work laid out in the Park Plan is up to City Council and the Mayor. Any public resources allocated to the Parks Conservancy will be through a contract or agreement that City Council will have to approve. The Parks Conservancy would have the same level of public accountability, requirements, and transparency as any public entity for use and spending of public dollars which will be spelled out in the contract or agreement with the Conservancy. The Parks Conservancy would also be responsible to raise private funds for improvement of all the parks.
The claim that the referendum will lead to privatization of the parks is just plain false. The Parks Conservancy does not own, and will never own, any of the park assets that we have or will improve or invest in. If the referendum passes, the City will continue to own and operate the parks and the assets in the parks.
Others suggest that there are more important issues that need to be addressed before we tackle the parks. Research documents that the most vulnerable — low-income and minority populations as well as youth and the elderly — benefit most from well cared for and easily accessed parks. Why should our residents who need these improvements most wait? Why should city residents have to choose? Why can’t we improve the City more than one issue at a time? Must we wait until the roads are perfect before we fix the parks?
Throughout this process, we have been pleasantly surprised at the universal support for additional parks funding. Even referendum opponents agree that our parks need improvement. So here’s where we currently stand: the City’s decades-long financial difficulties have negatively impacted our parks, especially neighborhood parks. Even as the City’s financial outlook improves, the yearly dollars required for the long-term investment to care for and restore the parks system are not adequate or guaranteed. Additionally, there is no plan in place other than the Park Plan developed by the Conservancy and City for reinvesting in our parks. The Parks Plan is a data driven and citizen driven strategy for restoring and caring for all Pittsburgh parks in every neighborhood and ensures dedicated parks funding to accomplish the much-needed improvements.
This referendum is about improving the quality of life for all Pittsburghers and restoring the gems of our City. It is about you and your parks! Vote YES on Tuesday.
By: Jayne Miller (Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy President and CEO) and Dan Booker (Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Board Chairman)