Pittsburgh City Council voted 6-3 on Monday to start collecting a new property tax in the coming year.
It isn’t a tax that will be a surprise. Pittsburghers voted for the 0.5-mill dedicated increase in 2019. The council is simply moving forward with the plans to collect and then use the money to improve and maintain the city’s parks. It’s a partnership with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which pledges to amp up its fundraising to match the new public money.
The parks tax would cost $50 per $100,000 of assessed property value. About $10 million per year would be collected and go to the planned $57.9 million in park spending to be spread over a five-year period.
The goal is to not just improve the major ones — Schenley, Frick, Highland, Riverview — but to build up the smaller and neglected ones. The goal is to put every resident no more than a 10-minute walk away from outdoor recreation.
“With today’s approval of the Parks Trust Fund, our city is taking another step forward in our commitment to equity in working toward a Pittsburgh for all,” Mayor Bill Peduto said.
Council members Anthony Coghill, Deborah Gross and Corey O’Connor opposed the measure on reasonable grounds — timing. They questioned whether 2021 is the right time to take more money from property owners, even if they had supported the idea more than a year ago.
It’s a good question. The coronavirus pandemic is at its greatest and deadliest spread. State lockdowns continue to fluctuate access to restaurants and other businesses. By extension, the income of those owners and employees is uncertain.
The economic picture is not much more stable for others. Jobless numbers remain high over 2019, and with the pandemic still dragging on, it is hard to say when that will change. Keeping that in mind while making broad spending and taxation commitments is important.
But others were right in pointing out why that spending is critical.
“Our parks are getting more use now than they ever have,” Council President Theresa Kail-Smith said.
And that means parks need more attention and upkeep than they have gotten in the past. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which spearheaded the referendum and spent some $700,000 on the campaign to pass it, contends there is a $400 million backlog in maintenance for all city parks. Even if one quibbles with that figure or is leery of the nonprofit’s growing role in managing public assets, it’s undeniable the city’s parks are jewels to be preserved and cherished — and are assets worthy of public investment.
That investment was important to residents a year ago. In the past 12 months, have those parks become less valuable?
Outdoor spaces in every community are getting a workout, whether local recreation areas or state parks. The neighborhood playground. The walking paths. The picnic areas and sports fields and even just the benches.
The pandemic has made these simple ways to get out of homes and get into the fresh air a lifeline in the midst of lockdowns in so many ways. They provide opportunities for exercise. They can be safe and socially distant connections to others.
Maybe more important than anything, they give a welcome breath of normalcy at a time when we are constantly reminded that nothing is normal.