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Update: Wilkinsburg annexation question officially heads to Pittsburgh City Council
A Wilkinsburg group pushing to have the borough annexed by Pittsburgh passed a key test Wednesday when an Allegheny County judge ruled that their petition is valid and sent the matter to Pittsburgh City Council for consideration. Now council must vote within three months on whether to advance the annexation process to its final phase — a referendum question among Wilkinsburg voters.
It’s a major milestone for the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation [WCDC], the group that has been openly promoting the idea of joining the city. To get approval from Common Pleas Judge Joseph James on Wednesday, they needed signatures from 5% of Wilkinsburg registered voters. They presented about 10%, more than 1,200.
An objection was filed by Wilkinsburg resident Kate Luxemburg, who wrote to the court that the petition contained 227 invalid signatures and that some of the signature gatherers were paid and some lived outside Wilkinsburg. Judge James overruled her objections, saying it’s legal to collect signatures that way. County elections manager David Voye said he personally reviewed the petition and did not strike any signatures.
Earlier Wednesday, a handful of annexation proponents were joined by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald at a Downtown rally entitled ‘Let Wilkinsburg Vote,’ urging city council to send the matter to Wilkinsburg’s voters to decide whether they will remain a borough or join the city.
“I want to ask people to allow the people’s voice to speak,” Fitzgerald said, without naming city council specifically. He said annexation is the way for Wilkinsburg to attract businesses and reverse its population decline.
Several city council members late last year expressed deep hesitance toward moving this process forward, saying they need much more information first and that they are uncomfortable with the process that does not directly include Wilkinsburg elected officials or Pittsburgh voters.
Dec. 9, 2021 update: Council meeting shows opposition and uncertainty in Wilkinsburg annexation talks
Elected council members from both Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg hit the brakes on an effort to annex Wilkinsburg into the city at a special Pittsburgh City Council meeting Thursday. Several Wilkinsburg council members strongly opposed annexation while Pittsburgh lawmakers said they lack the necessary information to move forward.
Pittsburgh City Council would need to vote to advance the annexation process for it to get to a referendum vote in Wilkinsburg.
The meeting came five days after a city hearing on the matter, during which more than 30 Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh residents presented polarized views. A majority of the speakers favored moving the process forward. Thursday, it was Wilkinsburg’s elected officials’ turn to speak. Under the state annexation law, they have no legal authority in the process, leaving a decision up to Wilkinsburg voters and Pittsburgh’s council.
Wilkinsburg Council President Pamela Macklin said her borough is solvent, has not raised taxes in years and enjoys having a nine-member council to serve fewer than 15,000 residents. She joined five of her colleagues to implore her Pittsburgh counterparts to keep the decision “at the elected level” rather than sending it to the Wilkinsburg voters.
Other Wilkinsburg councilors accused the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation, which is driving the annexation effort, of using disinformation to persuade residents. Two Wilkinsburg Council members, Ian Petrulli and Ariel Haughton, said they favor annexation. The WCDC says annexation will spur development and population growth, primarily by lowering property tax rates.
Pittsburgh Council members said they need more information on annexation’s impact on municipal finances, school districts, vacant properties and other issues. “I don’t feel that any of us have seen hard numbers,” Councilwoman Deb Gross said.
Gross urged the WCDC to hold off on submitting its petition, which would start the clock on a required vote. Holding off would allow unlimited time for study and deliberation. State law requires 5% of registered voters in the borough to sign a petition to move the issue forward. The WCDC previously said it plans to submit its petition before the end of the year.
Council President Theresa Kail-Smith, who is on record opposing the annexation, suggested a task force to closely study consolidation relative to many municipalities. Two council members, Anthony Coghill and Corey O’Connor, have signaled support for annexation.
Dec. 4, 2021: Pittsburgh City Council hears public comment on divisive Wilkinsburg annexation issue
Pittsburgh City Council heard arguments for and against the annexation of Wilkinsburg during its first public hearing on the issue Saturday. More than 30 speakers were split on the issue, though a majority favored moving the process forward.
“Wilkinsburg simply has too many challenges to handle by itself,” said Derrick Tillman, a Wilkinsburg resident who spoke at the hearing. “I know Pittsburgh is not perfect, but it’s constantly moving in the right direction. Wilkinsburg needs help, and I believe that Pittsburgh is poised to help.”
The push to annex Wilkinsburg is coming from the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation [WCDC]. The group launched a similar effort in the summer, which stalled because council members in both municipalities wanted more time to learn about the idea.
Nineteen speakers favored annexation, or at least allowing a referendum vote, and 12 opposed moving the process forward.
Tracey Evans, the WCDC executive director, made the case for annexation at the hearing by pointing out a number of trends in the borough that have not translated to population growth, such as an increased median home price and restoration of vacant properties. She maintains that the only way to attract new homeowners and businesses is to lower property taxes by joining Pittsburgh.
A number of Wilkinsburg residents spoke against annexation, with some citing distrust of the WCDC as a primary reason. Former borough council member China Lee said, “Instead of trying to correct the course and help Wilkinsburg, the WCDC has instead focused its efforts on this annexation without actual regard for what the residents want.”
Homeowners in Wilkinsburg would see their property taxes drop dramatically. But questions remain. Many renters fear a tax increase, since the property tax decrease does not directly affect them and Pittsburgh has a higher income tax than Wilkinsburg.
“People are worried about being displaced,” said Michelle Dalton, a Wilkinsburg resident who has been organizing against the annexation effort. “For renters, the only change in money is going to be an increase in their taxes if you don’t own property.”
Jody Harper Guy, who said her family has lived in Wilkinsburg since 1917, said she likes having a small municipal government. “I really favor the ability to speak, plan and partner with our elected leaders who are only blocks away.”
For annexation to occur, the WCDC must collect some 640 signatures from Wilkinsburg residents. Then, Pittsburgh City Council must signal its approval with a vote of at least five of its nine members. Finally, the question would go on the ballot in Wilkinsburg for the voters to decide, possibly as soon as the 2022 primary election.
The Pittsburgh Fire Department already serves Wilkinsburg, and the borough’s middle and high school students attend Pittsburgh Public Schools. If annexation occurs, the Wilkinsburg School District would automatically be fully absorbed into Pittsburgh Public Schools.
It’s unclear if there are five Pittsburgh City Council members who would vote to send the issue to Wilkinsburg for a ballot referendum. Council President Theresa Kail-Smith has said she opposes the idea and noted Saturday that annexing Wilkinsburg would divert resources and development from her district in the southwest of the city. Councilman Bruce Kraus similarly worried that annexation would make resources for dealing with blighted property in the city even more scarce.
Council members Ricky Burgess, Deb Gross and Erika Strassburger left the door open to joining the two municipalities but said they may not be comfortable with the proposed process, which does not give an official say to Pittsburgh voters or Wilkinsburg’s elected council.
Pittsburgh City Councilman Anthony Coghill said he’s leaning toward favoring annexation after driving through the borough and seeing many blighted properties and vacant business buildings. He said a tax increase for renters may be “short term pain for long term gain” if the move promotes economic development in the community over time. Councilman Corey O’Connor was not at the hearing but told WESA this week he favors annexation.
City council will hold a post-agenda meeting on Thursday to further discuss the matter.
The Wilkinsburg Borough Council has in large part opposed annexation and went as far as to formally order the WCDC to “cease and desist,” which they have no legal authority to do. But one council member who spoke at Saturday’s hearing, Ian Petrulli, said he favors annexation.
“The situation has not improved and I don’t see it improving any time soon unless something new and drastic is done, like joining the city and reducing our tax burden,” Petrulli said.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @chwolfson.
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