Pittsburgh City Council held a public hearing on the potential annexation of Wilkinsburg Tuesday night, its first hearing on the subject since a judge instructed the council to vote on whether to move it forward within three months. About 50 Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg residents registered to speak, and the majority told council they oppose the annexation and the path its proponents have taken so far.
“This annexation would put more money in the pockets of the haves and would hurt those of the have-nots,” said Angel Gober, executive director of OnePA and the chair of Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s transition team.
The push to annex the borough of 14,000 into the city is driven by the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation [WCDC], a group unaffiliated with the government that is tasked with attracting business to Wilkinsburg. The group collected signatures for a petition and, following a 1903 law that guides annexation processes, presented it to a judge late last year.
The judge ruled that city council must vote for or against the annexation process by April 5 — leaving no option for the council to ignore the issue altogether. If the nine-member body votes in favor, annexation goes on the ballot for Wilkinsburg voters to make a final decision. If they vote against, the matter is closed.
The WCDC contends that annexation is the only way for the borough to lower its property tax rates and stop its population decline. Opponents of the annexation push say the move would benefit wealthier homeowners but not renters. The majority of Wilkinsburg residents are renters.
Dozens of speakers opposed the idea of annexation Tuesday night, saying the move could have negative consequences for public school students both in the city and the borough. (If Wilkinsburg is annexed, Wilkinsburg’s school district would be absorbed by Pittsburgh’s district.)
“We will not support an annexation process that actively harms the school district and would hurt children in Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg,” said Moira Kaleida, a former Pittsburgh school board member.
Others pointed out that Pittsburgh is struggling to bus all of its students to school this year and adding Wilkinsburg would exacerbate that challenge. Beyond the school districts, some speakers said Pittsburgh needs to solve public safety and infrastructure issues in its own districts before adding more neighborhoods.
“Until you take care of your issues, you should not even think of taking care of someone else’s issues,” said Wilkinsburg resident Stephanie Cook.
Council members have voiced skepticism of the annexation, with most saying they need more detailed information on potential financial impacts and that they are uncomfortable with the process that has been used, which does not give an official say to Wilkinsburg’s council or to Pittsburgh voters.
Three Wilkinsburg school board members — Ed Donovan, Monica Garcia and Vanessa Buffry — urged council to approve the petition and allow Wilkinsburg voters to decide the issue. Buffry was a member of the WCDC’s merger analysis committee last year.
“We need to give an opportunity for the residents to show whether they are in support of this or not by being able to vote on it,” Garcia said, “and I’m tired of waiting for change.”
City Council will hold a post-agenda meeting soon to hear from experts on the potential financial impact of annexation, and may hold more public hearings.
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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