Brookline’s Moore Park boasts a water spray feature on its playground, an abundance of sports courts and fields and a pool that recently underwent a $900,000 renovation. 

Just a 1.5-mile drive away in Beltzhoover, McKinley Park features deteriorating tennis courts, a football field flanked by a corroded retaining wall and a skate park that resembles a junkyard.

  • McKinley Park's skate park, in Pittsburgh's Beltzhoover neighborhood. (Photo by Terryaun Bell/PublicSource)
  • McKinley Park's skate park. (Photo by Terryaun Bell/PublicSource)
  • The tennis courts at McKinley Park in Pittsburgh's Beltzhoover neighborhood. (Photo by Terryaun Bell)
  • McKinley Park's skate park. (Photo by Terryaun Bell/PublicSource)

McKinley Park used to be the neighborhood’s hub for recreation, but deferred maintenance has caused it to “go down over the years,” according to Alicia, a frequent parkgoer who was walking her dog there on a November morning.

The courts are discolored and cracked, and the nets have come off as well.

“We use the tennis courts because no one comes down here,” said Alicia, who plays tennis and runs her dog on the courts. She asked that her last name not be published. 

Inequities among Pittsburgh’s parks often follow lines of neighborhood disadvantage, such as income and race. A Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy analysis of park conditions and neighborhood needs found, for instance, that parks in Homewood, Beltzhoover, Spring Hill and the Hill District begged for investment and served neighborhoods of high need. 

In 2019, residents voted to do something about it. A narrow 52% of Pittsburgh voters approved a parks tax on property owners of $50 for every $100,000 of assessed value. 

Collection began last year, after Pittsburgh City Council approved the tax in December 2020. The tax will raise an estimated $10.9 million next year.

The parks tax was meant for “improvement, maintenance, creation and operation of public parks; improving park safety; providing equitable funding for parks, including those in underserved neighborhoods,” according to the language added to the city charter as a result of the referendum.

Sign documenting improvements made — in 1996 — to a playground in Pittsburgh's Upper Hill District. (Photo by Jack Troy/PublicSource)
Sign documenting improvements made — in 1996 — to a playground in Pittsburgh’s Upper Hill District. (Photo by Jack Troy/PublicSource)

Mayor Ed Gainey’s first capital budget, formally unveiled last month, would spend parks tax money on 20 physical improvements to parks, including $2.5 million for Moore and $770,000 for McKinley.

But it would also spend $1.83 million in parks tax revenue on 18 trucks, five tractors, two skid loaders and a car.

That spending has raised questions about whether the budget follows the spirit of the parks tax referendum.

“I don’t think people would have voted to tax themselves just for trucks,” said Cathy Qureshi, president and CEO of the nonprofit Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

Deputy Mayor Jake Pawlak said the planned vehicle purchase is “entirely in line with the stated uses of the parks tax,” and will not be used to supplement other functions of city government except during emergencies. Parks workers currently rely on hand-me-down vehicles once used for road maintenance or public safety, he said.

After campaigning hard for the parks tax, and touting a history of public-private collaboration, the conservancy asked for $2.8 million in parks tax funds. Gainey’s budget includes no parks tax money for the conservancy.

“Frankly, through that process, other needs scored more highly,” said Pawlak.

Request denied 

This is the city’s second year collecting the parks tax. Drawing in part from collections since 2021, the administration has proposed budgeting $13.4 million in parks tax funds for capital improvements. 

The biggest items are:

  • A Manchester spray park, $2.25 million
  • Renovations to Moore’s recreation building, $1.97 million
  • Equipment for the Schenley Park Ice Rink, $1.3 million
  • Allegheny Commons court upgrades, $857,000
  • McKinley tennis court upgrades, $770,000
  • Kennard basketball court upgrades, $664,000
  • Moore tennis court upgrades, $519,000.

City council must approve the budget and can also amend it. Council is set to hold a public hearing on parks tax spending on Dec. 8. Council members contacted for this story declined to comment ahead of the hearing.

The Parks Conservancy hoped for funds to pursue a set of priorities including:

  • Construction in Allegheny Commons and McKinley, $2 million
  • Planning and design work in Baxter, McKinley, Kennard, Spring Hill and Heth’s Run, $350,000
  • Conservancy operations, staffing and workforce development, $525,000.

In an agreement initiated under former Mayor Bill Peduto and implemented under Gainey’s administration, the conservancy can submit capital budget requests as though it’s a city agency. 

The Capital Projects Facilitation Committee, created by city council in 2010, scores proposals and makes recommendations to the mayor about which to include in the capital budget. The committee has representation from city departments, council and the controller’s office. 

None of the conservancy’s proposals made the final cut this year. That prompted a campaign of around 20 letters from community groups to the administration. 

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy President and CEO Cathy Qureshi stands near the McKinley Park skate park, in Pittsburgh’s Beltzhoover neighborhood, on Nov. 17, 2022. The nonprofit conservancy wants to handle improvements to the city park, but would not receive any allocation under Mayor Ed Gainey’s proposed 2023 budget. (Photo by Benjamin Brady/PublicSource)

“We all understand that competition for tax dollars is fierce, but suggest that it is shortsighted to shut the Parks Conservancy out of the use of this revenue stream when they have programs and projects teed up now, and are able to bring additional funding of their own to make them happen,” wrote David Hance, president of the Highland Park Community Development Corp., in one of the letters.

Qureshi said the conservancy appreciates the relationship they have with the city and the Gainey administration. “We met with representatives from the mayor’s office all year, every month, and we’re very grateful for that,” she said.

“It’s a long game,” she added. “Not only is it a long game, it’s a full game, and we support the city. They are our prime partner and we want to work well together.”

Keeping it in-house

City government careened toward fiscal disaster in early 2003 and spent the next 14 years under state oversight. 

  • A deteriorating basketball court at Kite Hill Park in Pittsburgh's Garfield neighborhood. (Photo by Aavin Mangalmurti/PublicSource)
  • Deteriorating benches at Kennard Park in Pittsburgh's Hill District. (Photo by Jack Troy/PublicSource)
  • Deteriorating benches at West End Park in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Terryaun Bell/PublicSource)

Basic park services, like grass cutting and bench repairs, deteriorated under cost-cutting measures. From 2003 to 2004, the city about halved its spending to maintain tennis, basketball and other sport courts. 

After years of revenue surpluses under Peduto, Pawlak said the city has recovered financially.

Gov. Tom Wolf removed Pittsburgh’s designation as a financially distressed city in 2018, but the city’s roughly 160 parks remained underfunded. 

A 2019 analysis by the conservancy, aided by city workers, estimated the annual maintenance deficit at $13 million, in addition to a $400 million backlog on capital projects. 

“The task that sort of falls to this administration is to turn that financial health into restoring our own in-house ability to deliver high-quality services, first and foremost,” Pawlak said. 

The city plan to spend $1.83 million in parks tax revenue on vehicles for the Department of Public Works – which includes a Parks Maintenance Division – is part of that effort, per Pawlak.

Founded in 1996, the Parks Conservancy doesn’t handle routine parks maintenance, but acts as a fundraiser and sometimes manager for projects like the recently built Frick Environmental Center. 

For every $1 in city funding for that project, the nonprofit secured around $2 in private fundraising and grants, according to Qureshi. 

The Parks Conservancy now receives 85% of the city’s annual withdrawal from the Frick Park Trust Fund to maintain the facility, one of 48 cooperative agreements it has had with the City of Pittsburgh over more than 20 years. 

To Qureshi, the Frick Environmental Center offered a natural template for spending some of the parks tax money.

The conservancy was a strong backer of the tax. By Election Day 2019, the conservancy had spent $634,000 to directly fund ad buys, mailers and paid workers to gather petition signatures. 

Three years later, some residents are waiting for results.

Becki, a Spring Hill-City View resident who was walking her dog in Spring Hill Park on a November day, has noticed the lack of attention the city provided to that park.

  • A basketball court is missing a hoop, at Spring Hill Park in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Terryaun Bell/PublicSource)
  • A partially renovated staircase at Spring Hill Park. (Photo by Terryaun Bell/PublicSource)

She noted cosmetic issues like the overgrowth of grass and the absence of a basketball hoop that she believes has been gone since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. A staircase was halfway renovated and the lights on the baseball field had been left on consistently for nearly two and a half weeks, she said.

Becki, who asked that her last name not be published, said some residents bring their own lawn mowers to tend to the grass and some strap fencing to their backs to smooth out the baseball infield.

“It’s just been kind of neglected recently,” she said.  

Nowadays, the summer is the only time the park gets used, often by mothers who bring kids to play, but she said you won’t see much of that during the winter. 

“I’ve been here for so long, I’ve seen it up and I’ve seen it down,” Becki said. “It’s quiet, so I don’t mind.” 

Ladimir Garcia is a PublicSource editorial intern. He can be reached at ladimir@publicsource.org.

Terryaun Bell is an editorial intern with PublicSource and can be reached at terryaun@publicsource.org or on Twitter @Terryaun_Bell.

Jack Troy is a PublicSource editorial intern and can be reached at jack@publicsource.org or on Twitter @jacktroywrites.

Aavin Mangalmurti contributed.

This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.

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Ladimir is a fall intern at PublicSource. He is a native of Beckley, West Virginia, and a senior at West Virginia University, studying toward a bachelor's degree in journalism with minors in political...

Terryaun is a fact-checking intern at PublicSource. He is a Hopewell, Pa, native and a senior at Robert Morris University (RMU), studying for a bachelor's degree in communications with a journalism concentration...

Jack Troy is an editorial intern at PublicSource. A native Pittsburgher, Jack is a junior studying political science and economics at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s served as a writer and editor...