Pittsburgh voters on Tuesday supported a ballot amendment that will create a real estate tax to pay for park improvements.

The measure passed with about 52% of the vote, with 392 of 402 precincts reporting as of 11:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Jayne Miller, CEO of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, credited the Black vote with pushing the amendment over the finish line, saying the new tax will transform Pittsburgh’s city parks.

“We will win over those who have been skeptical when they see the improvements in their parks,” Miller said.

In Allegheny County, nearly 70% of voters approved the controversial Marsy’s Law referendum that would extend additional rights to crime victims in Pennsylvania. A court injunction, however, means the tally is unofficial.

Read on for background on each ballot initiative and voter perspectives:

Pittsburgh parks investment

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy led a referendum that would provide about $10 million in tax revenue per year to rejuvenate the city’s parks. The conservancy hopes those funds will be matched by another $10 million in private foundation funding. The city’s 165 parks are, according to the city, decades behind in major repairs and city workers can’t keep up with the basic regular maintenance.

The funds will come from an increase in property taxes. The cost will be $50 per year for homes valued at $100,000. The median home value of owner-occupied housing from 2013 through 2017 was $108,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The referendum has been opposed by several city council members who said taxes are already high enough and that elected officials should dictate how tax revenue is spent.

Council member Theresa Kail-Smith warned residents earlier this week that the poor and elderly would be hardest hit by the new tax.

Leslie Ann Smedley, of North Point Breeze, said she voted for the parks initiative Tuesday.

“I am such a user and fan of the parks,” Smedley said. “I think that it’s very important to the city.”

Spencer Liberto, a resident of the North Side, wasn’t so sure.

“I’m leaning towards, ‘No’,” said Liberto, 26. “They’re leading with a great intention. But we’re talking about trust and the public money managed by a nonprofit, not the city.”

Jayne Miller, CEO of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, spoke with a PublicSource reporter while at the polls at Dilworth PreK-5 on Tuesday afternoon. In response to Liberto’s concern, she wanted to clarify that the city will collect the tax, not the conservancy. “And it’s up to the city if they’re going to enter into a contract with the conservancy, and it would be through an agreement with the conservancy, which will be spelled out how the money will be allocated,” she said.

The conservancy plans to spend money in parks across the city but will prioritize major projects in communities with the largest economic and health needs. Critics of the proposal say that individuals in those same communities can’t afford a property tax increase.

A similar referendum for the city’s libraries passed in 2011, but a countywide referendum to provide enrichment opportunities for children failed last year.

Marsy’s Law

Pennsylvania crime victims already enjoy state protections, but Marsy’s Law would amend the state Constitution to provide notification about arrests and legal actions against the offender. It also allows crime victims to refuse discovery requests made by the accused.

On Monday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that found the amendment would have irreversible consequences on the rights of the accused. In a 4-3 vote, justices directed the Pennsylvania Department of State not to tabulate or certify the votes cast.

The proposed law is named after Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, a University of California at Santa Barbara student killed by an ex-boyfriend in 1983. A week after her murder, Nicholas’ mother was confronted in a grocery store by the accused murderer, unaware he had been released on bail.

The law is backed by Henry T. Nicholas, Marsy’s brother and co-founder of Broadcom Corp. Versions of it have been implemented in about a dozen states, including California in 2008.

The Allegheny County courthouse  in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
The Allegheny County courthouse  in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The Pennsylvania Senate unanimously passed the proposed law. The state House did so by a 190-8 margin. Gov. Tom Wolf had said he would sign the amendment, if passed by voters.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. favored the law, as did the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

Both the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, which brought the lawsuit that led to the injunction, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania opposed the ballot measure over concerns that “co-equal rights” could threaten defendant rights that serve as a check on the power of government.

Opponents of the proposed law believe it would disproportionately impact communities of color.

Aware of the Supreme Court ruling, a number of voters told PublicSource that they declined to vote on the measure.

However, Etna resident Jared Kurtz, who was assaulted last year, said he believed victims should be informed as cases proceed through the court system.

“The whole time, the legal system didn’t inform us at all,” he said. “We had to follow it all ourselves.”

Correction (11/7/2019): A previous version of this story conflated Jared Kurtz’s home borough as the place where he was assaulted. He lives in Etna and experienced an assault in a nearby borough.

Nicole C. Brambila is the local government reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0072 or nicole@publicsource.org.

Jourdan Hicks and Oliver Morrison contributed to this report.

This fact-based local reporting drives impact and creates change. Help power that impact.

James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” PublicSource exists to help the Pittsburgh region face its realities and create opportunities for change. When we shine a light on inequity in our region, like the “completely unacceptable” conditions in low-income housing in McKeesport, things change. When we ask questions about policymakers’ decisions, like how Allegheny County is handling COVID-19 safety for its employees, things change. When we push for transparency on issues that affect the public, like in the use of facial recognition software by Pittsburgh police, things change.

It takes a lot of time, skill and resources to produce journalism like this. Our stories are always made available for free so that they can benefit the most people, regardless of ability to pay. But as an independent, nonprofit newsroom, we count on donations from our readers to support this crucial work. Can you make a contribution of any amount (or better yet, set up a recurring monthly gift) to help ensure we can continue to report on what matters and tell stories for a better Pittsburgh?

Nicole C. Brambila

Nicole C. Brambila was a reporter for PublicSource between 2019 and 2020.