11/15 update: The ballot question was approved by voters, 59% to 41%, and the seven commission nominees were elected.
Wilkinsburg voters will have an extra question on their ballots for the Nov. 8 election, asking if a government study commission should be convened in the borough.
While some in the borough are still working to make Wilkinsburg part of Pittsburgh, the ballot question is endorsed by a group that thinks Wilkinsburg can solve its own problems. The question was triggered by a petition supported by the anti-annexation group Wilkinsburg Future, and proponents say its purpose is to chart a path forward for the borough.
- If the ballot measure is approved, a commission would study whether Wilkinsburg should change its form of government and potentially adopt a home rule charter.
- It has no legal or technical connection to the concept of Pittsburgh annexing Wilkinsburg.
- Even if the study is approved by voters this November, the resulting recommendations could be rejected by voters later.
Keywanda Ballard-Battle, a candidate to sit on the commission, said at a Tuesday press conference that the study would be a “magnifying glass and a mirror” for the borough, tasked to “evaluate, not merely criticize” the local government.
Pennsylvania boroughs have the option to become home rule municipalities, which affords them the flexibility to change their form of government and adjust tax laws. A government study commission is the first step toward enacting these changes. A commission would study options and make a recommendation, which could then be approved by the voters in a later election.
The commission would have seven members, who also will be elected Nov. 8. Only seven candidates were nominated, leaving voters with no real choice on the commission’s composition, aside from writing in an alternative slate.
Commission candidate Ruth Kittner said with Wilkinsburg’s population continuing to shrink and ongoing turmoil brought by the annexation debate, the commission would clearly lay out the borough’s options.
“We can’t continue as we are,” said Kittner, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Ministry food bank, in an interview with PublicSource. “Things are inefficient and chaotic.”
She elaborated that some residents can’t reach her food bank because of the condition of sidewalks. “I see our neighbors struggling with things the borough should be able to fix, but it cannot,” she said.
Paul O’Hanlon, a longtime Wilkinsburg resident and a commission candidate, said a government study is needed to figure out how to address Wilkinsburg’s most pressing issues, such as blight, a sluggish business district and a shrinking population.
“From my standpoint, the question is: Where can we make things better?” O’Hanlon said. “Until we study it, I’m not sure where we can, but I have no doubt that we can make improvements.”
Why go to home rule?
Scott Andrejchak worked in both Clairton and Sharon when each community began home rule and has been consulted by boroughs investigating the idea. Now he’s the municipal manager of Penn Hills, also a home rule community.
He said the impacts and benefits of home rule vary based on each community’s circumstances, but that often a borough will set out to address particular problems with their charter.
- Jacquet Kehm, 32
- Janet Harris, 66
- Beverly McCoy, 77
- Keywanda Ballard-Battle, 69
- Paul O’Hanlon, 68
- Kim Kaplan, 32
- Ruth Kittner, 68
He said that Sharon, a city of roughly Wilkinsburg’s size in Mercer County, used home rule to shift from being more reliant on property taxes to being more reliant on wage taxes. He said Sharon was on the verge of entering state financial oversight before home rule, but managed a financial turnaround.
Wilkinsburg’s property tax rate is one of the highest among Allegheny County’s 130 municipalities at 14 mills.
Municipalities can’t set income taxes above 1%, except home rule communities and those under state oversight.
Andrejchak said communities can also pursue home rule if they don’t like how their borough is being managed. He pointed to Altoona, which opted to make its mayorship a full-time position and add a full-time city manager. On the other end of the spectrum, he pointed to Sharon, which opted for a professional manager and eliminated the position of mayor altogether.
While Wilkinsburg is divided over the issue of joining Pittsburgh, many on either side of the debate have expressed frustration with the current government, which features a mayor with little power and a part-time council.
“The same people run for office all the time, but most people you talk to have no idea who their representatives are,” Kittner said. “A lot of the residents have given up. They can’t get a problem fixed.”
What about annexation?
The issue of whether the borough should remain separate from Pittsburgh has simmered since the nonprofit Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. [WCDC] began legal proceedings to initiate annexation in 2021. A grassroots movement formed to oppose the effort, and the issue became polarized, with conflicting talking points and distrust permeating discussions.
The WCDC has circulated flyers urging voters to reject the study commission. The flyers suggest that home rule would be certain to raise residents’ taxes, a contention that commission proponents say is misleading or outright false.
WCDC Executive Director Tracey Evans said the group based its tax increase projection on other communities that adopted home rule charters, saying each raised income taxes in the aftermath. She views a government study as an ineffective and repetitive measure to improve the borough. “Nothing has been more studied than Wilkinsburg,” she said.
While this November’s ballot question doesn’t mention annexation (and, legally, does not appear to have any impact on its viability), O’Hanlon said it’s impossible to discuss moving forward with home rule without discussing annexation. He opposes annexation, as do a majority of commission candidates.
Annexation talk “has sucked out all the oxygen for anything else to be talked about,” O’Hanlon said. “I think [a vote on annexation] would fail. So what do we do after it fails, to make Wilkinsburg better? Everybody wants things to improve, whether they’re for annexation or not.”
Kittner, taking a different tone, said the commission could study annexation as one of numerous options for the borough.
“The minute you say [annexation], everyone’s hair is on fire,” Kittner said. “We’ve got to have an informed look at what is possible with Wilkinsburg and then make a recommendation. I don’t think anything is off the table.”
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