The Wilkinsburg Government Study Commission sits around a table at a July meeting at Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg (Photo by Charlie Wolfson/PublicSource)
The Wilkinsburg Government Study Commission at a July meeting at Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg (Photo by Charlie Wolfson/PublicSource)

Wilkinsburg moved a step closer to reshaping its local government last week. An elected commission voted unanimously to draft a home rule charter for the borough, kicking off a year-long process that will culminate with voters having the final say at the polls.

All boroughs in Pennsylvania have the same basic government structure and limited taxing power — unless they opt to assert more control by adopting a home rule charter. Wilkinsburg began this process in November 2022 when voters approved a government study commission and elected its seven members.

A charter could go in many different directions, potentially altering the borough’s government structure from its current form, which includes a powerful borough council, a mayor with limited powers and professional, appointed borough manager. Several commission members at the Aug. 23 vote said they would like to see more accountability for borough council members, and that community feedback indicated trust in the borough government is low.

Home rule also gives the borough more power to tax its residents. Home rule municipalities have no cap on earned income tax rates, while boroughs are limited to 1%. Numerous municipalities in Allegheny County have availed themselves of the greater taxing authority, with many settling between 1% and 2% and the City of Pittsburgh at 3%. 

Commission members said they interviewed borough employees, elected officials and officials from other home rule municipalities during their preliminary study phase. Money, and a lack thereof, was one of the top issues they identified, along with the related issue of short staffing in borough departments.

The commission will spend the coming months drafting a home rule charter, working with a consultant from the Pennsylvania Economy League, which it hired earlier this year. By law, the commission has 18 months to complete its work, a period that will end in May 2024. But the state recommends producing a tentative draft by November to allow ample time for public comment and revisions.

If the commission uses all or most of its 18 months to file its final report, the decision on whether to ratify the charter would not go to the voters until the November 2024 General Election. The law prohibits the question from being posed sooner than 60 days after the report is filed, and Pennsylvania’s 2024 Primary Election is scheduled for April 23. That means the referendum would coincide with a presidential election, where it will likely see a high turnout, but voter attention may be diverted by races higher up the ballot. 

Data provided by the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development shows that 52% of ballot questions on proposed charters have passed since the practice became legal — but when the referenda were held at November general elections, as opposed to primaries, just 41% passed.

The vote to proceed toward home rule came days after another domino fell in the stalled effort from a local development nonprofit to annex the borough into Pittsburgh. Tracey Evans, the head of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation, appealed her organization’s latest courtroom defeat to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. She is asking the court to overturn a ruling that effectively ruled out annexation without the approval of city voters. The court has not yet said if it will hear the case.

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...