Burgess blasts East Liberty tax zone plan

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Even as he was working on legislation to give Pittsburgh residents more say in how taxes are levied via referendum, City Councilman Rev. Rickey Burgess had to, again, battle a plan to tax property owners in his district.

The plan for an East Liberty Neighborhood Improvement District first arose in 2007, before Burgess even took office, and focuses on the Penn Avenue corridor. It was shot down by residents and business owners who objected to an additional tax.

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The ELNID would collect fees to pay for services like sidewalk cleaning, graffiti removal and security and would be funded via fees levied not only on business property owners, but also residential owners who rent out property, nonprofits—including churches—and properties that are otherwise tax exempt. Its projected budget is $475,000 per year.

Initially loft condo owners were to be assessed as well, which is why it failed to win support in 2007. The latest application, resubmitted to council by the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce late last year, exempts resident owners—though it says they can be included later. Even so, property owners again objected. This time so did Burgess.

“I have grave concerns about this. My major objection is the composition of the NID board, which is a small group of non-resident property owners,” said Burgess. “I won’t let those from outside the community dominate the development of the community, especially when low- and moderate-income residents will bear some of the burden and have no say.”

The NID would be run by the East Liberty Neighborhood Improvement District Management Association, a nonprofit incorporated specifically for the task. Its president, Lori Moran is also vice president of the East Liberty Chamber of Commerce. During a Dec. 30 council meeting on the proposal, she said the NID is needed to clean up the Penn Avenue corridor, which has no cultural draw other than the Kelly Strayhorn, and several shuttered storefronts, because potential investors see it as unsafe.

“We can’t lease storefronts until we clean up the streets and we can’t clean up the streets until we have the money,” she said.

Though Moran’s remarks highlighted Penn Avenue, the NID boundary zones are much larger, extending as far as Larimer Avenue and Rodman Street on one end, and Ellsworth Avenue and Shady Avenue on another.

A group of 15 business and property owners, however, submitted a letter saying they already pay for the services the NID would provide and do not need another tax.

“Members of our group already supplement the services provided by the city,” the letter states. “They privately provide for their own sidewalk sweeping and security. In these tough economic times, every dollar counts. They do not need a special assessment or additional tax which is designed to benefit the special interests who are promoting this plan.”

One such benefit could be an additional way to acquire property. Depending on proximity to Penn Avenue, property owners would pay either $250 or $500 in fees. If they do not, the management association, several of whose members are developers, can lien the property.

Herbert Hasland, owner of Herbert Hasland Properties is one of the signatories to the letter. He called the lien power the management association grants itself “unbelievable.”

“It’s incredible. One of the powers they give themselves is eminent domain, and they can raise their assessment as many as four times over the (10-year) life of the NID,” he said. “I’m also against it because they drew the boundary to include my building—it’s in Shadyside. I agree with Rev. Burgess this has to be way more transparent. A very few individuals would control the funds. All they are doing is enhancing their own investments.”

A follow-up meeting is expected be fore spring, but no new hearing has yet been scheduled.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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