Frick Environmental Center. Photo by Jeremy Marshall. Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

The Conservancy plans to match the proposed $10 million in new tax revenue with nonprofit donations, a figure based on their past fundraising successes. Miller says this money will also have a multiplier effect in that it will allow the city to have the capital to apply for state and federal grants that require matching local funds — something they couldn’t pursue in the past.  

She also says that it will be up to neighborhood residents to determine what specific upgrades or maintenance will be made in any particular park, and that the Conservancy’s investment strategy so far has been governed by a citywide listening tour and survey. That survey was completed by some 3,400 people and established four main priorities for the parks system moving forward: maintenance, rehabilitation projects, capital projects and programming. 

According to the Post-Gazette, the Parks Conservancy has so far spent more than $600,000 on that listening tour and efforts to get people discussing the parks, including television and media ads, ballot petitioning and other polling and research efforts. 

Should the referendum pass, a new parks board overseen by the Conservancy would be established. This type of public-private partnership, not fully articulated in the referendum, is a concern for opponents including City Controller Michael Lamb. 

Lamb says that unlike public offices, the Parks Conservancy isn’t required to file monthly revenue reports or put their contractual relationships online. “If there’s going to be some role of them directing the spending of public dollars,” Lamb says, “they should comply with the same transparency guidelines that we follow.”

His concern is also echoed by City Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith. She believes that the Council should have the final say over budgetary priorities. 

“What we keep hearing is Council will have the final say, but that isn’t in writing,” she says. “Ultimately, we won’t control them.”

Both she and Lamb say they have not received any further information on what the park board makeup or structure would look like. They also have concerns about the bill being footed directly by city property owners.

“We’ve been down this road many times,” said Kail-Smith. ”When we need some funding, we go towards the referendum. I really feel it’s our responsibility as elected officials to determine what the budget should be and what the needs are.”

The city should not, she says, be “constantly putting the public in a position where they’re raising a tax or voting on a tax for specific items.”

Everyone agrees the parks are a vital resource and need to be maintained. But much debate remains over whether this referendum is the answer.