By Margaret Smyka
Contributing Writer 

South Siders have questions about improvement district


October 18, 2011

Proposed boundries for a South Side improvement district

Who should foot the bill for South Siders' wish list of services like more after-dark security, better parking management, and sidewalk cleaning — property owners, City of Pittsburgh, bar patrons, or liquor license establishments?

Such was the dividing issue among attendees at a public meeting on Oct. 12 in which results of a community survey and a draft plan were unveiled regarding the formation of a Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) within the South Side Flats.

The event drew about 100 people to the UPMC Mercy South Side Outpatient Center cafeteria. A similar public meeting on an updated plan based on Oct. 12 feedback and late-arriving surveys will be held at 6 p.m. on Oct. 24 at the same site.

The meeting will be conducted by the South Side NID Steering Committee, which also hosted last week's event.

In a NID, property owners agree to a self-imposed annual fee for services which supplement those provided by the city, such as a security team, park maintenance, improved parking signage, weed abatement, East Carson St. lighting, and more.

The fee and services are determined by the NID plan which has to be approved by property owners within the district.

NIDs are governed by the property owners and not by elected officials, and have a term of five years and can be renewed for additional terms.

Under the draft plan, the allocation of a $1 million annual budget would be: $400,000, safety; $200,000, cleaning; $200,000, parking management and public space improvements; $50,000 marketing and communications; $50,000, community planning; $100,000 administration.

Seniors who qualify for Allegheny County's property tax rebate program (Act 77) will be exempted from NID fees.

Using the mean value of South Side properties: an owner-occupied residential property with an assessed value of $63,200 would pay an annual fee of $189, or $16 monthly, based on a rate of 3 mils;

A residential rental property with an assessed value of $57,400 would pay an annual fee of $230, or $19 monthly, based on a rate of 4 mils; and,

A commercial property with an assessed value of $143,600 would pay an annual fee of $862, or $72 monthly, based on a rate of 6 mils.

Using the proposed millage rates, the monthly fee for a property assessed at $100,000 would be $25 for an owner-occupied residential; $33 for a residential rental; and $50 for commercial.

The millage rates are based on today's assessed value.

The meeting began with an overview of how the NID proposal came to be by Susie Puskar, neighborhood outreach coordinator for the South Side Local Development Co. (LDC), and who represents the South Side Planning Forum on the exploratory committee.

In June, 2010, the planning forum voted to form an exploratory committee to examine options to address community concerns in light of the pending dissolution of the South Side LDC. The exploratory committee examined several options, including a NID.

In Dec., 2010, the exploratory committee recommended the planning forum create a steering committee to develop a South Side improvement district plan, which the forum did.

The 10-member NID steering committee, comprised of South Side business owners and residents, hosted four public meetings on the issue in June, 2011.

In August, surveys were mailed to 2,900 property owners in the Flats soliciting responses to questions related to priorities for South Side's future, including whether the respondent supported the formation of a South Side NID. The response rate was 27 percent, which is very high for this type of survey.

In the surveys, the top five services residents want a NID to provide are: more after-dark security; improved parking management; sidewalk cleaning on residential streets; sidewalk cleaning on East Carson St .; and new sidewalks through grants

For business owners, the top five services are: improved parking management; sidewalk cleaning; more after-dark security; special events highlighting area business; and more code enforcement.

The survey revealed: 36 percent strongly agree; 22 percent agree; 19 percent strongly disagree; 17 percent are neutral; and 6 percent disagree with the formation of a NID in the community.

In the public comment session, a resident asked why a higher millage cannot be charged for liquor license establishments because they are most responsible for the trouble in the neighborhood.

Ms. Puskar said state law bases the ability to charge a fee on property, not on use of the property.

City councilman Bruce Kraus, an attendee, suggested requesting the directors of city departments including public safety, public works, building inspection, planning, and zoning to attend the Oct. 24 meeting.

"You have the right to have city services delivered.

"They need to be here to hear the dissatisfaction," he said.

He later noted a problem is existing ordinances are not enforced, which is something city and state officials should address.

To a question about the parking plan, a steering committee member said the committee would like the NID to have control over and realize revenue from enforcing the parking meters on South Side. However, after a NID is formed the board of directors would be responsible for fashioning the actual parking plan for the neighborhood.

A lifelong resident said alcohol-fueled problems like drunk driving, vandalism, litter, graffiti, noise, and more are caused by Thursday through Sunday bar patrons.

"We should not have to pay for this. The city should pay," she said.

Questioned how security would stop the problems caused by the 2 a.m. crowds exiting the bars, a steering committee member said if nothing is done it could get worse. But with action, property values may rise as they have in other improvement districts.

A woman from New York City who moved to the neighborhood for its walkability said she is ready to leave if something is not done. She supports the NID.

Another resident noted the $230 annual fee he would have to pay is less than he pays for cable, insurance, or electric.

"Let's spend $5 million in this neighborhood to make it better," he said of a likely five-year budget amount.

A resident in the law enforcement field said the area is a "free-for-all" with no law enforcement after 2 a.m. He said security must be the Number One priority in a NID, with undercover policemen on side streets where houses are graffitied and cars vandalized

Another attendee said if bar patrons are the problem, they should have to pay a cover charge at each bar to clean the neighborhood.

A property and business owner agreed, saying he talked recently with a New York resident who said he came "for the 150 bars in one neighborhood."

"We have something unique and desirable down here," said the attendee.

While a cover charge is a great idea, said a steering committee member, it cannot legally be enforced.

The steering committee's timetable is to present a NID preliminary plan to the planning forum on Nov. 8. If there is a consensus among forum organizations to proceed, the plan would next go to city council, followed by public hearing(s) and the mailing of a final plan to property owners to vote for their approval or disapproval.

If less than 40 percent of all property owners disapprove at that stage of the process, the NID can be formed. However, according to state law, those property owners who do not return their ballots are considered to be voting in favor of forming the NID.

To objections raised about the 40 percent rule, Ms. Puskar said it is based on state law.


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