Love was definitely not in the air on Valentine's Day as roughly 75 people crowded into the Brashear Center meeting room for a monthly South Side Planning Forum meeting on Feb. 14.
The hot-button issue arousing anger among many attendees was a proposed Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) within the South Side Flats.
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, street cleaning, park maintenance, improved parking signage, weed abatement, East Carson St. lighting, and more.
It is viewed by supporters as a means to secure quality-of-life services in the Flats in light of the neighborhood's prolific number of drinking establishments and the ensuing problems, such as drunk driving, assaults, vandalism and litter.
No vote was taken at the meeting. Planning forum members were asked to confer in the next few weeks with their respective organizations about endorsing the NID, and report back to the forum in the next month or two.
If there is a consensus among all organizations to proceed, the plan would next go to city council, followed by public hearings and the mailing of a final plan to property owners for their approval or disapproval.
According to the state law, property owners must register their disapproval, said Susie Puskar, neighborhood outreach coordinator for the South Side Local Development Co. (SSLDC).
That means if you do not vote by returning a ballot, it is considered a yes vote.
If less than 40 percent of all property owners disapprove, the NID can be formed if city council approves.
Under the plan, seniors and disabled low income people who qualify for Allegheny County's property tax rebate program (Act 77) will be exempted from NID fees.
The annual fees per $10,000 of assessed property value are: $20 for those who qualify for the residential homestead exemption; $30 for the owner of a residential non-homestead, or rental; $40 for business owners off East Carson St .; and $50 for commercial property owners on East Carson St. from 10th to 25th streets. Caps are set for most categories.
All fees are based on total assessed value of property as set by the county as of Nov. 30, 2011.
The NID would undertake six sets of activities: public safety; public space maintenance; public space improvements; parking provision, management and enforcement; marketing, advocacy and communication; and personnel and administration.
The estimated initial first year budget is $912,087.
The NID would be governed by volunteers elected by property owners within the NID. Unless renewed, a NID ends after five years.
Besides objections raised concerning the 40 percent rule, attendees expressed opposition to forming a NID for other reasons.
While some called it a tax, others said the alcohol-fueled problems are caused by bar patrons, why should law-abiding residents have to pay to clean up after them?
"This should stop here tonight. Enough is enough with the taxes here," said a resident, citing the recent library and liquor taxes, and a looming reassessment.
Another resident said with students from Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh "doing a lot of the terrorizing," why not approach those schools about doing something?
A resident said considering the country is in a recession, can anyone be sure they will have jobs two years from now?
"I can sweep my own sidewalk. My vote is no," he said.
Another attendee said with so many rental properties and the owners living elsewhere, the owners won't care about a NID and probably won't vote, which means their votes will be counted as a yes.
"All the services you want to give me I already pay for," said a 50-year resident.
Other attendees said they never received the surveys mailed last August to all 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 NID.
Others said they did not know about the effort to form a NID, accusing those involved of secrecy.
But forum chair Hugh Brannan and others denied the charge, stressing there was transparency every step of the way.
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 NID plan, which the forum did.
The 10-member NID steering committee comprised of South Side business owners and residents -- all volunteers -- hosted four public meetings on the issue in June, 2011.
In October, the steering committee held two public hearings on the NID in the UPMC Mercy South Side Outpatient Center cafeteria.
When asked his opinion of the NID as a Flats resident, city Councilman Bruce Kraus did not give one stating he is not permitted to take sides prior to casting votes as a councilman. If he was to give an opinion now, he said, he would be perceived as being prejudicial.
What is occurring now, he said, is the community process in which the city does not have a role. The public process begins when, and if, the planning forum petitions city council to initiate action.
Public hearings, and mailings to property owners by the city clerk, would ensue.
"It would be a "very thoroughly, transparent, vetted process as fees are involved.
"It's not something we take lightly," the councilman said.
More information on the proposed South Side NID can be found at the website: www.ssimprovementdistrict.com.
The next forum meeting will be on March 13.