Improvement district a ‘shock to the brain' for some South Siders
An "electrical shock to the brain" is how Demo Kephalogianis, owner of the 1889 Café, describes the law regarding formation of a Neighborhood Improvement District (NID).
According to state law if a vote is taken to create a NID, property owners must register their disapproval. That means if a property owner does not vote by returning a ballot within 45 days of receipt, it is counted as a "yes" vote.
If less than 40 percent of all property owners disapprove, the NID can be formed if city council approves.
"Any fifth grader will tell you one man, one vote," he said. "This country has had numerous flawed laws that were wrong and were overcome,"
On March 2, his restaurant at 2017 East Carson St. served as a gathering spot for about 70 people seeking more information on the proposed South Side Flats NID, and those who are opposed to its creation.
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, and more.
No vote has taken place regarding adoption of a Flats NID.
If member organizations of the South Side Planning Forum reach consensus to proceed, the NID plan would next go to city council, followed by public hearings and the mailing of the plan to property owners for their approval or disapproval.
But as city Councilman Bruce Kraus said at the meeting, a ballot vote by property owners could be years away -- in East Liberty, the community process for its proposed NID has been on-going for seven-and-a-half years.
A proposed NID for Mt. Washington was rejected by the community, ending it before it ever came to city council.
Under the Flats plan, seniors and disabled low income people who qualify for Allegheny County's property tax rebate program (Act 77) would be exempted from NID fees.
Otherwise, the annual fees per $10,000 of assessed property value would be: $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.
All fees are based on total assessed value of property as set by the county as of Nov. 30, 2011.
The NID would be governed by volunteers elected by property owners within the NID. Unless renewed, a NID ends after five years.
Supporters view the NID as a means to secure quality-of-life services in light of the neighborhood's prolific number of drinking establishments and the ensuing problems, such as drunk driving, assaults, vandalism, and litter.
Besides objecting to the 40 percent state law, opponents have called the NID double taxation in they are being asked to pay for services their city taxes should already cover.
As alcohol-fueled problems are caused by bar patrons, some opponents have called for a tax on those bar patrons. As college students frequent the bars in large numbers, opponents have said Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh should take some responsibility.
The recent property reassessments which will result in higher taxes for many is also a source of NID disapproval.
Mr. Kraus, a Flats resident, said what was going on that evening at the 1889 Cafe was the same as what occurs at the Planning Forum -- democracy.
"It is not always pleasant or comfortable," he said.
An attendee said what is fueling a lot of the discontent is the manner in which the NID process is being handled, and the half-truths being told.
The councilman said he would have elected state officials at the next meeting to answer questions.
Mr. Kraus said 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.
"At that time, I will do my homework to make an informed decision," he said.