Planning Forum endorses NID, pros, cons debated one last time
While the South Side Planning Forum voted on May 8 to endorse a Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) within the South Side Flats, city Councilman Bruce Kraus announced days later that he will not support it (see his letter to the forum in The South Pittsburgh Reporter on Page 2).
That means the issue will not move to city council, where the legal process for NID formation would have taken place.
Briefly, Mr. Kraus' reasons for rejecting the NID are: the plan would impact residents financially; the lack of a business plan; pending property reassessments; and too many "unknowns," like how the NID will spend the money and who will comprise the board.
"It would have been very hard for people in these economic times," he said of the annual fee, or tax.
The lack of a specific business plan was also problematic.
"If I am PNC, and someone wants a million dollars a year for five years, and all they have is a two-paragraph plan, I would show them the door," he said.
The NID would be governed by volunteers elected by property owners within the NID. Unless renewed, a NID ends after five years. The estimated initial first year budget for the NID is $912,087.
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 and street cleaning.
Supporters view it as a means to secure quality-of-life services in light of the neighborhood's prolific number of drinking establishments.
Opponents decry it as double taxation, calling instead for a tax on bar patrons or on the bars, among other options.
The May forum meeting, of which it was announced last month a vote would take place that evening on the issue, drew about 200 people to the cafeteria at UPMC South Side.
By shows of hands and by applause, a large majority of those present opposed the NID.
Under the rules set by the forum, 20 people -- 10 in favor of the NID and 10 opposed to it -- could register to speak for up to two minutes each. Dr. Barbara Rudiak, former principal at Phillips Elementary School, served as timekeeper.
The evening's sole presentation by resident Michelle Berard, a vocal critic of the proposed NID, began the meeting.
She said she and other NID opponents collected letters opposed to the NID from at least 40 percent of property owners. She called it "disheartening" no one would stop the process.
Ms. Berard was referring to one of the NID's most controversial aspects which has drawn much criticism from forum attendees over the past few meetings. That is, according to state law regarding NIDs, property owners must register their disapproval upon the mailing of a final plan to them by city council at the end of the legal process.
That means every ballot that is not returned is considered a yes vote. If less than 40 percent of all property owners disapprove, the NID can be formed if city council approves.
The signed letters from residents opposed to the NID were placed in a stack in front of forum members.
Ms. Berard said the bill governing NIDs states liens can be imposed on property if fees are not paid. Eminent domain is also mentioned in the bill, she said.
Among the attendees favoring the NID was a business owner who called the fee "a modest investment in the future."
"I have heard no alternative to the NID," said another proponent.
A South Side resident who teaches at Phillips Elementary School said "it is important that we find a way to keep the neighborhood viable and safe."
Others said a safer and cleaner neighborhood will draw more residents, raise property values, and enhance the quality of life, and that the fee amount is minimal.
Under the 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.
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. 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.
Among those who spoke in opposition to the NID last week was a senior who will not have to pay the tax.
"It will never go away but will grow every year," she said.
She also called it unconstitutional as the people advocating for it are not elected officials, she said.
Others said because alcohol-fueled problems are caused by bar patrons, why should law-abiding residents have to pay to clean up after them?
A resident called it a "clean-up-after-the-bars tax," while another said "We have turned into Bar-ville."
A NID opponent said the city needs to provide the services it is obligated for, while another resident said the neighborhood is not in decline as evidenced by the Marcellus Shale activity.
"If you believe it's going down then move out," he said.
After the presentations, a statement was read from the NID steering committee stating members have spoken with plan supporters and opponents, Mr. Kraus, Zone 3 police representatives, Dept. of Public Works, and other city departments.
The upshot is the committee feels the Feb. 14, 2012 plan presented to the forum is the "best possible plan" for improving the neighborhood and benefiting residents and business owners.
"While we remain open to constructive suggestions that would improve the plan, we feel the time has come to advance the plan to city council," the statement read.
The meeting concluded with forum member organizations voting unanimously to approve the plan.