South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Al Lowe
Contributing Writer 

Mount to consider an improvement district of their own


In Pennsylvania they're often called NIDs or Neighborhood Improvement Districts.

But in Iowa the acronym is SSMIDs, in Texas it is PIDs and in Wisconsin and other parts of Pennsylvania they are BIDs.

The rationale behind improvement districts is to enhance needed services for communities. They are privately managed and publicly authorized.

Representatives from a consulting firm, Business Districts Inc., of Evanston, Ill., hired through grant money obtained by the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, came to a public meeting held at the local senior center on Sept. 21.

Terrence Jenkins, managing director of the firm, and consultant Diane Williams were the main speakers and facilitated the exploratory process at the meeting.

Prior to their presentation and workshops, two representatives of the MWCDC, Greg Panza, project manager, and Chris Beichner, executive director, stressed that their organization was not endorsing the idea of improvement districts. Mr. Beichner said the URA was suggesting neighborhood groups hold discussions about creating such districts so communities could be more self-sufficient and meet local goals. This was the first public meeting to address the matter.

There are usually five types of services neighborhoods may request or require, Mr. Jenkins said. These are: public space improvements, maintenance, security, marketing and broader economic development. He and Ms. Williams spoke to residents and community leaders and held focus group sessions and they heard most often from participants that they want the area to be clean and safe.

Mr. Jenkins explained Pennsylvania improvement districts are permitted due to the passage of the Neighborhood Improvement Act of 2000. A NID is defined as a legal mechanism to raise funds to support programs and services within a defined geographic area. There are over 700 improvement districts in the U.S., as of 2010.

Benefits from improvement districts include sharing costs to solve neighborhood problems and having neighborhoods function somewhat independently with local management. A key part of the planning includes determining the district boundaries and estimating the potential cost of a NID.

Mr. Jenkins said some areas that became "clean and safe" due to improvement districts include parts of St. Louis and Baltimore.

The idea is being discussed in other parts of Pittsburgh. South Side residents and business owners are now being surveyed whether they want such a district. Property owners would pay an annual service fee if a NID is voluntarily formed. All of the money collected would go to South Side, not other neighborhoods. The fee would go for additional services not already provided for by the city.

When brought up for a vote, if 40 per cent of the property owners oppose forming the district, the district will not be created and a fee will not be charged. One reason South Siders may favor a NID is some neighborhood amenities will be lost when the South Side Local Development Company ceases operations in 2012.

Similar strategies regarding a service fee and surveys by mail would be considered for Mount Washington but currently the planning is in its earliest stages.

If set up, the NIDs have terms that come up for renewal every five years.

Municipal approval for establishing a NID is required and city council members representing the district are usually asked to champion its formation before the rest of council.

"For me to be supportive, I need to know that the community is supportive," said Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who attended the meeting.

"This is a sensitive issue for the community. We get that," Ms.Williams told the group.

"I live in America. I need to know that the majority is in favor of the program," resident Carl Suter said.

"We are not here to make a decision tonight. We are going to do what we said we are going to do. This will be a transparent process," Mr. Jenkins said.

The group held what the facilitators called "break-out sessions" to consider such issues as services that may be provided, potential cost scenarios and logical district boundaries.

Mr. Jenkins and Ms. Williams heard some opposition to the plan from residents who did not want to pay for the improvement district. There were more than 20 residents in attendance.

The next meeting on Mount Washington NIDs is scheduled for Nov. 2. Plans call for discussion about creation of a NID structure, review of costs per national models and consideration of boundaries.


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