The chief goal of the Wilkinsburg Future website is to collect and publish information and tools helpful for residents trying to understand the process of annexation, this annexation scheme, who is pushing and opposing it, and how all of it would affect residents, perhaps like yourself. We’ve also published information about efforts we support that aim to make for a better, yet independent Wilkinsburg.
Wasn’t the 1903 Annexation Law repealed?
PA Act 41, signed into law on July 7, 2022, by Governor Wolf repealed the April 28, 1903 P.L. 332 No. 260 entitled “An act for the annexation of any city, borough, township, or part of a township, to a contiguous city, and providing for the indebtedness of the same.” This was the outdated and unused law that was at the center of this annexation attempt.
Where is the process right now?
The latest petition was submitted on September 29, 2022, with AC court case GD-22-012361. The judge in the case will rule October 18 on the validity of the petitions, which were submitted under a repealed law. The submission claims that the repeal is invalid. See the October 6 article “Pro-Annexation group submits signatures under repealed annexation process” for more information on that development.
If the judge ruled that repealing the unused annexation was legal, the petition process would end. In that event, annexation would no longer be an option for Wilkinsburg. An appeal could change that, but the expense of an appeal is very high.
If the judge ruled that the annexation law, and dozens of others, were unlawfully repealed, annexation might proceed as statutorily written. The state law will be in chaos as the legislature attempts to resolve the problem amid a heated mid-term election. Expect appeals in this scenario, too.
If allowed to proceed on October 18, City Council would have 90 days to decide to approve or disapprove. If the latter, the procedure ends like it did in February 2022. If the former, it would head to the ballot for a public referendum. If approved before April 16, 2023, the question will be on the May 16, 2023, ballot (thereby likely disenfranchising more than 10% of Wilkinsburg voters, who are third-party or independent). If after, then the question would be on the November 2023 ballot. If it goes on the ballot, WF believes the referendum will fail. If it passes, the annexation will occur at midnight on January 1, 2024, excepting any appeals processes.
What is the legal process?
The process under the repealed 1903 No. 260 annexation law sought by proponents of the 2021-2022 effort to dissolve Wilkinsburg into Pittsburgh involved these actions in the following order. To our knowledge, failure at any step ends the process and necessitates returning to the beginning.
- Gather signatures for a public referendum via petition collection process, which circumvents elected Wilkinsburg Borough Council vote
- Submit petitions to a court, which then orders Pittsburgh City Council to approve or disapprove
- Pittsburgh City Council votes; approval sends the annexation to public referendum via a ballot question in the next scheduled election or an election ordered by the court, while disapproval ends the process.
- Wilkinsburg voters’ ballots include the referendum as an as-of-yet unclear ballot question
- The majority vote determines the outcome: approval means annexation takes effect at the start of the next calendar year, while disapproval ends the process and increases the petition signature requirement for the next attempt within two years while also preventing another vote for at least two years.
At this point, if the majority voted to affirm the annexation, Wilkinsburg would cease to exist as a legal government entity and all property owned by the Borough of Wilkinsburg would become the property of the City of Pittsburgh: buildings, land, equipment, financial assets, debts, and more. All residents and taxpayers of Wilkinsburg would become residents and taxpayers of Pittsburgh. The school districts would merge, as, well. All Wilkinsburg taxpayers would become Pittsburgh taxpayers at Pittsburgh’s rates as of the start of the year the annexation takes effect.
Municipal annexations are rare; this process is not well understood even by municipal government lawyers. We will update this should our understanding be corrected.
Why are some calling this a “merger” when this is an annexation? Why does this site use “annexation” and not “merger” like others?
The legal process of an “annexation” comes from Act 260 from 1903 and what is currently Penna. Statutes Title 53 §171 through §181. This process, outlined in brief above, excludes a vote from Wilkinsburg’s own government. It relies solely on the petition of the population seeking annexation, the approval of the larger body (via a vote by City Council) that the municipality would become a part of (Pittsburgh), and then goes to a popular vote of the municipality (Wilkinsburg), where a majority decides the outcome.
The legal process of a “merger” comes from a 1994 law. There are different methods that can be used in a merger, but both municipalities being merged have mirroring procedures – in other words, this can be done via a joint agreement by both local governments, followed by a vote by each electorate. Both governments and both sets of voters are involved.
In the current proposal that the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC) is leading, Pittsburgh would annex Wilkinsburg and none of Wilkinsburg’s government structure would continue operating. The employment of Wilkinsburg employees would likely end unless the City of Pittsburgh decides to retain redundant workers or operate its facilities as precincts, substations, or other branches of City-operated agencies. The terms of Wilkinsburg elected officials, including the school board, would end immediately. WCDC received legal advice that this annexation law is the only method that state law provides for a city of Pittsburgh’s size to combine with a borough of Wilkinsburg’s size, but Pittsburgh’s solicitor indicated otherwise in a public hearing.
The Effort and the Players
What is the WCDC?
The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC) appears to be the primary supporter, organizer, and investor in the annexation proposal. It is a private, non-profit charity organization founded in 2007 and has generally worked in agreement with the borough council. Its leadership is not elected by Wilkinsburg residents. WCDC board members are not permitted to be borough council members.
Why is WCDC pushing for this?
Through its site supporting the merger, the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC) has focused on asserting that the City of Pittsburgh is better equipped to combat Wilkinsburg’s blight, that the city police and public safety is cheaper with more community training resources and a Citizen’s Police Review Board, that property taxes are lower in Pittsburgh, that homeowners with property assessments significantly exceeding their income would pay less municipal tax in total as Pittsburgh residents, and that Pittsburgh offers more assistance for housing for low-income residents.
As with any effort that seemingly came out of nowhere, there may be other reasons. WF will publish posts when we identify enough evidence to support any claims.
Who funds WCDC?
The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC) lists on its 2020 IRS Form 990 its largest funders as Richard King Mellon Foundation, Tristate Capital Bank, Keystone Health Plan West, Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County, and UPMC. These six organizations comprise approximately 83% of the WCDC total revenue for 2020.
See more at its IRS Tax Exempt Organization page.
Who else is involved in pushing and funding annexation efforts?
WF is working to identify what organizations are funding the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC) annexation proposal efforts in 2021 and 2022, such as community meetings and paid signature collectors, some of whom are not Wilkinsburg residents.
Some of the lead petitioners of the September 2022 petition are Wilkinsburg school board members. One of the three main petitioners for the December 2021 failed attempt left Wilkinsburg in June 2022.
Will becoming a part of Pittsburgh solve Wilkinsburg’s blighted properties problem?
Wilkinsburg’s blight is neither the result of high taxes nor because people don’t want to live in Wilkinsburg.
The empty, blighted buildings in Wilkinsburg sit abandoned because the borough and school district have not taken properties with unpaid real estate tax (“delinquency”) to sheriff’s tax sale to get new owners. Allegheny County, unlike all the surrounding counties, does not by law take properties to tax sale after two years of delinquency.
Wilkinsburg is not the only community in Pennsylvania that struggles with blight. The City of Pittsburgh has thousands of abandoned properties, but the overall percentage of Pittsburgh properties with delinquent tax exceeding value is lower than in Wilkinsburg. That is, Pittsburgh has many more blighted homes by count, and the percentage still salvageable is lower. Annexation proponents want Wilkinsburg— most of its neighborhoods densely built over a century ago— to be included in that larger tax base that has a smaller percentage of buildings nearing end of usability. If Pittsburgh annexes Wilkinsburg, Wilkinsburg’s properties, including blighted properties numbering on the order of tens, would be grouped in with Pittsburgh’s 11,500 properties.
Delinquent tax policy must be driven by the reality that there is no incentive for an owner to sell their property if they owe years of tax. The sale proceeds would go entirely to pay the delinquent tax! Why bother?
Settlement of delinquent tax cannot be negotiated with the tax authority as settlement of private debt can be negotiated. A judicial proceeding is required to clear delinquent tax.
In our research, many if not most are owned by dead people. When an owner dies, and there is no transfer of the ownership of legal record by an estate, the eventual work of delivering a clear title to a new owner gets complicated. The costs to clear the title generally increase as the value of a deteriorating building decreases.
To break the spiral that sets up blocks of properties for a land grab by developers with deep pockets, the borough and school district must accept a plan for clearing uncollectible delinquent real estate tax. Interventions that bring a few properties out of legal limbo leave those successes vulnerable to losing value to neighborhood blight. Any assertion of how soon Pittsburgh city council and schools would address Wilkinsburg’s blight is pure speculation.
What is Pittsburgh’s blight situation?
According to the Post-Gazette, The City of Pittsburgh owns 11,500 properties and more than half have liens. In Homewood and Larimer, more than 25% of properties are city-owned. All of these are vacant and many are in violation of city ordinances: the city hasn’t acted to repair, improve, and restore to its tax rolls. At a city council hearing in early December, city council president Teresa Kail-Smith asserted that 20% of properties in Pittsburgh are vacant; this vacancy and tax delinquency problem is a regional problem that Pittsburgh hasn’t solved yet, either.
In the case of most of these properties, judicial intervention is required in order to clean the title so that the property can be sold to a living, responsible owner. This can happen via a Sheriff’s sale, Allegheny County’s Vacant Property Recovery Program, or Pennsylvania’s conservatorship law, the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act of 2008 (Act 135). While these tools are complex and expensive, and in need of revision, they are the legal processes available right now, and accessing these processes is likely easier in Wilkinsburg than in Pittsburgh.
What about the Land Bank program?
While Pittsburgh has had a land bank program since 2014, fewer than five properties have been restored to the tax roles since its founding. Wilkinsburg started a land bank program in 2022 but it’s too early to predict or assess its efficacy.
Who is accountable for this process and any plans?
The (repealed) 1903 No. 260 state law makes no provision for accountability in this process. The law was never used, so there are no precedents. Any plan for what happens to Wilkinsburg should annexation pass referendum is pure speculation up to an educated guess unless it comes from the annexing municipality’s council: Pittsburgh. Even then, there is no process for reversing annexation should the Pittsburgh city council fail to meet any plan, verbal or enacted. Be wary of any statements of what’s going to happen outside of clearly defined legal processes such as taxation differences.
Taxes & Finances
Will an annexation really lower my taxes?
It’s too case-by-case per taxpayer to factually assert that taxes will be lower.
Why? The City of Pittsburgh charges three times more earned wage tax than the Borough of Wilkinsburg. However, the City charges much less in total property tax: approximately 51% of Wilkinsburg.
Wilkinsburg residents who own may see lower property tax bills and lower paychecks. The break-even point is only a 2.8% difference: multiply your property assessment by 0.972. If that number is less than your household income, you will pay more tax as a Pittsburgh resident. See the tax calculator for more info.
Wilkinsburg residents who rent may only see lower paychecks because they will pay thrice the wage tax but not benefit from any property tax relief. Renters will pay more tax as Pittsburgh residents, full stop.
There’s no proposal from annexation proponents that would address this tremendous impact on renters. Some 68% of Wilkinsburg residents are renters. There is also no plan to help homeowners for whom the reduction in property taxes does not offset their increased income tax burden. Homeowners whose wages exceed approximately 97.2% of their property assessment will pay more tax should they become Pittsburgh residents.
Wilkinsburg property owners who don’t live in the Borough would see lower taxes but may be subject to a bevy of other taxes that Wilkinsburg does not currently assess. See the City of Pittsburgh Tax FAQs for more information on those.
To estimate how your own tax situation would change, see the tax calculator.
Will Pittsburgh’s enormous 5% realty transfer tax impede the sale of my property?
We can’t say for sure, but amid rampant inflation and mortgage interest rates nearing 20-year highs, adding 3% to the cost of a home purchase will undoubtedly encourage buyers to purchase where taxes are minimized.
Wilkinsburg’s total realty transfer tax is 2%. The borough and the schools split half of that and 1% goes to the state. In Pittsburgh, 3% goes the the city, 1% goes to the schools, while 1% goes to the state.
Realty transfer tax is paid when land and buildings are transferred. Normally, this is tacked onto a mortgage for residential buyers. Buying a $100,000 house in Wilkinsburg incurs a $2,000 tax while buying the same value house in Pittsburgh would incur a $5,000 tax.
Will my home value be reassessed after annexation?
Not automatically as a result of the annexation. School districts have the authority to trigger reassessments on a case-by-case basis following new construction or major additions but not for an entire municipality. Allegheny County conducted a county-wide reassessment in 2012/2013.
Further research is required to understand if Pittsburgh Public Schools requests interim revaluations more frequently than Wilkinsburg SD. We know from PPS reports that PPS tends to reassess shortly after transfer when the property exceeds $200,000 and the difference between the purchase price and assessed value is greater than 30%.
Is Wilkinsburg deep enough in debt to go bankrupt soon?
No. Wilkinsburg carried over cash assets of $4.3M in 2019 and $3.9M in 2020. It maintains a healthy and recently refinanced set of bonds with stable and investable ratings from various credit-issuing authorities. It passed an audit with flying colors. The Wilkinsburg Sun newsletter reported in its December 2021/January 2022 edition that upon approval of the 2022 budget in December 2021, Wilkinsburg will mark sixteen consecutive years of producing a balanced budget without a tax increase.
Claims that the Borough of Wilkinsburg has been fiscally irresponsible and will be bankrupt by 2025, as stated in other forums, are simply not based in reality.
Does Wilkinsburg have a better bond rating than the City of Pittsburgh?
Will the Wilkinsburg School District cease to exist?
Yes, under PA Title 24 § 2-229, effective immediately after a court validates the annexation vote. Under PA Title 24 § 2-230, Pittsburgh SD would take over contracting duties and all other administrative duties immediately thereafter.
The Wilkinsburg SD would be effectively dissolved but Pittsburgh SD would gain control of buildings, decide where students go for their classes, and control all faculty and staff employment decisions. The Wilkinsburg school board would be dissolved. Wilkinsburg residents would not vote for school board members until the next election where Pittsburgh school director seats are on the ballot. It’s unclear what would happen to the teacher union contract.
Law Enforcement & Public Safety
Who will police Wilkinsburg if it is annexed?
It is unclear, as the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police would decide.
Will there still be a police station in Wilkinsburg?
It is unclear, as the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police would decide the future of what exists now as the Wilkinsburg Police Department and its approximately 40 employees.
Who would represent me on city council?
There is no plan for what ward(s) Wilkinsburg would be assigned and what councilmember(s)’ district(s) would be expanded to include those ward(s). Claims of who would represent Wilkinsburg, even by incumbent council members, are speculation, even if made by incumbent city council members.
Would my access to my councilmembers change?
Wilkinsburg residents enjoy a more intimate relationship with their council members than Pittsburgh residents. Wilkinsburg council members represent approximately 1,700 residents each while Pittsburgh council members represent more than 30,000 residents.
Your access to elected officials would be more like how current Pittsburgh residents interact with their elected officials, not like how you may interact with your Wilkinsburg elected officials. Pittsburgh City Council members are full-time paid around $68,000 (as of 2019) with a small paid staff, while Wilkinsburg council members are part-time and paid $3,250 per year according to PA Title 8 Ch. 10 §1001(e).
How many more people do Pittsburgh council members represent?
Simply put, it’s like going from being one of a family of five kids to being one in a family of… 63 kids.
Wilkinsburg’s approximately 15,000 residents are represented by nine council members, which is an approximate ratio of 1 to 1,666. Pittsburgh’s approximately 300,000 residents are represented also by nine council members, which is an approximate ratio of 1 to 33,333. Thus, Pittsburgh councilmembers represent 20 times more people than Wilkinsburg councilmembers presently.
Should annexation proceed, and no council members are added to the Pittsburgh city council as a result (there is no published proposal touching on this), the ratio would increase to 1 to 35,000, which would be 21 times the constituents represented by Wilkinsburg council members.
Can Wilkinsburg expect a decrease in services like snow removal or pothole filling if there is an annexation?
It is unclear, as there is no published, proposed plan for how services may change.
We do know that the City of Pittsburgh does not provide a leaf collection service. While Wilkinsburg suspended this in 2021 due to the breakdown of its leaf collection truck, this has been a valued service that the borough provides and intends to restore for autumn 2022.
Pittsburgh has a history of snow plowing problems often impacting its far eastern neighborhoods abutting Wilkinsburg and Penn Hills worse than core business districts and affluent neighborhoods. We understand that Pittsburgh tends to prioritize its many main arteries first and side streets eventually, where Wilkinsburg tends to address side streets more quickly and preemptively treat most streets.
When Wilkinsburg residents have a problem, they call the borough building and generally get routed to the Department of Public Works, where they talk directly to the Director or one of the staff. The turnaround time is just a couple of days usually. Pittsburgh residents can dial 311 but there’s no guarantee of response times, and the @Pgh311 Twitter service is sometimes fast but sometimes weeks behind.
You can expect that for any government activity you previously went to the Wilkinsburg Borough Building on Ross Street to do, you will instead need to travel to the City/County Building on Grant Street in Pittsburgh’s Central Business District. This trip one-way is 20 minutes by car, up to 40 minutes by bus, a 50-minute bicycle ride, or a more than two hour and 15-minute walk.
What will happen to the borough employees?
There is no publicly available plan for the continuity of borough employees’ employment with the City of Pittsburgh. Most would be made redundant as their positions already exist within the city government.
Normally, when a municipal consolidation effort is driven by elected officials, these kinds of details are worked out in a public forum. There is not currently public support of annexation from the borough council as a whole.
WF learned that the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police union intends to welcome Wilkinsburg officers should the annexation occur, but could not guarantee their employment. Officers would have to apply like any potential candidate.
What about business taxes?
There is a bevy of differences in business taxes. Notably, Pittsburgh assesses a payroll tax that Wilkinsburg does not. Pittsburgh assesses a business privilege tax that is more than twice that of Wilkinsburg. Ultimately, business taxes in Pittsburgh are generally higher than in Wilkinsburg.
The sole meaningful difference is for business property owners: it’s factual that Pittsburgh’s property taxes, including those for businesses, are lower. This may translate to lower business rents, but at the time of annexation, it’s naive to believe that business property owners would lower the rents commensurate with their lower tax rate.
Both assess a local services tax and the amount is equivalent.
I Don’t Want This! What Do I Do?
First, if you are asked to sign a petition about the annexation or merger referendum, don’t sign it! The more signatures collected, the more likely it could go on the ballot. While WF believes that it would be soundly defeated, being on the ballot would be a tremendous distraction from the other initiatives actively improving Wilkinsburg for the betterment and enjoyment of all Wilkinsburg residents.
Third, should this end up on the ballot, vote against annexation! Be careful — we don’t know what form the ballot question will take and sometimes ballot questions can be worded confusingly. Be sure to check back to WilkinsburgFuture.org for advice, should it come to that.
What were the details of the past, failed annexation petition drives?
December 2021 history. The petition submitted in December 2021 under AC court case GD-21-014817 was defeated by Pittsburgh City Council ordinance 2022-0040 in a 7-2 vote on February 8, 2022. See more information in the WF coverage of the vote here. This petition process is ended. To restart, a new petition must be circulated and once again receive a PCC vote.
During the summer of 2022, PCC held a handful of public meetings investigating annexation and municipal consolidation in general with a specific focus on Wilkinsburg, should a petition be presented. We believe that, given enough time to research the matter, PCC will concur with WF that Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh should not combine.
We understand that proponents are gathering signatures again for a 2H 2022 submission to the court with intention of balloting for the May 2023 primary (thereby likely disenfranchising more than 10% of Wilkinsburg voters, who are third-party or independent). Should this pass council, go to ballot, and unfortunately pass, the annexation could happen in January 2024. Notably, one of the three main petitioners for the December 2021 failed attempt left Wilkinsburg as of June 2022.
There was an unlikely scenario in which annexation was balloted for November 2022, but it did not happen.