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Overwhelming opposition to annexation at April hearing

11 of the 17 speakers at an April 14 Pittsburgh City Council hearing on Wilkinsburg annexation opposed the council approving future petitions that would send annexation to a public referendum. Most identified themselves as Wilkinsburg residents while three said they are Pittsburgh residents, including 2021 mayoral candidate Tony Moreno. One opposing speaker was Wilkinsburgh council member Sabrina Gibson.

Two speakers favored annexation, one from Pittsburgh and one from Wilkinsburg. The latter was Bernie Wetzel, the former president of the Wilkinsburg Community Development board of directors. WCDC is the main proponent of annexation.

Three speakers were the three Pittsburgh City Council members attending the hearing: Theresa Kail-Smith, Erika Strassburger, and Rev. Ricky Burgess. Burgess led the meeting.

Burgess opened with a consultant-prepared presentation during which attendees interjected several times to call out misleading statistics and outright false information. Several Pittsburgh Police officers were in attendance as well. One silenced interjectors multiple times, ordering them not to interrupt the council member under threat of forcible removal from the building.

Eventually, speakers took to the microphone. Choice statements, exact or paraphrased, from the opposition:

  • “PIttsburgh neglects its existing neighborhoods.”
  • “Pressure Allegheny County to set up programs to benefit all of the distressed municipalities.”
  • “Change laws to enable Pittsburgh voters voice in annexation.”
  • “Scorched earth renewal projects [ed: raze and rebuild] nearly always are awarded to out-of-state developers.”
  • “Sharing services does not mean we’re tied together. We love our independence.”
  • “Councilman Burgess put a pause on [annexation] and spoke about courting Wilkinsburg and not being forced into a shotgun wedding. He said he wanted to court Wilkinsburg, then he turned around in March and designed a way to examine not only Wilkinsburg but other municipalities for possible annexation. In this examination, Wilkinsburg was stripped naked before city council like a slave on an auction block to see how she would benefit Pittsburgh’s prosperity. Betwen January and March of this year, Burgess went from wanting to court Wilkinsburg to drooling at the mouth and rubbing his lustful hands in eagerness, declaring that in one year from this time, he would vote yes to annexing Wilkinsburg. […] I would personally not say yes to someone courting me in this way.”
  • “What would Pittsburgh do [with Wilkinsburg]? You’ve not said this. Tell us!”
  • “My son was murdered in 2014. Pittsburgh Police haven’t solved in. How can Pittsburgh expect to save Wilkinsburg when its own house is not in order? We should be talking about how to solve murders, not annexation.”
  • “Wilkinsburg is running smooth.”
  • “Wilkinsburg is solvent. […] Do not trust them, they’re lying to you!”
  • “Wilkinsburg should use COVID money to revitalize.”
  • “[Wilkinsburg does] need new leadership. […] If this plan [to annex Wilkinsburg] was such a good plan, why was it not presented to council?”
  • “..The racism and classism that is in my community. I’m not saying that to be radical. I’m not saying that for shock value. I’m saying that because it’s a reality of this situation. We have people who don’t represent us making decisions for us. […] Wilkinsburg school board has become less diverse. Some people on it don’t even have children that are in our school district yet they are making decisions for us because most of them want to lower the school tax that we have. The WCDC is trying to do the same thing with property tax.”

One opposer showed maps of blight in Burgess and Lavelle’s districts from a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story from early April 2021 highlighting the ineffectiveness of Pittsburgh’s land bank program and inaction from the city council on demonstrability fighting blight. Another opposer chided Burgess for reusing the consultant-prepared presentation, saying that it came directly from the WCDC and it contains significant false information and does not adequately cite its sources.

Speaking first and twelfth, the two speakers in favor of annexation claimed that the additional revenue the annexation would bring into Pittsburgh Public Schools is especially needed when PPS is running in deficit. One said that although Wilkinsburg’s elementary schools are performing better than Pittsburgh’s, both are underperforming compared to statewide and national benchmarks, and that is “not a badge of honor”. The audience interjected during both speeches to call out misleading information.

Pittsburgh City Council members ended the session with their own remarks. Kail-Smith said that she would speak with Wilkinsburg’s Finance Director in order to investigate the misleading numbers in Burgess’s presentation. Strassburger expressed her frustration with the process and stressed that her No vote in February was based in process and that more information is necessary to make an informed decision.

Burgess expressed his gratitude to all speakers but then claimed that Wilkinsburg homeowners’ property values would increase overnight because of the lower property taxes. He failed to acknowledge the tripled earned income tax rate that comes with Pittsburgh residency! He also stated that the task force has not yet been in contact with the Wilkinsburg borough council members that were invited to participate and that for the task force to succeed, Pittsburgh City Council needs to be invited in to hold these hearings in Wilkinsburg, as well. He implored opposers not to spend any more time campaigning Pittsburgh City Council but to refocus their efforts on campaigning voters. Burgess seemed very confident and convinced that the next vote will pass the city council and head to the referendum.

You can watch the whole hearing here in the embed below. Burgess’s remarks start off and the speakers’ remarks start at 14:55 and are approximately three minutes each through 58:00. This 43-minute segment is well-worth watching.

Coverage elsewhere: