“Annexation is dead. What’s next?”

Those sentences led an advertisement for a July 31 community meeting in Wilkinsburg, and the question permeates discussions among borough activists and elected officials.

A July Commonwealth Court ruling left the two-year-old effort to annex the borough into Pittsburgh stalled, if not deceased. While the debate over annexation was a binary choice — to join the city or not — where the borough goes from here is much more complex.

The borough’s challenges haven’t eased; tax revenue is in low supply and blight is widespread. The borough council is undergoing major change, with new members and a young mayor poised to shake up the municipal government. And a commission elected last year is exploring the possibility of drafting a home rule charter for the borough, perhaps the most drastic possible change to borough government other than annexation.

“We want to get people excited about rebuilding Wilkinsburg,” said Renee Haynes-Johnson, a Government Study Commission member and a Democratic nominee for borough council in the upcoming elections.

Home rule and the trickiness of taxation

Under Pennsylvania law, all boroughs have the same basic government structure and limited taxing power. Voters can decide to make their borough into a home rule municipality, though, which effectively transfers some governing power from the state Capitol to local borough leaders. Wilkinsburg voters began the process of making that change last year when they approved a Government Study Commission.

The seven-member commission is tasked with deciding whether the borough should adopt a home rule charter, and if so, what it should say. If it produces a draft charter, voters would either ratify or kill it at a future election. The vote on whether to pursue a charter is scheduled for a late August public meeting.

Wilkinsburg Government Study Commission member Jacquet Kehm (right) speaks during a press conference prior to the 2022 elections. Commission member Keywanda Battle (left) and former member Kim Kaplan sit. (Photo by Charlie Wolfson/Rtvsrece)

Home rule has many implications, but increased taxing power is likely the most impactful one. Home rule municipalities have no cap on income tax rates while boroughs are not allowed to set rates above 1%.

Numerous home rule municipalities in Allegheny County have exercised that power, with many setting income tax rates between 1% and 2%. The City of Pittsburgh leads the pack with a 3% earned income tax.

While it’s unclear if Wilkinsburg would raise taxes under a new home rule charter, discussion at a late-July commission meeting pointed toward that possibility. There, Haynes-Johnson said that in interviews with borough employees, “One of the running themes is money and lack thereof. If we had more, we could do more.”

Plus, she said, “We can’t be competitive enough in salary,” making it hard to hire and retain staff.

The commission’s chairman, Jacquet Kehm, said interviewees were quick to point to tax caps as problems with the current borough structure. “From what I’ve heard so far, the financial implications look like a big enough reason” to go to home rule, he said.

Wilkinsburg had more than 1,000 abandoned properties that don’t contribute tax revenue as of early this year, which places a heavy financial burden on property owners in a borough with a low earned income tax. Wilkinsburg has among the highest property tax millage rates in the county.

Asked by Rtvsrece if voters would be right to expect an income tax increase under home rule, Haynes-Johnson said, “Let me answer it this way: In all of the municipalities that we have studied that went to home rule, they all did increase their earned income tax.

“It might take the burden off of homeowners and put it on the employed, and revenue would go up and it would be a more efficient system.”

With home rule comes a fundamental question of how much the borough should utilize the property tax and earned income tax, each of which puts stress on different, but overlapping, groups of people. Raising the income tax would impact a broader swath of the population and would not spare renters or the lowest earners. Property taxes only directly impact property owners, who are wealthier on average.

Wilkinsburg’s mayor, Dontae Comans, told Rtvsrece he could envision a modest income tax hike, ideally coupled with property tax decreases.

“What if we could raise it just 0.5%?” Comans, 38, said in an interview. “We have so many blighted properties in our borough, but most people in our borough work. We could raise more money that way and take care of the blighted properties.

“Even if you raised it to 2%, that’s still lower than Pittsburgh’s [3%].”

A house on Rebecca Street, one of hundreds of vacant properties in Wilkinsburg, photographed in July 2022. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Hypothetically, were the income tax rate doubled in 2023, the borough would collect an extra $1.5 million. A worker earning the borough’s per capita income of $32,400 would pay an added $162 per year. That added $1.5 million would represent an 8% boost in the borough’s overall revenue this year.

But Comans’ powers as mayor do not include setting tax rates. That power belongs to the borough council.

A likely new member of council next year, NaTisha Washington, said that as part of Wilkinsburg’s renting majority, she would lean against raising income taxes for the benefit of property taxpayers.

“I think homeowners are more prevalent in these conversations, which may be why property tax issues are being emphasized more,” Washington said.

Another likely incoming member, Democratic nominee Moses Workman, said he’d be averse to raising the income tax rate.

“That’s the first complaint you hear about Wilkinsburg,” he said in an interview. “People say the taxes are too high. If there are solutions without raising taxes, I’m all for that.”

Council President Denise Edwards, who is serving the final year of a council tenure that goes back to 1998, said raising income taxes is “not on the table” and she has heard no related discussions. “We’re focused on expanding the tax base” instead, she said.

‘It’s dead.’

A July Commonwealth Court ruling nixed one of the only legal pathways to annexation, leaving proponents further than ever from success. Tracey Evans, the director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation [WCDC] and the architect of the annexation push, said her group plans to appeal the ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Annexation’s detractors, though, seem satisfied that the idea has been defeated.

“It’s dead,” Edwards said. “As for what the WCDC is going to do, you’d have to ask them. I am very confident that it’s dead. Do they have another plan? I have no idea. The only thing we can do is do our best and build this borough.”

Since the WCDC first began the public proceedings almost two years ago, the debate over annexation crossed from policy dispute to personal feud. Borough officials and activists called annexation proponents outsiders who sought financial gain at the borough’s expense, bashed Evans’ performance as head of the WCDC’s economic development mission and even formally severed ties between the borough and the nonprofit.

Washington said many in the borough “felt we were losing everything we held near and dear and auctioning it off because we can’t pay for our own services.”

While the legal battle may be more or less concluded, hard feelings may not be. As recently as a July 31 community meeting, Haynes-Johnson appeared to refer to the WCDC as “a certain entity who shall be unnamed,” and the small audience broke into applause when she recounted the end of the legal saga that closed off a path to annexation.

Workman, a 39-year-old homeowner and longtime borough resident, said he ran for council to try to remove some of the contentiousness from borough governance. And he may be well situated to change the council’s image: He’s spent parts of his career working for both the borough government and the WCDC.

“You’re an elected official, you have to listen to both sides,” Workman said. “You can’t shut the other side out … It shouldn’t be personal.”

Borough council refreshed?

Workman recounted seeing residents go to borough meetings long before the annexation push started in 2021 and ask about the possibility of merging with Pittsburgh. “Some council members would get angry at them, and it turns into an emotional screaming match. That’s the wrong mind frame,” he said.

Workman is likely to be one of three newcomers to the nine-member council in January. He won a Democratic primary in May along with Haynes-Johnson, 69, and Washington, 32.

Comans said he hopes a fresh crop of legislators will shake up how the body works. “It’s definitely been the same people for way too long,” he said. “People will complain that things aren’t getting done, but there are no ideas.”

While the council’s membership has turned over some in recent years, it’s still led by established hands. President Edwards first arrived in 1998, Vice President Paige Trice in 2008 and former president and current member Pamela Macklin in 1997.

Neither Edwards nor Trice ran for reelection this year. Haynes-Johnson is likely to replace Trice, and Washington will likely succeed Edwards. Macklin is not up for reelection until 2025.

“You're an elected official, you have to listen to both sides ... It shouldn't be personal.”

Haynes-Johnson said the group needs more follow-through on proposals. While the longtime members of council have valuable knowledge of the borough’s history, she said, “they are entrenched in ways of doing things that prevent them from seeing a newer view.”

Washington was not yet 10 years old when Edwards first joined the council: “From growing up in this community, a lot of people have been in there since I was a young kid. A lot of people think things are going to stay stagnant.

“It’s kind of similar to the rest of the Mon Valley. We’ve watched things decline over the years, there’s this sense that nothing can be done and there are no future plans. I think that now that we have some new people coming in, it’s starting to build up that hope again. People are tired of talking and going to all these community meetings. People want to see action.”

Edwards addressed concerns over entrenched councilors with a touch of humor. “Aging is not a bad thing. The alternative is not particularly good.

“I think new people are good, but there needs to be institutional memory. There really does. It can be very bewildering as to how the damn thing actually works, if it does. There needs to be balance.”

Charlie Wolfson is Rtvsrece’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@rtvsrece.com.

This story was fact-checked by Alexandra Ross.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for Rtvsrece, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Charlie aims his coverage at the intersection of policy and politics,...