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City Neighborhoods
Tax revolt brewing in city's west end neighborhoods

Residents of 12 neighborhoods resolve to fight WeHav program, $20 fee

Monday, February 17, 2003

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Like most grass-roots movements, the growing tax revolt in 12 western Pittsburgh neighborhoods is small, disorganized and a bit chaotic.

Dona Hickman uses a little body language to accent her point during a meeting at the Sheraden Community Presbyterian Church where city residents expressed opposition to a special $20 assessment. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Most of the people who are leading it never before tried to interpret a state law or fight city hall.

But slowly, they are mobilizing in an effort to overturn a new $20 annual assessment approved by a split vote of Pittsburgh City Council members last summer for Chartiers City, Crafton Heights, East Carnegie, Elliott, Esplen, Fairywood, Oakwood, Ridgemont, Sheraden, West End, Westwood and Windgap.

The assessment funds a home equity assurance program that Councilman Alan Hertzberg hopes will help to preserve neighborhoods from declining because of absentee landlords and flight to the suburbs.

The opponents don't see it that way.

"It is a program that only works for a few people and thousands pay for it," said Dona Hickman of Sheraden. She fears that many people won't have a clue what is happening and think their $20 will be used to plant flowers.

"It is very scary that they can establish a tax for any reason whatsoever," said Diane Davis of Sheraden.

"What irritates me is that everyone thinks it is a done deal," said Al Baggiani of Sheraden, who hopes to get enough signatures on petitions to take the issue back to City Council, where opponents hope the program would be terminated.

Fliers have been printed. More than 2,000 signatures have been collected from residents in the 12 communities.

On Wednesday, about 25 opponents of the new program gathered in a church hall in Sheraden to work on strategies and to do practical things, like distribute fliers and rolls of tape for hanging them.

Paul Sentner of Elliott, right, talks with a group about their opposition to the new $20 annual assessment. Sentner posts information for the ad hoc citizens group on his Web site: www.pauljsentner.com. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

"We have been at this since last July," said Paul Sentner of Elliott, one of the ad hoc group's leaders, who posts information about the effort on his Web site: www.pauljsentner.com.

The program they are trying to block, the West End Home Assurance Value Program, was launched last month and is fashioned after one in southwest Chicago which was created by voter referendum 14 years ago.

There was no voter referendum leading to the creation of the WeHav program, as the Pittsburgh program is called, which is run by a nine-member commission and managed by the nonprofit West Pittsburgh Partnership. It imposes an annual assessment of $20 on all residential units in the 12 communities to fund an insurance pool that is supposed to guard home values in those areas.

Judy Dyda, Mayor Tom Murphy's neighborhood policy coordinator, said a group of residents in western communities asked for the program. She said Hertzberg selected the neighborhoods west of the Parkway West because they are facing "alarming problems" -- increases of abandoned properties, block busting and "those little signs, 'We buy homes cheap.' "

Sentner disputed that assessment, saying the problems of the western neighborhoods aren't any worse than in other city neighborhoods.

A homeowner may opt to participate in the WeHav program by paying $125 for an appraisal and agreeing to stay in the home for five years. If the owner sells the home after five years and the price drops below the appraisal, he will be paid the difference between the appraisal and the sales price. The program requires homeowners to maintain their properties to avoid fraud.

In Chicago, Helen Juozapavicius, executive director of Southwest Home Equity Assurance, said 60,000 households are eligible for that program which is funded through an annual assessment of about $20 per household. She said 5,200 homeowners are currently enrolled. Through the years, only 12 families have collected claims from the insurance program.

"The average claim was $5,500," said Juozapavicius.

So what happened to the rest of the money?

Juozapavicius said a home improvement loan program was created with the pool of money. It enables homeowners to apply for zero interest or low interest loans to improve the housing stock. She said the home equity program is one ingredient in a broader, community-driven effort that has done much to revitalize southwest Chicago.

In the Pittsburgh neighborhoods, bills for the $20 fee will be going out this month.

Dyda said the fee is not a "tax," but a "self-imposed assessment," created at the behest of community leaders.

The opponents said they won't pay it. Instead, they are moving ahead with a two-pronged approach to terminating the program, Sentner said.

In December 33 residents filed a lawsuit against the city and the West Pittsburgh Partnership. They claim the City Council resolution that created the program violated the due process rights of residents by failing to follow the state Neighborhood Improvement District Act of 2000.

The lawsuit also claims that a neighborhood improvement district, as defined by state law, is designed to make improvements, such as street lighting, parking lots and shrubbery, not to create a "speculative insurance program devoid of any physical improvement."

Their second effort involves trying to terminate the program through the public petition drive.

Under a provision in the state law, if 40 percent of the assessed property owners submit a petition in writing to City Council asking for the neighborhood improvement district to be terminated, council will have to hold a hearing on the merits of the request. In this case, the neighborhood improvement district and the home assurance value district are the same.

Sentner said opponents are looking for signatures from more than 40 percent.

"We are seeking a clear majority of the property owners to give weight to the request," he said, adding that the process has been a slow one.

About 22,000 people live in the communities. The city now estimates that about 7,500 households fall under the program.

Dyda said this is the first program of its type in Pennsylvania.

Opponents suspect the city is testing the waters for imposing special fees for other purposes.

Joyce Ruediger of Sheraden, an unpaid member of the newly appointed WeHav board, was involved at the ground level in developing the plan which she said enjoyed wide support among the residents.

She said Sheraden was a wonderful place to live when she moved there 11 years ago, but in subsequent years, she noticed that longtime homeowners were moving out and gangs were moving in. She said she was immediately interested when she heard the mayor talk in 2001 about the Chicago program.

Ruediger and about 30 other residents of western city neighborhoods formed a task force that spent 18 months studying whether the Chicago experience could be useful in Pittsburgh. With the support of Hertzberg and city officials, she said, they gathered 1,200 signatures from residents in the 12 communities in 2001.

Opponents are challenging that figure and say many people who signed didn't really understand what was going on.

"A lot of people thought this was voluntary program," Sentner said.

In 2001, Hertzberg told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the program would have to be approved by a referendum, as was done in Illinois, but that never happened.

"The problem is, it would have had to be citywide referendum," Hertzberg said last week. "The rest of council wasn't too thrilled with the idea."

Dyda said the process that led to approval of the WeHav program was completely open and public. She said a packet of materials was mailed to each household in the 12 communities, and officials had a half dozen community meetings before a full-fledged City Council hearing was held.

"The task force, on a volunteer basis, called 2,000 or 3,000 people," she said.

"I don't know anybody who got a phone call," Sentner said. "And the city meetings really revealed the outrage of the people."

Sentner said City Council members ignored some of the required steps when they passed a resolution that established the WeHav plan in July, by a 6-3 vote. Twanda Carlisle, Jim Ferlo and Sala Udin voted "no." Ferlo and Udin said residents were not sufficiently informed about the program.

Last month, Murphy provided $150,000 in startup money from his discretionary funds, Dyda said. An executive director has been hired. Administrative costs are expected to run about $75,000 a year, according to the first budget.

"The mayor continues to support the efforts of residents of the western neighborhoods to create an innovative program that will help stabilize their property values," Dyda said.

Jan Ackerman can be reached at jackerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.

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