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Big Regional Non-Profit Funder OKs Budget With 5% Cuts, Spares Parks

Larkin Page-Jacobs
90.5 WESA
Carnegie Lake in Highland Park.

The pandemic-related financial struggles of Allegheny County’s parks, libraries and arts groups aren’t over yet, but at least one major funder seems on the path to recovery.

The Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD), which is funded the county’s 1% sales tax, on Tuesday approved a 2021 budget that restores most of the grant money it had cut because of steep revenue declines occasioned by the coronavirus-pandemic shutdown.

The $101.4 million budget funds 103 groups, ranging from public parks and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, Phipps Conservatory, and arts groups of all sizes. Compared to RAD’s 2020 budget, the 2021 model reflects a 5 percent reduction for all recipients except parks, which will receive funding at full 2020 levels.

The budget was especially good news for the handful of groups who rely most heavily on RAD funding. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, for instance, receives two-thirds of its $34 million budget from RAD.

“We obviously are incredibly grateful for the support we get from the Regional Asset District, and the way they have supported not only Carnegie Library but all the libraries in Allegheny County,” said Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Mary Frances Cooper.

Library funding accounts for nearly one-third of RAD spending. The allocations include $6.7 million for the Allegheny County Library Association, which supports libraries that aren’t part of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and $3.25 million for the eiNetwork, the digital infrastructure for the county’s libraries that’s overseen by the Carnegie Library.

Parks, including those run by the county and the City of Pittsburgh, account for another one-third of RAD expenditures. RAD said park funding was in recognition of parks' "critical importance as free, open, outdoor public spaces."

In May, facing a big decline in retail activity because of the pandemic, RAD cut operating grants across the board by 20 percent.  But sales-tax revenue rebounded strongly; for the most recent four months for which figures are available, June through September, RAD’s revenue was near or even slightly above its original 2020 budget projections.

The recovery was such that RAD was previously able to restore the funding it cut in May to groups that failed to qualify for federal pandemic-relief funds.
Tax revenue for 2020 to date is down 5.3 percent compared to 2019, said RAD board treasurer Sylvia Fields. RAD projects that revenue for the full year will be down 8 percent from 2019.

RAD anticipates its revenue in 2021 will be $100.4 million – about $2.5 million higher than this year’s projection. The group said it will make up the $1 million spending shortfall for 2021 with interest earnings and by drawing on its reserves.

Other RAD grantees include the Sports and Exhibition Authority, which receives 14 percent of the budget. Most of that goes toward paying down debt on the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Heinz Field and PNC Park.

Another 12 percent of RAD expenditures are split between dozens of arts and culture groups, which receive grants ranging in size from a few thousand dollars to more than $1 million. Many such groups were hit hard by the loss of earned revenue during the pandemic, often because of long mandatory closures. Most performing-arts troupes say distancing requirements make staging shows in their venues financially infeasible. Many museums have reopened, but report low turnout.

The August Wilson African American Cultural Center, which has a budget of about $7 million, was awarded $475,000 in RAD grants. CEO Janis Burley Wilson said that while admission to the Center’s exhibitions is free, the Center has suffered from the loss of rental revenue. Wilson said the group could cope with a 5 percent cut in RAD funds.

“While it’s a reduction, in the scheme of things, it’s still a great deal of support. And in light of the kind of year we’ve had, we’re grateful,” she said.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra received $1.5 million -- likewise, 5% less than its 2020 allocation. President and CEO Melia Tourangeau said the PSO didn’t know how RAD would respond to its application proposing an all-digital season.

“We were budgeting getting nothing from RAD this year,” she said. “So this is certainly really a huge, huge, huge help for us.”

[Editor's note: This article was amended after publication to reflect projected tax revenue for 2021 from RAD's final budget.]

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: