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Peduto’s OnePGH Aims To Address Pittsburgh's Problems. So Far It Hasn’t Solved Its Own

Keith Srakocic
The sloping roof of the Pittsburgh Convention Center is visible behind the Three Sisters Bridges along the Allegheny River, Wednesday, July 26, 2017.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and his administration have been working on a vision to address the city’s most persistent social problems under a single organizing plan, OnePGH.

OnePGH is both an effort to prioritize projects that meet the city’s needs — such as expanding pre-kindergarten education or developing affordable housing — and to fundraise the money needed to pay for them. Peduto announced OnePGH at a public kick-off event in April and for months has promised the sequel: a detailed description of intended work and how it will be managed.

So far, the mayor has missed his own deadlines for providing that information to the public. But Peduto did present a working version of the plan to a Dec. 5 meeting of civic leaders, city officials confirmed. He envisions establishing a nonprofit entity that will identify problems and finance solutions. Funding, in part, will come from $55 million in annual contributions from nonprofits, foundations and the private sector. That draft plan, reported here for the first time, anticipates $20 million from the hospitals alone.

But there’s a wrinkle. Not a single entity has committed a dollar to the fund, including the four large, tax-exempt nonprofits Peduto has negotiated with since taking office in 2014: UPMC, Highmark Health, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

Mayoral chief of staff Dan Gilman said OnePGH is a 12-year plan to make Pittsburgh an equitable, thriving city for all. And the city wants to get it right.

“We have had more public meetings than I can count, more one-on-one meetings with leadership from the non-profit community, the corporate community, the foundations,” he said. “You have this balance of getting something out there, which we want to do, but making sure that everyone feels buy-in so that it's successful.”

As the city continues private discussions among likely contributors, some activists already worry about how OnePGH will be held accountable.

“In any relationship … when people try and hide things, you get a little nervous,” said Brandi Fisher, director of organizing for Pittsburgh United. “We’re just trying to be proactive [by asking questions]."

Open, frank discussion is what the city wants, too, said Gilman, and that takes time.

“This is not an ivory tower plan. It is meant to be a community-driven vision for the region,” he said.

However, even among some of OnePGH’s envisioned stakeholders, the initiative can feel a long way from primetime.

A Lot of Confused People

Earlier this month, Peduto gave a OnePGH update to a group of foundation leaders, city and Allegheny County officials. It was an uncomfortable and at times puzzling encounter, according to several attendees who spoke with WESA anonymously, as they did not want to jeopardize their relationship with the mayor.

A handout distributed at the meeting showed the administration envisioned annual funding of $20 million from the hospitals, $10 million from universities, $5 million from other nonprofits, $10 million from corporations and $10 million from the foundations.

But some foundation representatives say they were puzzled by their anticipated contribution, and wondered if the mayor assumed they were committed to funding the initiative. Foundations already commit millions of dollars each year to the kinds of efforts included in OnePGH, and don’t see the value of doing so through a new third party, sources said. Others had never heard of OnePGH before. One person characterized the tone of the meeting as “bizarre.”

Gilman said the presentation made earlier this month was a working draft of the plan and not a formal request for funding.

The plan is rooted, at least in part, in a conundrum for cities: across the country, nonprofits don’t pay property tax. But since they depend on taxpayer-funded services such as road maintenance, police or a ready supply of workers, many nonprofits agree to make payments in lieu of taxes to their home cities. Pittsburgh used to collect these payments from a number of organizations, but the sum has dwindled in recent years. In an effort to wring money out of UPMC, former mayor Luke Ravenstahl took the nonprofit to court and challenged its nonprofit status.

Peduto called off the hounds by dropping that lawsuit in 2014. He said he wanted something more sustainable, in which nonprofits would sign long-term agreements to contribute to the city’s well-being, perhaps by earmarking the funds for specific causes.

Government Innovation

The OnePGH initiative can be described as a “social benefits fund” or a “mayor’s fund.” Similar funds exist in both New York City and Los Angeles; Copenhagen has a public wealth fund that has underwritten a new transit system.

Such funds are nonprofit organizations independent from government, in most cases.

They can help cities find the money to solve big problems, said Rick Jacobs, who helped create the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles.

While nongovernmental organizations and the private sector can innovate, “only government can scale” solutions, said Jacobs. “Any kind of service delivery or, frankly, any kind of social transformation ... those things have to happen through government.”

Peduto and his administration promised to unveil further details about OnePGH at the end of September, then the end of October and then, in his November budget address, the end of 2018. Peduto had planned to announce the initiative within days of the Dec. 5 meeting, sources confirmed.

The perpetual delay in an announcement isn’t about financial commitments, said Gilman.

“We certainly have firm commitments of buy-in to the vision of OnePGH and a desire to participate,” he said. “We think that’s a better conversation to have, not some attempt at calculating out what kind of commitment to the city makes the most sense.”

City spokesperson Tim McNulty said when the city presents OnePGH to the public, the announcement will offer more specifics about goals, costs and metrics.

While foundation leaders applaud the mayor’s bold vision, some worry it would be embarrassing, and potentially damaging, to announce the initiative without clearly stating where the money will come from and how it will be managed.

Sources said the foundations are troubled that the city has thus far failed to nail down real commitments from “the big four” nonprofits: UPMC, Highmark, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

Pitt and CMU declined repeated interview requests, but UPMC and Highmark Health, the parent company of Allegheny Health Network, provided statements to WESA.

The mayor “can count on our fullest possible participation in initiatives like OnePGH that [are] fair and equitable and [include] the other large nonprofits,” UPMC senior director of public relations Susan Manko wrote.

And Highmark Health “always welcomes opportunities to discuss our partnership with the communities we serve,” said spokesperson Lynn Seay.

Public Process

In recent years, as leaders have posited that government needs to find new ways to pay for what’s expected of it, activists in Pittsburgh have grown more concerned about accountability. They’ve advocated against public-private partnerships at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and protested the lack of transparency in the region’s attempt to lure Amazon to the city.

Government can’t solve all of the problems that it’s been tasked with solving, said Jason Beery, a senior research analyst with the UrbanKind Institute, a local think tank. But it can continue to be inclusive even as it innovates.

“Money can't be just doled out in some undemocratic, opaque process. It needs to be discussed openly.”

According to Gilman, the impact OnePGH can have on the lives of all residents is far greater than any short-term contribution agreement the city could make with nonprofits or the private sector. The end goal is to create the Pittsburgh we want to see, he said — removing lead lines, fighting homelessness and hunger, investing in children.

That’s why when the city next makes an announcement it will focus on the overarching vision, Gilman said. But he hopes to soon begin raising actual funds.

Eight months after first announcing OnePGH, city officials anticipate making the work of OnePGH “public very soon.”

“Every day counts right now with the types of issues we’re talking about,” said Gilman.

The timeline remains unclear.

Chris Potter contributed reporting to this story.