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City Council Approves $7 Million in URA Funding

Pittsburgh City Council gave preliminary approval Wednesday to two bills that together channel nearly $7 million toward the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority for 2012. The money would be used for the URA's development projects in various city neighborhoods, as well as employee wages and property purchases.

However, the money wasn't approved until after Council Members asked some tough questions about accountability of city funds with the nonprofit community redevelopment groups the URA deals with regularly.

"How do you guarantee that [city dollars] are going to legitimate organizations, doing legitimate work, and that at the end of the year or at the end of a process there's a verification: these dollars went in, here's where they manifested themselves in buildings or projects or whatever, and that there's some sort of accounting for that?" asked Councilman Patrick Dowd, at one point in an hour-long discussion of URA funding at Council's committee meeting Wednesday.

In response, one URA administrator admitted that there have been "failures in the past" and "variations of capacity" with different community development groups, but said the authority now requires memorandums of understanding and other formal measures to ensure an organization holds up its end of the bargain.

Under the bills, the city would pay the URA $3.535 million directly, while another $3.4 million would come from federal Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). The CDBG allocation represents almost 20% of Pittsburgh's total CDBG funding, according to the URA.

The total of $6.935 million is more than half a million dollars larger than last year's allocation.

$2.2 million of the CDBG funds would be used to help pay the salaries of the URA's 85 full-time employees and its two part-timers. That's an increase of $250,000 from last year's payment, according to URA Finance Director Tom Short.

"As far back as 1995, the figure was well over three million," said Short. "What the URA is doing now is crafting ways to come up with additional funds. Our administrative budget for salaries alone is about $5.9 million."

Aside from salaries, the largest portion of the city's payment to the URA would be $1.585 million put toward "major developments" in East Liberty, Larimer, Lawrenceville, and the Hill District. For example, two housing projects in Larimer would receive $300,000 in URA funding this year. Nearly $500,000 of the "major projects" funding would be set aside for "strategic" property purchases.

"The strategic site assembly is when we can be opportunistic," said URA Real Estate Director Kyra Straussman. "When there's a property that comes up [for sale] that we hadn't anticipated, but has a key corner, for instance, in a community, we want to be able to jump on that."

Straussman said the URA owns roughly 1,400 properties across the city at any given time. In the future, she said, the authority wants to buy more properties through tax sales — which means a "greater partnership" with the city.

"And that will absolutely require more funds to maintain, either at the URA or at the city, or both," said Straussman. "Significantly, I think, we'll anticipate a greater level of demolition of obsolete properties in cooperation with [the Bureau of Building Inspection] in the future."

The funding legislation before Council is up for a final vote on Tuesday.