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Facing Tough Budget Obligations, Pittsburgh Sees Opportunities in Grant Funding

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Leigh Halverson is the deputy chief of staff for economic development in the Peduto administration, and on one wall of her office is a row of pink post it notes, with different dollar amounts written on them.

“$440,000 from the foundations this year to support our Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment,” she says. “$200,000 from the National League of Cities for our Healthy Together campaign … $75,000 for our green and healthy homes initiative.”

Here’s another set of numbers: $2.7 million in increased health care costs, $11.4 million more in pension costs and $2 million in higher debt service payments.

As the city struggles to address such obligations and emerge from Act 47 status, it still wants to pursue initiatives that improve quality of life.

Sam Ashbaugh, budget director for the city, said Mayor Bill Peduto hired two additional grants officers last year. Under previous administrations, there was only one. He said the move effectively triples the city’s capacity to pursue grant funding and also helps on the compliance end.

“That’s usually a major challenge for a lot of organizations,” Ashbaugh said. “There are a lot of grant opportunities out there, but the challenge is effectively managing them to comply with the grantor’s terms and conditions.”

Additionally, the city will spend $125,000 dollars over the next three years on a software program called eCivis, which will track grants from start to finish, and replace the spreadsheets the city is currently using.

“The eCivis software will actually integrate really nicely with the financial system that we already use, the backend of our grants,” said grants officer Melanie Ondek. “This software will not only work with that, but it has a really awesome research component, that’s going to help us be really proactive about the priorities.

One of those priorities is getting every child in Pittsburgh signed up for health care, either through the state-run Children’s Health Insurance Program or Medicaid.

It’s estimated that around 2,000 kids in Pittsburgh are uninsured, but the tough part is finding them. The city is doing outreach at libraries, community college campuses, and even toy distribution events organized by the Salvation Army. The $230,000 the city received from the National League of Cities is helping to pay for that outreach.

All told, the city of Pittsburgh has received $35 million in grant funding this year. Most of that comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the form of a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant for Larimer, which was initially applied for under the Ravenstahl administration.

Grant funding spiked in 2010 because of $20 million in stimulus funding and $11 million in grants to support the G-20 summit. It spiked again in 2012 due to $15 million from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation for the East Liberty Transit Center. Data supplied by City of Pittsburgh Office of Management and Budget.

But most of the awards are smaller, such as the $440,000 the city received from five local foundations to help fund the Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment, which is charged with working in communities that have “seen historic disinvestment and neglect.”

The Heinz Endowments kicked in $100,000 to help pay half of the bureau’s salaries for two years. President Grant Oliphant said that while it’s somewhat unusual for foundations to pay actual salaries, it does happen.

“And when we do it we’re very explicit that this is a one-to-three year arrangement, and then we do not do it after that, because it’s really up to government to decide whether it can fund it,” Oliphant said.

He said supporting the bureau is about helping the city address two issues that align with the Heinz Endowments’ goals.

“One was to get into education issues,” Oliphant said. “There’s probably no more important issue for the future of Pittsburgh than what happens with our public schools. The other piece was a stronger connection to community itself, and looking at the neighborhood level and being able to engage the community differently than the mayoral office typically does."

Oliphant called the combination of Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald “an exciting constellation,” and said they’re approaching the foundations differently than any other local leaders in recent history.

“I think the tendency, typically, is to treat foundations as buckets of money rather than the sort of intellectual and value resources that they really are,” Oliphant said.

Budget director Sam Ashbaugh said that’s not by accident.

“In recent years, the foundation community hasn’t been part of or welcomed into city hall, and we’ve really opened up the doors to say we’re here and we want to work with you on a number of areas of mutual importance,” Ashbaugh said.

Those areas include economic development, environmental protection and education.

“There’s a willingness to move forward, there’s a willingness to take on big ideas,” Oliphant said. “That should get us into big questions of urban planning, urban design, the ways in which we help neighborhoods that are developing benefit the people who live there and not just the people who are moving in."

Oliphant said Pittsburgh is poised to play a role in creating the city of the future, something that’s not lost on the national foundation community.

“It used to be that I had to bring up Pittsburgh and make Pittsburgh’s case,” Oliphant said. “They actually bring Pittsburgh up to me now. I’ve had several experiences in recent weeks where actually they bring Pittsburgh up and they bring Mayor Peduto up, and they talk about the changes in the city and how exciting it is.”

The city has received 30 grants so far this year. While the greatest number of individual awards (11) came from non-profit and foundation sources, the greatest source of grant funding was the federal government. Data supplied by City of Pittsburgh Office of Management and Budget.

Oliphant said he’s not really looking to make small incremental changes, and he suspects that Peduto and Fitzgerald aren’t either. But he also recognizes that change doesn’t happen all at once.

“Sometimes you’ve got to put one foot in front of the other and begin making change for people to see that possibility actually can be realized, and that we can create something even better than what we have,” Oliphant said.

Melanie Ondek and the city’s other grants officers will continue to look for ways, big and small, to create something better, especially in Pittsburgh’s most historically marginalized neighborhoods.

She said they recently submitted a three-year, $40,000 dollar grant application to the lawn care company Scott’s, a joint effort with the urban agriculture nonprofit Grow Pittsburgh.

The goal: Transform a vacant baseball field in the Hill District, which Ondek said has become a nuisance property, into an edible community garden.