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Politics & Government

Community Center Expense Sparks Discussion of Priorities in City Council

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Liz Reid
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90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council is poised to approve a $100,000 funding request for the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center in the Hill District, but the expenditure is not without its detractors.

In last week’s committee meeting, Councilwoman Darlene Harris expressed concern over the city’s decision to fund upgrades to the building’s heating, ventilation and cooling system, despite the fact that she voted in favor of a companion bill setting aside the money in December.

Harris said she believed that the city should prioritize publicly owned building maintenance over privately owned buildings, pointing to the leaky roof of a converted firehouse in Spring Hill which now houses the nonprofit Steel City Boxing. 

“I’ve been asking over and over again to have that roof fixed,” Harris said. “That was promised to the Spring Hill Civic League years ago by (then Mayor) Tom Murphy.”

According to a recent article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the roof has been leaking for at last five years, despite efforts to patch it by the city.

“I don’t want to see at (risk) youth, children, ignored in facilities that belong to the city,” Harris said. “You have the haves and the have-nots.”

Councilman Dan Gilman was irked by Harris’s comments, and said he found her position to be ironic.

“Let us be clear, we’re talking about funding children in a neighborhood whose average income is about $18,000, and we’re being accused of not caring about children and the haves and the have-nots,” Gilman said. “The irony is unbelievable.”

The Jeron X. Grayson Community Center opened its doors in October, three years after its namesake was shot and killed while visiting friends at California University of Pennsylvania. The site of the former Ozanam Cultural Center is now home to the center, which focuses on programming to keep kids away from gangs and gun violence.

“One of the programs they operate is Girls Who Code, which is … designed to get women into the STEM fields … as well as some recreational activities (and) homework help,” said Alex Pazuchanics, budget analyst with the Office of Management and Budget. “The facility is also open nights and weekends for community meetings, events, things like that.”

Gilman called the center “the definition of a public-private partnership” and pointed out that the city regularly funds private organizations through the federal Community Development Block Grant program, including the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

However, Harris wasn’t the only one dismayed by the expense. Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said, while she supports the center in principle, she could think of a lot of other ways to spend $100,000.

“My concern is that we also have a lot of facilities owned by the city of Pittsburgh, including Ream Recreation (Center) in Mt. Washington, the Olympia Park shelter building which we are working on but has waited nearly 10 years, we have facilities … across  the city of Pittsburgh, including our firehouses, that are in deplorable condition,” Kail-Smith said.

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak responded to Harris’s and Kail-Smith’s concerns by saying that, as legislators, they have the power to introduce legislation specifically addressing maintenance issues at city-owned facilities. She also pointed out that City Council had already voted unanimously to set aside the money for the Grayson Center in December, and that they couldn’t walk back that agreement now.

“If there was concern about this issue, we could have discussed it then,” Rudiak said. “That being said, we are Council, we make laws, we decide what the city’s budget is, we decide what the city’s priorities are, we decide what the capital budget is.”

Both Harris and Kail-Smith abstained from the vote, while other members voted in favor of the bill. Council is scheduled to take a final vote on Tuesday.