Allegheny County Is Expected To Get Over $380M In COVID Relief. Who Decides How To Spend The Money?
With Allegheny County officials poised to allocate another round of federal coronavirus relief, some say the public should have more say this time in how the money is spent.
“We need everyone at the table so we can really come up with some ideas that would make Allegheny County a county that really would work for everyone,” Democratic county councilor Anita Prizio said. “Particularly the marginalized communities in Allegheny County, who have been left behind, really need to have a seat at this table.”
The county is expected to receive $382.7 million from the American Rescue Plan’s State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund. State and local governments may use the money for workers and businesses impacted by the pandemic, as well as for public health and infrastructure, according to the U.S. Treasury. The money can also help to recoup pandemic-related revenue losses. The Treasury has indicated it will issue further guidance in coming days.
In a county whose 2021 operating budget totals $942.5 million, the Rescue Plan aid represents a massive cash infusion. Local governments must spend the federal dollars by the end of 2024.
To local activists, the funds present a major opportunity to invest in affordable housing, workforce development, public transit, and other services that could help marginalized communities. Members of those communities, the activists said in a statement to 90.5 WESA, should be part of choosing how to allocate the money.
“With the American Rescue Plan funds, our county, our state, and our city have a huge opportunity to address immediate and long-standing inequities,” Nthando Thandiwe, of the Pittsburgh Budget and Policy Center, said in the statement. “We can invest in a future that lifts up communities that have faced historic disinvestment and have been most impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.”
Democratic county councilors Liv Bennett and Bethany Hallam joined Prizio in supporting the activists’ statement, as did community groups including Casa San José, Pittsburgh Black Worker Center, and Pittsburghers for Public Transit.
The process for determining how to spend Allegheny County’s Rescue Plan money will begin with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s administration. Spokesperson Amie Downs would not discuss what the administration's spending priorities will include, but she said Fitzgerald’s staff will draft a proposal in collaboration with county departments and offices.
"It will then be presented to council – as all grant funding is – in the form of a resolution that would go through the traditional legislative process, which includes public input,” Downs wrote in an email.
She noted that the county took the same steps last summer to allocate the more than $212 million it received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. More than one-quarter of those funds were directed to “vulnerable populations” in the form of housing and food assistance, in addition to childcare for essential workers, according to a county-run dashboard.
Council quickly and unanimously approved the administration’s CARES Act plan, but this time, Prizio said, it should hold a public hearing or form a work group to gather input from residents.
“It's time to ensure a little more transparency and accountability in our county government,” Prizio said. “We can maybe look at some of the … recommendations from the administration.” But she added that, “because it is a transformational moment … I think we owe it to our constituents to really take a look at this and make sure that all our voices are heard.”
In the city of Pittsburgh, officials similarly want to use $355 million in Rescue Plan funds to help address racial disparities. On Tuesday, city council approved a task force that will use a “racial equity lens” to draft a spending proposal. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto signed the resolution Thursday. The task force will consist of representatives of council leaders and the mayor’s office.
At Allegheny County Council, meanwhile, it’s rare for the body’s part-time members to dictate how the county executive’s office may use grant money such as the coronavirus relief. The county charter does, however, give councilors the authority to set budget priorities, although it does not directly address how to appropriate money outside the annual budgeting process.
Hallam said she would explore what options she and her colleagues have for influencing how the county uses its Rescue Plan funds, which will still be subject to federal restrictions.
But in case she comes up empty-handed, Hallam said she will keep working with community organizers and other councilors to bring more attention to the issue. That’s why, she said, she supports Prizio’s suggestion to hold a public hearing or create a work group focused on how to spend the relief money.
“I think just drawing attention to the fact that, hey, we have a county administration who gets to decide how to spend $382 million, and they [effectively] don't need anyone's approval to do it … I think that's something that people would pay attention to,” Hallam said. “I think we should keep [up] the public pressure and get the public input and organize around that.”