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City Of Pittsburgh Outlines How It Plans To Administer $335M In COVID Relief

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

A task force convened to help administer some $335 million in COVID relief for the city of Pittsburgh has released a draft proposal that allocates millions of dollars for affordable housing and other programs -- though its biggest focus is on shoring up the city’s own workforce and its financial health.

Pittsburgh City Council must approve the spending plan, which it may amend. The proposal will be introduced at Council on Tuesday, when it will be held for a public hearing to be scheduled by council President Theresa Kail-Smith.
The plan was crafted by a Joint Pittsburgh Recovery Task Force with representatives from the mayor's office and council members. In a statement Monday, the mayor’s office said the goal was to create “a plan that addresses the needs of communities, addresses city revenue shortfalls, resumes projects halted during the pandemic and benefits residents, businesses and employees.”

In all, the city received $335 million in coronavirus relief funding from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, to be spent during the next three years. The task force, which included Kail-Smith along with councilors Daniel Lavelle and Ricky Burgess, envisions spending roughly half of that -- $172 million -- on shoring up the city’s fiscal position and protecting city workers.

Some $112 million is earmarked to avoid layoffs the city otherwise budgeted for in the latter part of 2021. Another $22 million is slated to restore positions that were cut from the budget entirely, while $5 million is earmarked for the city Parking Authority, whose revenues were decimated by the coronavirus shutdowns last year.

The balance of the money is spent on three other program areas: investment in people, investment in planet and investment in place.

"Investment in People" entails, among other things, a $21 million expenditure to construct and rehabilitate owner-owned affordable housing in the city, along with $19 million in recreation centers citywide. The rec centers would be retrofitted with improved HVAC systems and be retooled with computer learning labs and other digital needs for its “Rec2Tech” initiative.

Other investments include $2.5 million for a guaranteed basic income program that Mayor Bill Peduto has long touted as a way of helping impoverished households, with a focus on those headed by Black women. The money will help unlock $600,000 in matching funds offered by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey for such programs nationwide.

“Investment in Planet” focuses on environmental and health needs: Some $20 million is earmarked for removing lead from water and paint -- the latter an especially pressing need in older, less well-maintained homes. An additional $10 million will fund a new initiative for low- and moderate-income homeowners to make their homes more energy-efficient. A further $7.5 million will be spent to electrify much of the city’s non-emergency vehicle fleet.

"Investment in Place" envisions a $10 million investment in the city’s Land Bank, which languished for years but which city officials say they hope will be better-positioned to facilitate the acquisition and sale of land under the auspices of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Another $7 million is intended for Peduto’s “Avenues of Hope,” which seeks to reinvigorate commercial districts in Black communities. It also targets funding for a number of local streetscape and other neighborhood needs citywide.

City officials expect some of the proposals to be debated by the public and around the council table: Money for the Land Bank in particular may be contentious because the program has struggled for years, and there may be questions about the sums invested in government operations rather than broader social needs.

But Peduto's Chief of Staff Dan Gilman said the administration worked with city council and its task force on the plan. In compiling the proposal, he said, “We were financially responsible, and we did everything through an equity lens. I think it’s a really good plan.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.