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City Debates How To Spend $335 Million in Federal COVID Relief

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council and officials with Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration discussed the city’s plans for $335 million in federal coronavirus aid Tuesday — and that is likely to be only the beginning of a debate about what’s in the plan, what’s not, and why the debate didn’t involve the public sooner.

Dan Gilman, Peduto’s chief of staff, laid out a laundry list of programs the administration has in mind for the money, which was provided through President Biden’s American Rescue Plan. More than half of the money will be directed to the city’s budget itself, in part by staving off job cuts the city had either made or was prepared to make had the federal aid not come through.

Non-personnel expenditures include $12 million to pay for the installation of LED street lamps, with an eye toward ensuring that lower-income neighborhoods received them. Gilman said the city recognized the need after conducting a light-equity study: “You will not be surprised that there is a derelict correlation to economic conditions in neighborhoods and the number of lights.”

The city also plans to purchase electric vehicles to transition away from fossil fuels: Gilman said much of the fleet, with the exclusion of public safety vehicles, could be converted to electric — and that even electric-powered firetrucks were not far off.

But Peduto’s plan also includes a broad array of social programs that range from $21 million to create or preserve owner-occupied affordable housing to a $2 million fund to help artists hurt by the pandemic.

Many of the proposals — such as efforts to help lower-income homeowners insulate their houses in a bid to keep utility costs down — went unquestioned by councilors Tuesday. But other proposals, including a $10 million investment in the city’s long-dormant land bank, did draw fire.

Gilman acknowledged that the land bank, which is designed to acquire long-abandoned and tax-delinquent property for re-use, “might be one of the more questioned [allocations] out there. … We have not done what we needed to do with the land bank.” But he urged council to stand by the entity, which the administration recently put under new leadership at the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

“We still believe there is absolutely 100 percent critical need,” he said.

Councilors expressed skepticism about the proposal anyway, and some raised other objections as well.

District 4 City Councilor Anthony Coghill flagged a $20 million expenditure — among the largest in the plan — dedicated to lead-abatement efforts that include replacing lead-lined pipes in the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority system. But Coghill, whose South Pittsburgh district is served by a separate utility, said the allocation "kind of gnaws at me because we don’t have PWSA.” While he said he recognized that there are needs all across the city, PWSA spending “means nothing in the way of services coming back to the 4th district.”

Gilman noted that the spending plan does include efforts that would benefit Coghill’s constituents directly, such as $1 million for development along Beechview’s Broadway Avenue business district.

But more broadly, Gilman said, “I could easily come to you with a billion-dollar spending plan that still does not do everything that all of us would want to see,” and so officials targeted efforts that “we thought had the greatest impact citywide.”

But Councilor Deb Gross argued that residents themselves had little say in crafting the proposal — a deviation from the process she said has been used in other cities. She said it was important to shore up the city’s budget and act immediately on some items. But others, she said, could wait for a more robust debate.

“What I see here are some really immediate needs, but I also see some things that are just kind of long-term entrenched problems that … may not be the things that are urgent needs. And I’d like to hear from the public about their prioritization," she said.

“We’re trying to lock in four years of allocations in the first three months,” she added.

Many advocacy groups with their own priorities have been making similar criticisms: Shortly before the hearing Tuesday, a group of activists released a statement calling for “a transparent, community-driven process for using these funds to address years of racial and economic inequity in Pittsburgh."

Some groups are gearing up to present their own proposals. Sam Applefield of the Food Policy Council, which advocates for sustainable and equitable food policy, says the group plans to propose a “food justice fund.” The fund would underwrite a number of initiatives, such as providing assistance to help corner markets stock produce — a product line that can cost $10,000 in refrigeration and other infrastructure to carry.

The relief aid, he said, is “an unprecedented and incredible opportunity to set the direction for the city. There’s so much potential.”

But to date, Applefield said, it hasn’t been clear how groups like his could make their case.

“We’ve been trying to figure out what the process is going to be. We knew there would be a lot of needs and asks, and there wasn’t transparency about when decisions were going to be made, and when we would have opportunities to weigh in,” he said.

“We need holistic change in how these conversations happen," said Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, who heads activist group Pittsburgh United.

She agreed that there was “a limited amount of time to spend the money, and a need to get it to where it’s needed as quickly as possible.” But she said “we’ve seen that public hearings don’t result in real changes” to plans, and that the aid package was “an unprecedented investment in our community. It deserves time and attention to get it right.”

Gilman did not respond to criticism of the public input process on Tuesday. But council President Theresa Kail-Smith, who participated in a task force that helped draw up the administration’s proposal, pushed back on the idea that the public had little say.

“The public conversation is being driven by council,” Kail-Smith said. She noted that the upcoming public hearings were scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Monday — times Kail-Smith has said were chosen to allow working people to participate.

“Members are out there talking every day to their constituency, so we are getting some feedback already,” she added.

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.