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Pittsburgh City Council Urged To Delay Vote On COVID Aid Plan

Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis of Women for a Healthy Environment speaks at a rally urging city officials to slow down passage of plan to spend $335 million in federal aid.

After four-and-a-half-hours of public testimony -- and a follow-up 45-minute rally -- on how to spend $335 million of federal coronavirus aid, the big message for Pittsburgh City Council was: You haven’t heard from the public enough. And while a preliminary vote on the plan is slated for Wednesday morning, it won’t be the last word.

Council is weighing a plan, crafted by Mayor Bill Peduto’s office and a handful of council members, to spend the aid. Much of it is earmarked to shore up the city’s budget and prevent layoffs, but nearly half the money targets a range of projects — from long-delayed infrastructure needs to programs that will provide help to artists. Another would guarantee a small monthly income to struggling households.

Critics, though, used public hearings on Saturday and Monday evening to say the city should have solicited more public input in crafting the proposal, and that the plan should be more focused on helping low-income residents especially in Black communities, which bore the brunt of the coronavirus and its economic impact.

“When a city gets money … because people were injured, we shouldn’t be spending that on things that should be coming out of our general taxes,” said Paul O’Hanlon, a lawyer during one of two hearings. “We shouldn’t be diverting it to these other public purposes.”

That criticism came even from those who embraced parts of the proposal. Mark Masterson, who serves on the advisory board of a Peduto-created Housing Opportunity Fund, lauded proposals to support affordable owner-occupied housing. Still, he said, “We need a lot more money to help those who have been hardest hit: low-wage families who rent.”

Many of the same speakers turned out again for a Tuesday morning rally outside the City-County Building where participants chanted “Pause the vote!”

Speakers acknowledged that some money, like the funds intended to replenish the city budget, should be spent quickly. But they were less impressed by the urgency of other proposals, like a plan to replace a bridge in Brighton Heights that had been demolished in 2009, or to install more LED lights in neighborhoods that were lacking such investment.

“The American Rescue Plan is about rescuing,” said Ken Regal of Just Harvest on Tuesday. “It’s not for LED streetlights to promote equity in neighborhoods, because equity in neighborhoods means a lot more than what your light bulb is made out of. … The public should be heard on whether or not they want to use these emergency funds for things that aren't emergencies.”

Some organizations pitched their own ideas for the money.

On Tuesday, for example, transit activist Joshua Malloy said that while the Port Authority is a county agency, three-quarters of rides either began or ended within the city. Malloy suggested the city spend $4 to 8 million on an emergency low-income fare program for city residents.

“During COVID we saw who was riding transit the most: people who couldn’t work from home.” he said.

“Everyone else got a bailout,” Malloy added. “It’s time to bail out those riders as well.”

It’s not clear what impact the criticisms may have. But after Monday night’s hearing, some councilors did sympathize with speakers’ concerns.

“People want to have more of a say,” said District 8 Councilor Erika Strassburger. “I do think we need to slow down this process. … Let’s just hold off until after recess,” which council takes in August.

Anthony Coghill, who represents Council District 4, also expressed ambivalence, particularly about a $20 million allocation for lead-line replacement at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, whose water lines largely bypass his district. Coghill later told WESA that he was “trying to get to a comfort level” with the proposal. He noted that the PWSA does maintain sewer lines in his district, which he said might be an area of common interest, considering portions of his district are flood-prone. “If they are doing lead lines in the East End, I want to make sure they are doing flood mitigation here.”

But Coghill also said that the mayor was owed some deference as the official charged with representing the city as a whole. “The mayor is there for a reason, and he’s there until the end of the year.”

Council President Theresa Kail-Smith said toward the end of Monday’s hearing that “I think it’s time for us to go into the neighborhoods and hear from people,” and that she and other councilors would be doing so. But she added that “we have a lot of people waiting for this help” and “tomorrow is actually too late for a lot of them.”

Shortly afterward, she told WESA she still intended to hold a preliminary vote on Wednesday, and that—while a one-week delay was possible—she still expected council to pass the bill this month.

“Even if we pass it, we can still amend things” later, she said.

She also seemed dubious about a proposal by activists that the city allocate some money immediately for obvious needs, while taking more time to debate longer-term proposals.

“No, I don’t think we are going to hold off on any part of it,” she said Monday. “But it doesn’t mean we aren’t going to talk about amending down the road. “

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.