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Pittsburgh City Council Gives Preliminary Approval To COVID Aid Spending Plan

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Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Despite pleas by activists and the city’s likely next mayor to delay, Pittsburgh City Council gave its preliminary approval to Mayor Bill Peduto’s plan for spending $335 million in federal COVID relief. The move sets up a final vote for next week, though councilors emphasized that future amendments to the spending plan were possible.

Only council members Deborah Gross and Erika Strassburger voted "no,” citing concerns -- made repeatedly at a pair of public hearings in the past week -- that citizens had not been given enough input.

The move came after an hour-long discussion in which some council memebers pushed back on criticism that they had been insufficiently attentive to public input.

“Some of the remarks around lack of public engagements makes the assumption that I haven’t been doing my job all year long,” said Daniel Lavelle. He said he and other councilors spend all year hearing about district needs, and that some of the capital projects in the spending plan reflected those concerns.

Lavelle said he spoke with some of the critics personally, and called it “disingenuous” for them to “then come on and say, ‘We haven’t had public engagement.’”

"There’s a difference between knowing what the needs are in a district … and making people’s voices heard,” countered Strassburger, who said she would prefer council to wait until after its August recess to pass the plan.

Council adopted a handful of amendments to the plan prior to approving it, some of which appeared to make the bill more palatable. An additional $2 million in spending was targeted for demolition — a concession sought by Councilor Anthony Coghill and others — with nearly $600,000 in improvements to city steps, and a $2 million for a hazily defined lead-paint removal program. The last allocation, sought by Strassburger, was paid for with a reduction in a $20 million lead-line removal program targeting the city's water authority.

Otherwise, the plan has been little changed from its original form. More than half the funding goes towards functions like staving off layoffs and adding some positions to the city’s budget. Other expenditures provide for a slew of infrastructure projects -- like rebuilding city rec centers and long-delayed projects like rebuilding the Davis Avenue Bridge in the North Side -- as well as social programs like a fund to help artists and a guaranteed basic income pilot project.

Some of council's discussion revisited older disputes. Gross, who has been the most vocal critic of the plan, raised concerns about the use of a non-profit entity, OnePGH, as a repository for $2.5 million in relief aid. That money is to fund a long-planned guaranteed basic income pilot program, which will provide a modest cash stipend to poor families, especially those headed by Black women.

"You don't have a voice on who's on the board" of the nonprofit, Gross said. "You cant vote them in or you can't vote them out. ... It's not subject to state [public-disclosure] laws the way City Council is."

Peduto's chief of staff, Dan Gilman, noted that the city had a commitment from Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to provide matching funds for a basic income program, but said state law barred the city from distributing the money to private citizens directly. "There is no intent to do anything that is not transparent," he said.

Half of OnePGH's eight-member board are administration staffers, including Gilman himself. The entity, once known as the Sprout Fund, was repurposed to facilitate a grand bargain Peduto hoped to strike with tax-exempt employers who could contribute to social causes in lieu of taxes.

In taking the vote, councilors emphasized that it was the beginning of a discussion, not the end. Spending plans would need to be fleshed out: Strassburger called the $2 million set aside for lead removal, for example, a "placeholder for when we have greater clarity as to what the actual cost would be." Many expenditures would require further council deliberation, and plans could be amended.

Still, the vote did seem to close the door on some proposals, at least for now. Council did not add funding to address food insecurity, despite a number of public speakers from advocacy groups urging it to do so. Lavelle said that while he was supportive of that cause, such human-service programming was "literally the responsibility of Allegheny County," which received over $380 million of its own own American Rescue Plan funding. "They can absolutely, in a heartbeat, take $10 million to put towards the food initiative that many have come to council to talk about," Lavelle said.

Council also brushed aside an 11th-hour statement from Democratic mayoral candidate Ed Gainey, who put out word one hour before the meeting that “a more comprehensive, robust, and equitable public process is necessary.” The statement said that while some money should be spent immediately on replenishing the city budget and “capital projects important to our communities,” longer-term investments should be held off “to allow the public more time to weigh in.”

The council debate didn’t mention the statement , which did not identify which projects Gainey saw as important or what a more equitable public process should look like. On Monday, council President Theresa Kail-Smith said that while she had spoken to Gainey’s camp about the plan, they had not raised specific concerns with her.

Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, who heads activist group Pittsburgh United, said she was "disappointed" in council's vote. "The community has been asking for the most reasonable, basic thing in our democracy, which is to be able to participate. This is a once-in-a-lifetime influx of investment in our communities, and people want to have a voice in that."

As for what if anything activist groups might do to sway Council before it is set to take a final vote next Tuesday, she said, "You'll have to stay tuned."

This story was updated at 6:46 p.m. on Wednesday July 14, 2021 to include more council debate and reaction.

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.
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