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Pittsburgh City Council Passes Spending Plan For $335M In COVID Aid

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

After hours of public debate and protests held as recently as Monday night, Pittsburgh City Council's 8-1 vote to pass a spending plan for $335 million in federal coronavirus aid was largely anticlimactic. Councilwoman Deb Gross, who has been a vocal critic of the plan from the outset, was the only “no” vote after a brief Tuesday morning discussion.

The plan sets forth an ambitious agenda for addressing a range of long-standing needs. While its most immediate effect will be to stave off job cuts that the city had budgeted for, it also allocates money for a number of causes: protecting and creating owner-occupied affordable housing; replacing lead water lines; renovate city rec centers; installing LED streetlights and purchasing electric vehicles for the city's fleet, and providing aid to artists.

But there was little sense of occasion when the vote was cast. Gross briefly reprised her criticisms of the process, which she and other critics have said failed to do enough to consult public input. "The federal legislation requires extensive public input," said Gross. "We could and should have done a lot more."

Councilors largely declined to respond to Gross: "Ready to vote," Bruce Kraus said when Council President Theresa Kail-Smith asked for other comments.

Kail-Smith herself said, "Council was doing the best we can with what we have in front of us." She said that council and the administration of Mayor Bill Peduto had come up with a "thoughtful" plan, and added, "We didn't just start listening yesterday. ... We've been listening to our constituents for a very long time."

The vote moved quickly, as even Erika Strassburger, who echoed Gross' concerns about the process in a preliminary vote last week, voted in favor of final passage. Strassburger said her original vote was an effort "take a stand against the process." But she said the plan itself contained many provisions she liked, and that "We will have many many many opportunities to reopen this budget" — and she felt confident council would support a more robust public-comment period going forward. "I know of people on council who already want to make amendments to what we just voted on."

The final result comes as little surprise. At a Monday-night rally at Freedom Corner in the Hill District, groups who opposed the plan said that there would be political repercussions for those who supported the plan, and there has been talk about fielding challengers against the councilors up for election this November: Kail-Smith, Anthony Coghill, Daniel Lavelle, and Strassburger.

Dozens of activist groups sent a letter to council Monday urging that it "pause any committed planned use of funds [beyond] the immediate needs of our city. ... In addition, we seek a pledge from Pittsburgh City Council to be open to review these commitments after a new administration has been installed" when Peduto's term ends.

Kail-Smith pointed out that there will be other votes on various parts of the package in the days to come, and suggested that she hoped to provide additional assistance to non-profits who had been active in service to the community.

But that was little consolation to critics. “The pandemic exacerbated existing inequities, and these funds were intended to fill those gaps, not fund pet projects decided on by the Mayor and his supporters in a rushed, closed door process,” read a statement from Pittsburgh United executive director Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy. “These historic funds could have provided us with the rare opportunity to create a city where people of color, poor and working-class people have what they need to survive and thrive.”

“Many other cities are pursuing robust community input, and no other City has yet to fully allocate their funding as Pittsburgh has done,” the statement added.

Indeed, Pittsburgh’s aggressive approach to planning for the funds appears to be unusual.

“Pittsburgh does seem to be pursuing a slightly different approach than most cities by allocating all of the money up front,” said Joseph Parilla, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute.

Other cities have allocated some money immediately: As with Pittsburgh, a top priority has been filling budgetary holes, and Parilla says some cities he has looked at have also increased spending for affordable housing and measures to stave off homelessness.

But Parilla noted that the federal aid is being divided in two parts, with the second installment due to be distributed next year. And that part, he said, is “to use the Biden language, the ‘build back better’ part of the American Rescue Plan, which is about addressing some of the long-standing challenges that the pandemic exacerbated.” And those needs, he said, could easily benefit from — and have time for — a more deliberate planning process.

Some cities have created extensive processes for doing so. Parilla points to Detroit, whose public-input process has included scores of public meetings and an online survey.

Other cities, meanwhile, have heard complaints that echo those in Pittsburgh. Philadelphia has plowed much of its first installment of aid money into its general fund while funding violence-prevention efforts, but City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart says so far, “It's not ideal in any way in terms of transparency” or openness to public input. (Philadelphia still has discussions of how to spend its second aid package — valued at $700 million — to look forward to next year.)

Experts say it is hard to judge a city’s planning process from the outside, since success depends partly on factors like the conversations that took place with community groups before COVID struck.

“What works for one city isn’t necessarily going to work for another,” said Mike Wallace, the legislative director on housing and community development issues for the National League of Cities.

Wallace says his group’s advice to cities “has certainly been don’t feel obligated to spend every dollar as soon as you get it,” and that leaders should “make sure that you are engaging with the community, with community stakeholders [and] with hard-to-reach populations who who may be the ones who experience the most harm due to COVID.

Still, he said, “I don't think just because you're adopting a plan, it means every dollar is out the door. ... [C]ertainly cities know that they can amend the plan.” And “if cities were already addressing the kinds of things that were made worse by COVID … they might have been two steps ahead” when it came time to plan for the money.

He and Parilla said Pittsburgh in general had a reputation for good governance in such matters. But Parilla said the fact that city government is in the midst of a change — with Peduto stepping down at year’s end after being defeated by Ed Gainey in the Democratic primary — is “a complicating factor. You could say, ‘This is an attempt to influence the agenda beyond the mayoral administration, and that is, you know, not the will of the people because the will of the people was to bring in new leadership.’ That said, it's a huge risk to just not do anything around the second [aid installment next year] of money and say the new administration will figure it out,” because of the lead time needed to come up with and deploy comprehensive strategies.

“The planning really should be underway now for that second part,” Parilla said.

Updated: July 20, 2021 at 1:26 PM EDT
This story was updated to include additional comments from Pittsburgh United, the Brookings Institute, the National League of Cities, and Philadelphia Controller Rebecca Rhynhart.
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.