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Allegheny County Quietly Working On Plans For $380M In COVID Aid

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Margaret Sun
90.5 WESA
Increased funding for public transit has become a rallying point for activists who want more say in how Allegheny County officials allocate $380 million in American Rescue Plan money.

It likely will be another month before Allegheny County officials release details on a proposal to spend $380 million in federal coronavirus aid. While the county budget office has consulted with other agencies since June on how to use the funds, it does not intend to share specifics until after County Council returns from its summer recess August 24.

The 15-member council must approve the proposal before County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s administration can disburse the money. And county spokesperson Amie Downs said the legislators will get a first look at the spending plan.

“We want to be respectful of the legislative process, so any plan would be presented to those members first,” Downs said. She did not know how soon council will get to view the proposed budget, or at what point thereafter the public will get to see it.

Without more insight into the spending plan, local community organizers worry that county leaders won’t consider public input when choosing how to allocate the money, which comes from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The organizers protested Pittsburgh city officials’ handling of the same process earlier this month because, they said, City Council did not give the public enough time to weigh in after Mayor Bill Peduto unveiled his proposal.

“We … are concerned that the county process is going to be actually even more obscure than the city process and less participatory,” Pittsburghers for Public Transit executive director Laura Chu Weins said.

Like Pittsburgh City Council, County Council could hold public hearings before voting on Fitzgerald’s plan. County Council President Pat Catena, a Democrat, said he would need to discuss the matter with his fellow councilors after they come back from recess.

Regardless, Weins said that county departments should engage the public and advocacy groups like hers in crafting their plans for the federal money.

“It feels a little bit disingenuous to say that we have much of a voice, given that now there's just a public process that happens after the decisions have already been made … almost entirely in the dark,” Chu Wiens said.

Ken Regal, executive director of the anti-hunger nonprofit Just Harvest, said the lack of transparency has caused “anxiety” among local activists.

“We know that there are deep, deep, deep inequities from one part of the county to the other, particularly [in] predominantly Black communities,” Regal said. “So without any clues about what the county government will consider the most urgent needs, we are increasingly impatient to see a real honest public process get underway.”

Guidance prepared by county officials, and obtained by 90.5 WESA, shows that agencies may use the American Rescue Plan money to support the public health response to the pandemic, address negative economic impacts of COVID-19, provide government services, or make necessary investments in water, sewer, stormwater, or broadband infrastructure.

Increased funding for public transit has become a rallying point for activists. They hope the county will institute a fare-relief program for lower-income riders. Under such a program, people who are eligible for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, could board public transit for free.

The proposal failed to gain traction in the city of Pittsburgh, where officials said transit was a county responsibility.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit estimates the program would cost the Port Authority between $4 million and $8 million a year, “a drop in the bucket when you look at the total amount of relief money that the county has received,” Chu Wiens said.

Regal noted that greater access to transportation would also make it easier for people to travel to supermarkets to buy food. He said the county should use the federal coronavirus aid to support such anti-hunger measures.

“There's much more to [fighting hunger] than just delivering emergency food to people,” he said. Investments in farmers markets and small businesses that sell food would also help, Regal said.

Regal and Wiens said county officials have not invited them to discuss the rescue plan money, although Regal noted that he has worked with the county to determine how to spend coronavirus aid included in the CARES Act, which Congress passed in March 2020. The county has used the CARES Act money to fund contracts for anti-hunger services provided by Just Harvest, Regal said.

Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, executive director of Pittsburgh United, was among the most vocal critics of Pittsburgh city leaders’ process for determining how to allocate American Rescue Plan money. She said that, while county officials have spoken with her about how they can use their rescue plan allotment to address housing needs, they should be more transparent in crafting their plans for the money.

“It's imperative that residents are included in the process, understand how the process works, have the opportunity to participate, and that that participation yields actual change with the allocation of funds,” Rafanan Kennedy said.

She noted that, like local governments across the country, the county “seems to be taking a slower approach” than the city of Pittsburgh in developing its budget for the relief.

“That leaves space for developing a community-input process and a public process where [County] Council, different departments, residents can be involved in the conversation,” she said. “I hope that the county is moving in that direction.”

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.