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Allegheny County Council votes to unlock $100M in COVID relief

Allegheny County officials plan to spend nearly $100 million in American Rescue Plan funds this year. The county is set to receive a total of $380 million from the federal coronavirus relief package.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County officials plan to spend nearly $100 million in American Rescue Plan funds this year. The county is set to receive a total of $380 million from the federal coronavirus relief package.

Local agencies can now begin to spend about a quarter of the $380 million in coronavirus aid that Allegheny County is set to receive through President Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

On Tuesday, Allegheny County Council voted 14-0 to approve County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s proposal for using $99.75 million of the funding this year, with the rest of the money to be spent in the next two years. Democrat Bethany Hallam abstained from the vote.

Acknowledging the historic scope of the federal funding, Democrat DeWitt Walton said, “It is important that we note that these dollars really begin to address many of the challenges that we’re confronted with in our society.”

Fitzgerald’s office released new details on the spending plan following council’s vote Tuesday. In a statement, the administration said that “key investments” will include $10 million for child care, $9 million for mental health services, $5 million for volunteer fire companies and emergency medical services, and about $18 million for public safety radio system improvements.

Overall, $15 million of the funds will address the negative economic impact of COVID-19, including lost government revenues, county manager William McKain told a council committee last week.

He said that nearly $38 million will finance public health resources. Aside from investing in child care facilities and mental health services, those outlays will fund ventilation and COVID-related building improvements at some county offices and Kane nursing homes, McKain said last week.

An additional $47 million, he said, will pay for government services such as site development grants that seek to promote economic development and activity. The county’s Children's Fund, charged with getting more Allegheny County kids into early education and after-school programs, will also receive some of the money.

Hallam declined to cast a vote Tuesday because, she said, she had yet to receive a “line-item breakdown of these [funds] and where they’re going” despite requesting that information when the council panel took up the measure last week.

That objection sparked little public outcry, however — a stark contrast to the rallies that ensued this summer when Pittsburgh officials unveiled their plan for using all of the city’s $335 million in American Rescue Plan funds. Community organizers protested the speed with which city leaders developed their spending package, saying that constituents did not have enough time to weigh in.

But while Pittsburgh City Council held two public hearings before taking a vote, no such meetings took place at the county level.

Activists had worried over the summer that county leaders would not hold public forums on their COVID relief plan. But that concern didn’t prompt protests like those that led up to the city council vote in Pittsburgh.

“We're very disappointed in the lack of transparency about county plans for spending American Rescue Plan funds,” said Ken Regal, executive director of the anti-hunger nonprofit Just Harvest. Even so, he said, “practical political considerations” kept organizations like his from pushing county officeholders for the same level of engagement they demanded of Pittsburgh officials.

“There's sort of a general sense that the city government is generally more progressive about these sorts of issues so that there's a bit more potential impact there,” Regal said. And he added, “We all have limited capacity, and we all have to pick our battles, [especially] during the pandemic … when it's hard to organize people.”

Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, executive director of the activist group Pittsburgh United, acknowledged that, compared to Fitzgerald’s administration, Pittsburgh officials were quicker to release details on their plan for the coronavirus aid.

“At least in the city, legislation was put forward that gave people time to actually engage with it a little bit, for people to mobilize,” she said. But she added that both levels of government should provide more specifics on how they’ll spend the money.

Like Regal, Rafanan Kennedy said that her organization spoke with county administrators before Tuesday’s vote about how the funds could address community needs.

“But many groups or individual citizens don't know how to do that and didn't have an opportunity to do that,” she said. “It is important for our elected officials to create that space and to have that dialogue with the community.”

She noted that the U.S. Treasury, which disbursed the COVID relief, called on local governments to engage constituents in deciding how to allocate the funds. A spokesperson for Fitzgerald did not comment on that element of the Treasury’s guidance.

Regardless, Rafanan Kennedy said that groups like hers hope to work with city and county officials “to improve these processes.”

“We look forward to having a real dialogue about how we can do that,” she said. “The county has not at this time allocated all of their [COVID relief] dollars. So we have another opportunity to improve the process for the next round of funding and allocations.”