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Politics & Government

Allegheny County Executive Fitzgerald proposes 2022 budget, council rethinks mask mandate

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Sarah Kovash
/
90.5 WESA

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald presented his 2022 budget proposal to County Council Tuesday. The proposed $990.6 million plan reflects an increase of 3.2% and would return the county to pre-pandemic workforce levels and operations, but does not call for an increase in the property tax, thanks to additional funding from the American Rescue Plan.

“These past 18 months have been unprecedented as the pandemic impacted the health of county residents, but also the county’s finances,” Fitzgerald said. “The fiscal recovery funds that have allowed the county to replace lost revenues have been integral to allow us to recover financially from the pandemic while also continuing to invest in our community and its residents.”

Fitzgerald said Tuesday that the federal aid helped make up for a budget shortfall between $35 and 40 million.

More funding for the health department, county jail and others

The proposed plan calls for a variety of investments, including an increase to the Health Department’s budget by $446,199 to convert the agency’s public health laboratory into a regional public health laboratory center and expand its services throughout Western Pennsylvania.

It also calls for greater investment in the county’s Public Defender office that would result in a larger office space and seven new employees.

The plan increases the budget for the Allegheny County Jail by more than $12 million. According to Fitzgerald, the increase was due in large part to the facility’s need to comply with a referendum that banned the restraint chair, leg shackles and many uses of solitary confinement, a sentiment also expressed by jail officials. Orlando Harper, the jail’s warden, has spoken publicly about the jail’s struggle to comply with the demands of the referendum, citing the expense of adding padded cells and new training for guards as hurdles.

Fitzgerald also proposed a $182.5 million 2022 capital budget that includes 73 infrastructure and capital improvements projects. Included in those projects are bridge repairs, landslide repairs and prevention.

The proposal would also fund more county electric cars and an increased investment in the county’s information technology infrastructure.

County council will begin holding hearings on the budget in the coming weeks.

Mask mandate efforts

Public comment during the meeting focused heavily on an anticipated council discussion about a mask mandate.

A largely symbolic motion sponsored by Councilor Liv Bennett urges the Allegheny County Health Department to consider a new mask mandate. It would make face coverings mandatory at indoor gatherings when Allegheny County’s COVID-19 transmission rate is moderate or worse.

Whether to enact that mandate would be up to the health department.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the transmission rate in Allegheny County is currently ranked “high,” meaning there have been more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people in the last week. The county’s rate has been at least moderate since late summer.

A vote on the proposal was delayed in favor of further consideration by council’s health and human services committee. The committee will discuss the motion before deciding whether to bring it to a vote.

Bennett, along with Councilor Bethany Hallam, proposed a different mask mandate last month that would have required masks at all indoor gatherings and outdoor gatherings with more than 250 people and fined those who didn't comply. Council swiftly rejected that proposal.

Residents spoke out for and against mask mandates for much of the public comment period.

“We need a mask mandate,” said Delores Thrower, a pastor at Pittsburgh Higher Ground Ministry. “I’m tired of going to restaurants and [there are] people taking my money and they don’t have a mask on… I’m still weak from this disease.”

Thrower also alluded to more vaccine requirements. “We have Moderna, we have Johnson & Johnson and we have Pfizer. The rescue is here. The people have to get the shot and the masks have to be worn.”

Several residents submitted written comments about mask mandates. Those who wrote in opposition said masks could discourage people from going out, affecting businesses. Others against masks claimed there isn’t enough science to prove they’re effective in preventing transmission.

Tiffany Gary-Webb, an epidemiologist and member of the Black Equity Coalition, cited the risks associated with a lower vaccination rate among Black Allegheny County residents.

“Weekly COVID-19 visits to the [emergency room] total over 800 per week, a three-fold increase since July,” said Gary-Webb, who is also a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s graduate school of public health and chair of the American Public Health Association’s epidemiologist section.

“With cases continually rising, we know that masks will help prevent the spread of the deadly virus,” she said.

Gary-Webb and county resident Brady Winter also expressed concerns about a new surge in cases as a result of people gathering indoors without masks for the holidays.

“We’re talking about requiring folks to wear a mask to prevent the spread of a virus…We are experiencing a mass fatality event,” said Noble Maseru, another member of the Black Equity Coalition and former Cincinnati Health Department commissioner.

Maseru spoke about the effectiveness of masks by citing a modeling study published in Nature Medicine that found universal mask use could have prevented 130,000 deaths.

“If masking is good enough for the [people] who come to the [City-County] Building, then it should be good enough for those who work, worship and play in the county,” he said.

Marian Carlino, who lives downtown, said she was glad council didn’t vote on the motion Tuesday and hoped it wouldn’t pass.

“If you’re willing to be held personally accountable for any of the mandates you advise, check with your lawyers,” she said, alluding to potential lawsuits as a result of a mask mandate.

A spokesperson for the Allegheny County Health Department declined to comment specifically on the motion or a mask mandate, but noted that Director Dr. Debra Bogen has consistently encouraged all county residents to wear masks indoors.