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Gainey admin provides update on how Pittsburgh is spending $335M in federal pandemic aid

Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA

City budget officials joined Pittsburgh City Council Tuesday to discuss the city's progress in spending its share of federal pandemic aid. As of this summer, the city has received its entire $335 million allocation and has continued obligating funds toward specific projects.

So far, the city has spent or obligated nearly $123 million, which is about 37% of the funds. An obligation indicates that an order has been placed or contracts are being entered, according to city budget officials. That leaves another 63% of the aid, about $212 million, unspent.

The so-called “ARPA spending plan” was first designed by the Peduto administration and passed by City Council last year. At that time, city officials took heat from dozens of community groups, who criticized the task force behind the plan for not including more public input. Several city council members stressed that their vote to approve the plan was with the understanding that it could be amended.

Since Mayor Ed Gainey took office, the plan has largely remained the same. However, $2.5 million was redirected toward a bridge maintenance program after the collapse of the city’s Fern Hollow Bridge earlier this year, according to Jake Pawlak, director of the city’s Office of Management and Budget.

On Tuesday, the council was joined by city and council budget directors, who presented the spending plan and explained that all funds had to be obligated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. The city spent about $106 million in 2021 and will spend about $105 million in 2022, $68 million in 2023 and $54 million in 2024.

Council members asked the budget directors questions about how funds could be reallocated as new issues pop up. Councilor Deb Gross, the only council member to vote against the plan when it came before council last year, stressed that the city needs to be flexible.

She noted that other comparable cities are spending large amounts of money on public health initiatives, emergency shelters, food and housing security efforts and other matters.

“All of these cities keep reevaluating where they are now and where their citizens are now,” Gross said. “We’re nearly three years into the pandemic and our needs are changing.”

Peter McDevitt, the council's budget director, explained that the administration will work with council to reallocate any funds not obligated for a project by April 1, 2024.

According to the spending plan, about $178 million — more than half of the money — has been earmarked for the city’s budget to help avoid job cuts and pad a revenue shortfall from the pandemic. The other largest portion, nearly $71 million, is directed toward the Urban Redevelopment Authority for projects like the city’s Avenues of Hope, homeownership programs and a $10 million investment in the city’s land bank.

Nearly $60 million will go toward capital projects like boosting the city’s green fleet, bridge improvements, streetlight replacements, rec center improvements and other projects. The city has so far only spent about $5 million of that allocation, with another $13.2 million obligated to projects. That leaves nearly 70% of the funds unspent and unobligated.

District 4 Councilor Anthony Coghill objected to one of the plan’s other largest expenditures, $17.5 million for Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to continue replacing the city’s outdated lead service lines. Coghill argued his constituents wouldn’t benefit from the investment in the PWSA because District 4 is serviced by another utility, Pennsylvania American Water.

Coghill flagged the expenditure last year when council debated how to spend the plan under then-Mayor Bill Peduto. While council made some adjustments, including using $2 million for demolition and another $2 million for a lead-paint removal program, Peduto’s initial plan changed very little before council members approved it.

Councilor Deb Gross has advocated for using the funding to start a food justice fund. At a public hearing last month, dozens of people spoke in favor of earmarking $10 million toward supporting groups serving the hungry. Some of those same advocates were critical of how the spending plan was developed and wanted to be able to propose new projects for the revenue to support.

For now, Pittsburgh does not have plans to use the money to start a food justice fund, according to Pawlak.

“The allocation plan as it was adopted last year didn’t include that, and to date, we’ve not proposed a change that would do that,” Pawlak said.

Council members asked budget officials to provide more specifics about individual projects in the coming weeks. Wilson suggested leaders convene future hearings to learn more about the specifics of each project and track the progress of how the money gets spent.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.