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Pittsburgh City Council approves $825 million budget for 2023, with focus on infrastructure

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council unanimously approved an $825 million budget for next year on Monday. The city’s spending plan includes a nearly $657 million operating budget and a $168 million capital budget for 2023. The package now heads to Mayor Ed Gainey’s desk for final approval.

The final budget largely reflects the original plan Gainey presented last month. That proposal included money for a bridge asset management program, a $4 million boost to the city’s Department of Public Works, support for two police training classes and a food justice fund.

“This budget is a reflection of our value as a city, one where we continue the work of building safe neighborhoods, welcoming communities, and that provides more opportunities for everyone to thrive,” Gainey said Monday.

Overall operating costs in the final version of the budget are almost unchanged from Gainey's original budget. The plan does not call for a tax increase.

Almost 40% of the operating budget is allocated to the Department of Public Safety, which includes police, fire, EMS and animal control. Gainey has proposed that the department would also absorb the city’s Office of Community Health and Safety next year in order to improve collaboration between police and community outreach responders.

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The budget does not call to expand the number of uniformed police officers next year. The city has struggled to maintain its full complement of 900 officers. Though several training classes are planned next year, public safety officials report fewer have made it through the city’s background check than anticipated.

City Council did make some changes, last week amending the budget to cut several proposed new positions to pay for a 3% salary increase for all non-union city employees. Council also approved a 6% salary increase for all nine of its members in line with the city’s home rule charter.

Council also reversed a proposal by Gainey that would have moved city communications services — including its cable bureau and print shop — into the mayor's office itself. Council opposed the idea, noting that the functions serve a number of departments, and voted to keep those workers in the city’s Department of Innovation and Performance.

The final budget also includes several changes that the Gainey administration itself proposed last week. Among them was earmarking $3.1 million in city bond funding toward the renovation of the Oliver Bathhouse on the city’s South Side, and spending parks tax dollars to upgrade Fowler Pool and Cross & Strauss Parklet in Perry South.

Overall, Pittsburgh will spend an additional $1.9 million more in parks tax dollars next year, including an allocation of $800,000 to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to upgrade the promenade in Allegheny Commons North Park.

The Parks Conservancy, which championed the passage of the parks tax in 2019, had earlier criticized some budget priorities which earmarked money for trucks and tractors and supported projects in bigger parks. The group had also suggested the city allocate about $1 million to the conservancy itself, since the nonprofit would be able to leverage the money by seeking additional support from outside funders.

In all, the city will spend about $15 million in parks tax money to renovate and improve parks.

Throughout budget talks, council members adjusted how the city would spend federal coronavirus aid money from the American Rescue Plan. The final budget includes allocations of $7 million for the city’s Land Bank, $3 million for a food justice fund, $3 million to replace or add streetlights with LED bulbs and $1 million for a medical debt relief program introduced last week.

Those allocations may cause problems for the Land Bank, which is supposed to help put disused land back in use by helping to clear tax and other problems. The agency has struggled to gain traction for years and already approved a plan earlier this month to spend the full $10 million. District 6 Councilor Daniel Lavelle, who serves on the land bank's board, said the agency will meet soon to discuss how to achieve its goals with $7 million.

Meanwhile, hunger-relief advocates applauded the city’s move to use $3 million to seed the food justice fund, which they hope will support programs that tackle food insecurity and promote urban agriculture Monday. Advocates stressed that it would most benefit households headed by single mothers as well as other low-income families.

“These funds will support local farms, businesses and nonprofits while also helping our neighbors who are at high risk for food insecurity," said Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s director of government affairs Colleen Young.

But there are not yet formal criteria for how money from the fund would be spent. Some members of council raised that concern last week, also noting that support for the program comes at the expense of decreased support for a housing program.

Everyone on council wants “to make sure that we were helping our residents of the city of Pittsburgh," said Council president Theresa Kail-Smith. But she said there were concerns about the lack of guidelines about how the fund would be implemented.

She introduced legislation Monday that would require a formal spending plan to be brought to council before the money could be awarded.

District 7 Councilor Deb Gross, council’s most vocal supporter of the initiative, issued a statement Monday that praised the inclusion of food justice funding.

“When we let Pittsburgh’s local food industry disappear, let our neighborhood businesses disintegrate, local wealth was extracted and food access suffered,” Gross said. “What do we do to solve this? We reinvest, we rebuild, and we support our local makers and our local retailers.”

The revised budgets will now head to Mayor Gainey’s desk for approval.

“These are long-term investments into the future of our city, and I look forward to signing these resolutions and working together with City Council on implementing this bold vision for Pittsburgh,” Gainey said.

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.