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Pittsburgh shifts pandemic funding toward police and landslides, keeps funding for the arts

A Pittsburgh Police cruiser sits parked on the side of a road.
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council approved shifting about $21.4 million in federal coronavirus aid Tuesday to buy more police cruisers and stabilize hillsides, among other projects. Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration proposed the changes, deeming them necessary to keep the city on track to meet a federal deadline.

Jake Pawlak, Pittsburgh’s deputy mayor and director of the Office of Management and Budget, said reallocating the money was a way for the Gainey administration to meet “emerging needs” as they arise, while pulling funds from projects that couldn’t meet the federal timeline.

“We routinely look under the hood and figure out where these projects stand so that we can ensure that if we're falling behind, we can move the money appropriately to meet our spending deadline,” Pawlak told WESA.

The funds must be spent by the end of 2024 or, in the case of some construction projects, the money must be under contract by 2024 and spent by 2026. Pittsburgh was granted a total of $335 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. About $114 million of that aid remains in a city trust fund.

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Arts funding remains intact

The most controversial shift in spending was Gainey's proposal to reduce funding for the arts by $650,000 in favor of supporting projects that, according to Pawlak, “benefit residents as quickly as we can.”

Former Mayor Bill Peduto designated $2 million of the funds to support local artists experiencing financial hardship during the pandemic. But Gainey's administration expressed concern about whether the arts money, most of which remain unspent, could be allocated “the way it had been publicly described."

Pittsburgh City Council held a public hearing Tuesday afternoon in which members of the public unanimously spoke out against the change. But by then, Councilor Erika Strassburger had already proposed an amended reallocation plan that kept the funding for the arts intact.

“Artists have demonstrated throughout the pandemic that they are deserving of support,” Strassburger stressed. She pledged to work personally with the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Coucnil to develop an “equitable” plan to distribute the funds before the federal deadline.

To keep the arts funding in place, City Council voted to pull funds from a parking garage renovation in South Oakland, and a technology upgrade for recreation and senior centers.

The arts council applauded the reversal to keep the arts funding Tuesday. Morgan Kasprowicz, GPAC’s director of research and special projects, said the funding is critical as the arts community continues to recover from the pandemic.

“In order for us to continue to be everything that we have been to the community… in order for us to grow into everything that we could be for the city in the next 10 or 20 years, we do need your help now,” she said. “We are grateful for this movement today and we look forward to having this conversation in the future.”

Boosting the police fleet

Among the larger shifts approved Tuesday was a new $1.7 million allocation to the city’s Equipment Leasing Authority for the purchase of new public safety vehicles. In total, about $15.4 million from the federal aid package has been allocated to the city’s fleet.

Pawlak testified Tuesday that the additional investment would allow the city to buy 60 police cruisers in 2023, double the number it originally planned. The reallocation will also support the purchase of new fire equipment.

Councilor Anthony Coghill, who has frequently called for the city to upgrade police and public works vehicles, warned that the $1.7 million approved Tuesday was only the first step in a longer process to bring the city’s vehicle fleet up to standard.

“I think we got what we need, for the time being at least, to stave off a crisis,” he said.

Pawlak agreed, stressing that the reallocation will simply “solve the most urgent needs.”

Councilor Bruce Kraus, who cast the only vote against the fleet investment, said he disagreed with the process through which the city is purchasing the vehicles. Kraus said though the city needs public safety vehicles, the Equipment Leasing Authority should lobby for that investment during the annual budgeting process, which begins in a month.

Kraus told WESA he worries Tuesday’s action could create a precedent where the city makes vehicle investments “via a whack-a-mole process” instead of as part of a “holistic” budget discussion.

The land bank budget shrinks … again

Another large shift in federal aid placed the city’s land bank in its crosshairs. Council approved a proposal to split the land bank’s $7 million budget in half, giving $3.5 million to the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority. The Gainey administration said those funds could help the city stabilize buildings while they await title clearances by the land bank. Pawlak said the funds would still support the same overall goal of preparing land for reuse.

That leaves the city’s land bank with a $3.5 million budget. Pawlak said the administration estimates that’s the total the bank could reasonably spend clearing tangled property titles in the 18 months remaining before the federal deadline. The other $3.5 million will be spent on preparing properties for the land bank to clear in 2025 and 2026.

Since the land bank is an affiliated entity of the URA, Pawlak argued the money will still be spent to achieve the same goal.

“The fundamental principle of stabilizing properties, clearing their title and positioning them for re-use remains the same,” he said. “But the method in which we would expend those funds is slightly adjusted.”

The change shrinks the land bank budget for the second time in nine months. The city decreased the land bank budget from $10 million to $7 million late last year to be able to support the launch of a food justice fund.

A land bank official declined to comment on the budgetary changes, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority did not respond to a request for comment.

Preventing landslides

The city also approved reallocating nearly $2 million toward landslide stabilization. Pawlak told WESA that when it comes to landslides, “the scale of the problem grows faster than the resources.”

Pawlak said landslide prevention and remediation has been “chronically underfunded in the city, since this problem really sort of came to the fore in the last decade.” The city has seen several active landslides and expects the problem to continue and likely worsen as climate change makes for more extreme weather, the administration argued it could spend the federal money on landslides faster than some other projects.

Other new investments included $2 million for the New Granada Theatre in the Hill District, and $4 million to begin the final phase of housing construction in Swisshelm Park. The city will use the funds to begin the planning stage for a solar farm across from the Summerset at Frick housing development.

The city also reallocated $928,000 for the Davis Avenue pedestrian bridge.

Tuesday’s reallocations moved money away from several projects the city determined wouldn’t be completed by the federal deadline or in other cases — including the Hazelwood Senior Center — where projects were completed under budget.

The Cowley Recreation Center in Troy Hill was one project that had its funding diminished. Pawlak said that based on the current status of the project, the renovation won’t be completed in the next 18 months, so the administration determined $1.7 million in federal aid would be better spent elsewhere. That leaves $750,000 remaining for a “feasibility assessment” for the Cowley project. But Pawlak said that doesn’t mean the city won’t finish the project.

“We remain committed to the redevelopment of Cowley,” Pawlak pledged Tuesday. “We will have to close that construction gap in future capital budgets” with other funds, he said, adding that the funding reallocation shouldn’t delay the timeline for the project.

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.