At Forum, Peduto Discusses Using City Buying Power To Shift Gun Policy

Apr 26, 2019

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has spent years trying to get big tax-exemptions to help pay for social and environmental needs. He still appears to be a ways off from officially launching the effort, dubbed "OnePGH," but based on a public discussion of those goals on Thursday, his vision for it may actually be broadening.

And while he has yet to announce financial commitments from the foundations, nonprofits and other players his plan will need, he says the city can use its own money to advance social goods.

"We buy a lot of bullets as cities. We buy a lot of guns” to equip police officers, Peduto said at a Thursday panel discussion hosted by Carnegie Mellon University.  “Why aren't we … buying bullets only from companies that don't create cop-killer bullets? Why don’t we [buy] only off distributors that don’t sell semi-automatic or assault rifles to civilians, that only sell to government authorities?"

After the panel discussion Thursday, he told reporters that there was a local precedent for such an approach: the city, he said, has long deposited pension funds with banks that invest in lower-income communities. But he said Pittsburgh wasn’t actively pursuing that strategy for gun and ammunition purchasing at this point. Instead, he's waiting instead to see if the U.S. Conference of Mayors proposes any model policies.

If other cities did the same thing, “imagine the effect that would have on the market," said Peduto, recently attended a gathering of the Conference of Mayors in Toledo, Ohio. "Now imagine the same thing if we were purchasing based on [other progressive goals]. We could change the industry.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto shared his full position on gun legislation and withholding city firearms contracts ahead of the conference with 90.5 WESA's The Confluence. Hear that conversation here.

Other panelists at the CMU event hailed the strategy. Anthony Pipa, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that other cities were already demanding sustainable practices from employees. Covestro CEO Jerry MacCleary said his chemical manufacturing firm was pushing its own vendors to improve environmental practices.

More broadly, Pipa said Pittsburgh was “in the vanguard of a movement of cities worldwide that are really using the sustainable development goals as their blueprint for community action." Local governments, he said, "are very close to their citizens ... they see what happens, and they feel it immediately on issues of inequality, of prosperity that’s not shared equally, on issues of environmental sustainability.”

But as for OnePGH, the mayor’s signature effort in that direction, there was little new to report Thursday.

The administration has spent years pursuing OnePGH, which aspires to address dozens of social and environmental needs — everything from building affordable housing to assuring lead-free drinking water — while getting revenue from large nonprofits that don’t pay taxes. In the past, such entities made modest “payments in lieu of taxes” to fund city operations, but Peduto argues that they would invest far more in a separate effort focusing on community needs that align with the nonprofits’ own missions.  

In Peduto’s vision, nonprofits that pay no taxes would join with foundations and corporations to contribute money and other support to the effort. Those resources would be channeled by a nonprofit entity working with government officials and social-service agencies.

Peduto has talked about the idea since his first year in office, five years ago. But as WESA has reported previously, timetables to launch the program have come and gone, with little public movement.

On Thursday, Peduto told reporters he still doesn’t have a timetable for rolling out the plan or disclosing contributions from the hospital giants and universities that are key to it. Those groups have committed to supporting the effort, he said, but in terms of whose money will be spent where, “We don’t have a hard commitment that people will be looking for from the universities and the hospitals.”

Peduto said he was unlikely to roll out more information until such details were in hand.

“I don’t really want to have an announcement just with a plan," he said. "I’d like to be able to announce the plan” along with “how it will be administered and how it will be financed.”

That’s a shift from earlier this year, when he told WESA that the next step in the OnePGH process would be to announce interim leadership for a reconstituted nonprofit, the former Sprout Fund, that would handle the money. 

In the meantime, Peduto said he may add a new item to the wish list OnePGH could fund: a new citywide fiber-optic network to facilitate smart-city innovations like energy-efficient use of LED lighting. He said that in the days ahead he’d be looking at “what that would look like, what the costs would be,” and whether state law constrained the city’s ability to build and operate such a network.

If it makes sense to adopt the proposal, Peduto said, it will raise to 47 the number of causes that he hopes OnePGH will one day cover.