Allegheny County agencies can now start spending about a quarter of the $ 380 million in coronavirus aid the county is expected to receive as part of President Biden’s US bailout.
Allegheny County Council on Tuesday voted 14-0 to approve County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s proposal to use $ 99.75 million of the funding this year, with the rest of the money to be spent on over the next two years. Democrat Bethany Hallam abstained in the vote.
Recognizing the historic reach of federal funds, Democrat DeWitt Walton said, “It’s important that we recognize that these dollars are really starting to address many of the challenges we face in our society.
Fitzgerald’s office released new details on the spending plan after the board vote on Tuesday. In a statement, the administration said “key investments” would include $ 10 million for child care, $ 9 million for mental health services, $ 5 million for volunteer firefighters and medical services. emergency, and approximately $ 18 million for the improvement of the public safety radio system.
Overall, $ 15 million of the funds will help tackle the negative economic impact of COVID-19, including lost government revenue, according to County Director William McKain told a council committee last week.
He said nearly $ 38 million will fund public health resources. In addition to investing in child care and mental health services, this spending will fund ventilation and COVID-related building improvements at some county offices and nursing homes in Kane, McKain said on the week. last.
An additional $ 47 million, he said, will be used to fund government services such as site development grants to promote economic development and activity.
Hallam refused to vote on Tuesday because, she said, she had not yet received a “breakdown of the elements of these [funds] and where they are going ”despite the request for this information when the council panel took the action last week.
This objection generated little public outcry, however – a stark contrast to the rallies. that ensued this summer when Pittsburgh officials unveiled their plan to use the city’s $ 335 million US bailout fund. Community organizers protested the speed at which city leaders crafted their spending plan, saying voters didn’t have enough time to weigh in.
But while Pittsburgh City Council held two public hearings before proceeding with the vote, no such meeting has taken place at the county level.
The activists were worried over the summer that county leaders would not hold public forums on their COVID relief plan. But that concern did not spark protests like those that led to the Pittsburgh City Council vote.
“We are very disappointed with the lack of transparency in county plans to spend US bailout funds,” said Ken Regal, executive director of the anti-hunger nonprofit Just Harvest. Even so, he said, “practical political considerations” kept organizations like his from pushing for the same level of commitment they demanded from officials in Pittsburgh.
“There’s kind of a general feeling that municipal government is generally more progressive on these kinds of issues, so there’s a bit more potential impact there,” Regal said. And he added: “We all have limited capacity, and we all have to choose our battles, [especially] during the pandemic… when it is difficult to organize people.
Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, executive director of the activist group Pittsburgh United, admitted that, in relation to the Fitzgerald administration, Pittsburgh officials were quicker to release details of their coronavirus relief plan.
“At least in the city, legislation has been proposed that has given people time to engage in it a bit, for people to mobilize,” she said. But she added that both levels of government should provide more details on how they will spend the money.
Like Regal, Rafanan Kennedy said his organization spoke to county administrators ahead of Tuesday’s vote on how the funds could meet the needs of the community.
“But many groups or individual citizens don’t know how to do this and haven’t had the opportunity to do it,” she said. “It is important for our elected officials to create this space and to have this dialogue with the community.
She noted that the US Treasury, which disbursed the COVID aid, called on local governments to involve voters in the decision to allocate funds. A spokesperson for Fitzgerald did not comment on this element of Treasury guidance.
Either way, Rafanan Kennedy said groups like his hope to work with city and county officials “to improve these processes.”
“We are looking forward to having a real dialogue on how we can do this,” she said. “The county has not yet allocated all of its [COVID relief] dollars. So we have another opportunity to improve the process for the next round of funding and allocations. “