This story was originally published by PublicSource, a news partner of NEXTpittsburgh. PublicSource is a nonprofit media organization delivering local journalism at publicsource.org. You can sign up for their newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.
The Allegheny County Council voted Tuesday to release $99.75 million of the county’s federal Covid-19 relief money to be spent, though the county administration presented council with more of a broad-stroke spending plan than a detailed line-item budget.
The American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in March allocates $380 million to the county to be spent by the end of 2024. Tuesday’s 14-0 vote is the first move toward spending the sum.
County officials told council members the $99.75 million will be spent in these categories:
- $37 million to replace lost county revenue during the pandemic, such as drink, rental car and hotel taxes, and court fees
- $10 million for site development and other economic development grants
- $23 million for public health, $18 million of which will go toward buying radio equipment and infrastructure for public safety departments; money will also go to renovating county facilities to promote COVID safety
- $5 million for volunteer fire departments and EMS services
- $10 million for the Children’s Fund, a relatively new county program, mostly going toward building capacity for high-quality child care
- $9 million for mental health services through the Department of Human Services, including expanded hours for the mobile crisis service
- $5.5 million for other capital projects to improve COVID safety at shelters and care homes
The county’s allocation process has differed in several ways from that of the City of Pittsburgh, which received $335 million from the American Rescue Plan. The mayor’s office proposed a plan, approved by council, to spend 100% of its $335 million over four years. The county opted to request approval to spend only a quarter of its funds, for now.
“Our recommendation is to hold back for 2023 to make sure we have resources, we’re stabilized and our finances are solid,” County Manager William McKain told county council in a committee meeting on Sept. 21. “We’re not coming forward with the $380 million even though we’ve been awarded that.”
While the city held two council hearings to collect public comments on its spending plan before a vote, the county held no hearings and did not solicit feedback directly from residents. Instead, McKain said, the administration relied on suggestions from its departments, row offices and courts.
McKain said the county asked each department to submit a list of funding requests — and the resulting requests totaled more than $1 billion. PublicSource made a records request under the Right-to-Know Law in July to access these departmental requests, but the county denied it.
While the city was criticized for drafting its spending plan behind closed doors, it did eventually provide a budget for council consideration that included roughly 70 projects and needs. The county administration provided no such details to county council last week, and when Councilwoman Bethany Hallam asked for a line-item breakdown, county Finance Director Mary Soroka said such a plan was not yet fully formed, “because we don’t have permission to spend it yet.”
“My concern is you say you need approval in order to say how you’ll spend the money, but you’re asking us to approve something that we don’t know how it is going to be spent,” Hallam said at last week’s meeting. “I would say that the latter is more important to be able to express the will of the people we were elected to represent. I think we need to know.”
No other members strongly pushed back on the level of detail provided by the administration. Several applauded the resources given to the Children’s Fund, mental health services, the Elections Division and the Public Defender.
McKain said expenditures would be publicized as they happen, similar to how the county reported its spending of CARES Act money in 2020. The county’s CARES Act dashboard shows payments sorted by department, uploaded after the expense.
McKain said more American Rescue Plan money will be included in the 2022 budget to be introduced by the county executive this fall.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @chwolfson.