Allegheny County needs more transparency on COVID relief spending

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Allegheny County Council is poised to approve County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s plan for $99.75 million federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. The plan has received no public input.

This outlay will be the first of three comprising the total $380 million in ARPA funds to the county, the other two coming in 2022 and 2023.

Just Harvest grassroots organizer Dana Dolney submitted testimony at the council meeting just before the vote, urging members to slow down on approving this plan. Her testimony is below.

Just Harvest and community organizations we work with have serious concerns about the lack of public engagement and input on the county’s current ARPA proposal and proposed use of its 380 million dollars of COVID relief funding. There has not been transparency in this process particularly around who is drafting the county’s plan, what needs they are prioritizing, and what voices are being heard. There are no line items in this proposal to clarify where the money will go and how it will be used and accounted for.

We are asking for county council to create space for more public input in your process. This council has the ability to shape the recovery and support those most affected in the areas hardest-hit by the pandemic, but only if it chooses to do so with careful deliberation and through a lens of equity.

Take your time. Go into your communities and talk to your constituents and hear their stories and struggles. Listen to the feedback from community leaders and local organizations that have been working tirelessly to supplement the existing social services. After 18 months of COVID, we know where more can and should be done.

Just Harvest fully supports the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council’s call for a ten million dollar dedicated Food Justice Fund that would make long- and urgently needed investments in local food systems, which are critical infrastructure. This would serve a range of initiatives in our neighborhoods across Allegheny County, including addressing inadequate food access, supporting local farmers and food entrepreneurs, and alleviating widespread food insecurity.

Pittsburgh has the highest percentage of people residing in areas where they don’t have ready access to supermarkets and live in areas known as food deserts.  Many in these communities across Allegheny County lack the basic access and means to healthy, affordable food. In addition, they need help now with housing and utilities, including viable access to these resources.  They need real transportation solutions, like a low-income fare relief program, to get to grocery stores and find work and create greater access to healthcare and other social services. Public health should be prioritized over other infrastructure projects that can wait until after we get through the worst of this pandemic.

We hear about people’s struggles – their desperate need for help and support – every day in our work. We want to help the county connect these funds to those who need them most. There has never been a greater need than now and your vote means more than ever to those you represent. Please do not move forward with this proposal until you have done the work of identifying where and what kinds of pandemic relief are needed, the work that these funds were intended for.

Plugging budget holes is not sufficient and will not generate the recovery this county needs. If you put county residents and their needs first and foremost in your process and your proposals, you’ll win the gains that these funds can deliver. The historic impact of this pandemic requires all levels of government to craft their relief efforts with real transparency, accountability, and democratic input, not just the status quo of how county government typically operates.

You only get one chance to do this right. Please don’t blow it.

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