Stop the burning! Demand Public Accountability for Pittsburgh’s $335M in COVID Relief Money

image description: a pile of burning money

Demand accountability. With no public input, Mayor Peduto & City Council rushed to approve their spending plan for Pittsburgh’s $335 Million of COVID relief funding in less than 3 weeks. They have already passed bills that speed up their proposed timeline, leaving less for our next mayor and the public to influence.

Write your councilperson today to demand accountability for our city’s COVID relief funds.

On August 31, 2021, Councilman Lavelle introduced four bills to allow the City of Pittsburgh to enter “agreements” or contracts with various departments outlined in spending plans for the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). ARPA provides federal relief money to state and local governments to respond to COVID-19 related emergencies. The federal money is intended to flexibly “meet local needs” and to support “households, small businesses, impacted industries, essential workers, and the communities hardest hit by the crisis.” 

Yet, while federal guidelines encourage governments to determine ARPA allocations through community engagement and public processes, the current Pittsburgh ARPA spending plan was developed behind closed doors, with a commission of just 3 Council members and the Mayor’s administration. The plan was subsequently approved by council with minimal revisions in less than 3 weeks. Despite outcry from hundreds of residents and community organizations like PPT on the lack of community input and transparency in the allocation process, the ARPA spending plan bills passed City Council on July 20, 2021 with a vote of 8-1. Some City Council members claimed that plans could be amended even after being passed, and planned a few listening sessions for early August. 

These after-the-fact listening sessions unsurprisingly had little impact on slowing or amending the predetermined ARPA allocations; in fact, the four bills introduced on August 31 by Councilman Lavelle include an additional $24 million in Year 2 & 3 projected spendings to the Year 1 allocation in the budget approved by Council on July 20, 2021. Moreover, while the July vote proposed a multi-year spending plan, these bills would send the full allocation out the door immediately, and away from public oversight. These bills will allow the city to transfer money over to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for up to ​​$74,878,811 (Bill 2021-1806); the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) for up to $17,500,000 (Bill 2021-1805); $2,500,000 to Bill Peduto’s private organization OnePGH (Bill 2021-1803); and $80,000 to the Pittsburgh Parking Authority (PPA) (Bill 2021-1804).

This faster timeline means that almost $100 million or almost 30% of the city’s $335 million of ARPA funds will be transferred, all at once, with no City oversight or accountability to the public about how that money will be spent.  

While we can lament specific allocations in these bills like $80,000 for a parking lot in East Liberty, and $2.5 million to a new non-profit (OnePGH) that is essentially run by the Mayor and his staff, the core issue is that the Mayor and most members of City Council have eschewed their responsibility to engage residents and constituents about their needs. Councilman Burgess has even claimed that public outcry against the closed-door allocations are about “limiting council, in trying to overthrow our right and responsibilities as the fiscal watchdogs.” In fact, the latest set of bills aimed at accelerating these payments out of Council control would do precisely what Councilman Burgess is describing, by undermining the City’s power as a fiscal watchdog and not allowing Year 1 investments to play out and be evaluated on their merit and impact.

Ensuring that remaining city ARPA funds are allocated and spent in a transparent, participatory and equitable manner will remain a struggle. However, PPT and the coalition of community organizations we work with know that power is in the people. We will continue to organize for a transparent, public process to identify and fund the needs of residents, particularly those most impacted by COVID, and to demand that our City does not write enormous checks to non-City, unaccountable entities.

“The Pittsburgh Food Policy Council is calling on City Council to follow the approved spending plan and stagger payments to external entities,” says Dawn Plummer, Executive Director.


  1. We are calling on you to reach out to your Pittsburgh City Council member to ask that they amend the bills authorizing transfers of American Rescue Plan funds.  Don’t know your City Council member? Find them here.
  2. Here’s a script:

“Dear Council Person [Insert Your Council Person’s Name Here]

Hello, my name is _______ and I am a resident of [insert neighborhood here]. I am contacting you today regarding the proposed legislation to allocate $95 million of the City of Pittsburgh’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds. 

I urge you to only allocate the funds budgeted in the first year of the City’s ARP spending plan. There is no need to rush another $25 million out the door, especially when details about how funds will be used have not been provided.

Moreover, I echo the following recommendations first made to you by City Controller Michael Lamb and encourage you to include them in the final vote on these transfers to ensure proper public accountability:

  1. Incorporate language to mandate that agencies receiving large ARPA Trust
    Fund transfers of $1,000,000 or more must submit the following as requested by the
    Pittsburgh City Controller:
    a. Quarterly Progress Reports on activities
    b. Quarterly Financial Reports on activities
    c. Other information, as required.
  2. Authorize and direct the Pittsburgh City Controller to have auditing authority over all
    agencies receiving ARPA funds, pursuant to the powers outlined in the Home Rule
  3. Write separate contracts for each project funded with ARPA funds. This would require
    each ARPA project go through the rigorous process of legal review from the Department of
    Law and the Controller’s office.
  4. Mandate each ARPA project to have separate tracking in city budgeting processes. This
    increases transparency and would allow the public to better understand how each dollar was allocated and subsequently spent.

Thank you for your consideration.”

Background information

Spending Plan for ARPA Legislation, Excel Sheet

Further Detail about the four bills from 08/31/2021 meeting:

BillInformation about project(s) being fundedInformation about organization
2021-1803: $2.5M to OnePGHOf the $2.5 Million allocated to OnePgh to fund the “Universal Basic Income Pilot,” only $1.25 Million will be given out in cash payments to the families participating (assuming it is in accordance with the previously detailed proposal, in 2020.)
“As for the OnePGH funding, Gilman said it is the only way the city can legally fund a pilot program to provide a basic income subsidy to low-income Black women to see if such a program helps. The city is among several experimenting with universal basic income that are proposing use of American Rescue Plan funding to do so, Gilman said.” (Trib article, 06/30/2021)
“The money used to start the program will come from funds Dorsey gave that is allowing Pittsburgh and 15 other cities to help those who are struggling during the economic crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. “A number of people in the city of Pittsburgh will be chosen to be able to receive a monthly stipend, basically a debit card,” Peduto told local CBS affiliate KDKA. He did not specify how many people would qualify, but he did outline the criteria he would look at. Peduto said that he wants to give the monthly payments to those who are currently struggling and who would be able to improve their lives with it. He is also looking to award the money to people of different backgrounds and demographics so that a study can be conducted to analyze how it works. “This is one tool to close the wealth and income gap, level systemic race and gender inequalities, and create economic security for families,” Dorsey tweeted about the program earlier this month.” (Fox Business 08/03/2021)

Oversight: “Since 2005, the city has received a total of $34 million from nonprofits, Peduto said. And those contributions have been received and spent without oversight.“There is no accountability and there is no outcome from it,” he said. As a nonprofit itself, OnePGH will be required to make its spending public and Peduto said its operations will be transparent.” (Trib article, 04/29/2021)
Mission and purpose
OnePGH seen as a reactionary response to the fact that Peduto admin dropped lawsuit about UPMC’s tax exempt status
Brings together city’s largest nonprofits: Pitt, CMU, UPMC, Highmark Health, and supported by Heinz Endowments, Hillman Family Foundations and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. (source and amounts contributed by each org here)
“This groundwork over the next five years will be an experiment in urban partnerships for the 21st century,” [Peduto] said.”
141-page prospectus that details the plans that will be pursued by OnePGH 
2021-1804: $80k to Pittsburgh Parking Authority“Addresses the lost revenue of the Public Parking Authority of Pittsburgh”  City press release
The bill itself says that it will fund the “Kirkwood Avenue lot project,” which is in East Liberty.
2021-1805: $17.5M to PWSA“$20 Million for removal of lead from our water and paint.” City press release
2021-1806: Nearly $75M to the URA $7 million (~10%) for Avenues of Hope (source) “$2 million [2.5%] for other development in Homewood; $1 [1.2%] million for the Jasmine Nyree Campus in Sheraden that helps people with special needs and $1 million [1.2%] for the Gladstone School affordable housing development in Hazelwood.” (source)