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After years of belt tightening, McKeesport is preparing to loosen its fiscal strap in the coming year, thanks largely to the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

The city of nearly 18,000 plans to boost its budget by nearly 17% to reverse a few of the staffing losses of past years and to launch new programs aimed at helping residents to fix roofs and sidewalks and to buy neighboring vacant lots.

“I feel very good about the services that we’re going to be able to be providing to the ones on fixed incomes that need those types of things,” said Mayor Michael Cherepko on Dec. 1, shortly after McKeesport City Council approved the $25.8 million budget his administration crafted.

“I feel good about us being able to increase, at a very small level, some manpower. I feel great that we were able to avoid layoffs and furloughs,” he continued. “And we’re very fortunate and blessed to be able to get that American Rescue Plan money.”

The American Rescue Plan Act [ARPA] steered $130 billion to local governments, including $24.7 million to McKeesport. That’s more than the city’s 2021 budget, which was $22.1 million, and was down slightly from the prior year. The allocation must be spent by the end of 2024.

ARPA allowed the administration to shelve contingency plans for layoffs in a city that, Cherepko said, has already slashed staff by 25% during his decade in office

McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

“Thanks to that funding, we’re able to keep that level of service, and even restore a couple people that we did not replace during the pandemic,” he said, pledging to bring on three police officers, three public works employees and one or two clerical staff. That brings the budgeted staff to around 174, plus an unspecified number of part-time police officers.

More novel is the city’s plan to help out residents in three ways:

  • A new program, for which details were not provided, will help property owners repair roofs, which the mayor said will also enable them to take advantage of a home weatherization effort run by ACTION-Housing. “Many times [residents] are unable to do the weatherization because a roof is in horrible condition,” Cherepko said. “Someone can now have a roof, get weatherization all in one, and not go without.”
  • The city plans to subsidize the process through which residents buy neighboring vacant lots by covering the roughly $2,500 in legal fees and filings costs normally tied to those purchases. Buyers will still have to pay the assessed values of the lots, which the mayor put at around $300 to $500 per lot. If the city ultimately puts $250,000 toward the program, he said, it could restore 100 lots to private ownership.
  • A sidewalk repair program will aid homeowners who can’t afford needed fixes.

At the Dec. 1 meeting of McKeesport City Council, there was no public comment on the budget and neither questions nor comments from the city’s seven legislators, who unanimously approved the spending plan.

The city has, since 2017, plugged holes in its budget using some of the more than $40 million in net proceeds of a sale of its sewer assets to Pennsylvania American Water. The 2022 budget relies on around $5.8 million from the resulting reserve fund, which now holds around $26 million, according to the mayor.

The sale proceeds have also paid for much of an ongoing program of demolitions of blighted properties, which is a centerpiece of the mayor’s McKeesport Rising development push. The administration indicated that it has taken down more than 400 buildings since 2018 and expects to raze another 300 next year.

A demolition site on McKeesport’s Fifth Avenue, in November 2021 (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

Afterward, the mayor said that ARPA will allow the city to draw down its reserves more slowly, hopefully allowing ongoing economic development efforts enough time to take root and ultimately keep the city out of financial distress.

“There’s no question in my mind that our better days lie ahead,” he said. “I always say you’ve got to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. By the summer, we’re going to be back to a jog, which is where we were before the pandemic, to be honest with you.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

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This story was made possible with financial support through the American Press Institute.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...