Pittsburgh controller alarmed over COVID relief transparency

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Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb sits at his desk

Michael E. Lamb, Pittsburgh’s city controller, poses for a portrait in his office at the City-County building on Grant Steet. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

Update (9/14/2021): City Council voted 8-1 Tuesday to approve the transfers, which add up to more than $90 million. Councilwoman Deb Gross voted against the move. An amendment was attached to authorize the city controller to audit the agencies' use of the funds and to require quarterly reports to the city.

After swiftly passing Mayor Bill Peduto’s federal COVID-19 relief spending plan in July, City Council is preparing for final votes Tuesday on the transfer of more than $90 million of the funds to outside entities such as OnePGH and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). 

Friday morning, Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb sent a letter to council, asking them to leave the money in the city’s American Rescue Plan trust fund until the agencies are ready to spend it. He said leaving the money in the city account will allow for greater oversight and public transparency.

“If we’re going to dump a lot of money around to various authorities, we lose some ability to track that spending,” Lamb said in an interview Friday. He said he wants to “ensure that all of these dollars are appropriately spent and that we’d be able to track that in real time. And what they’re suggesting here is really going to be an obstacle for us to do that.”

City Councilwoman Deb Gross made a similar statement Wednesday, calling the transfers “irresponsible.”

She said if the council approves all the allocation on next Tuesday’s agenda, it will have drawn down approximately 80% of the money currently held by the city. Pittsburgh was allotted $335 million from the American Rescue Plan passed in March, half of which it has already received and half of which is to come next year. 

She said the transfers are at odds with how the process was explained earlier this summer. Council’s quick approval of the allocation in July was met with significant public backlash and calls to delay final votes. At the time, the mayor’s chief of staff Dan Gilman emphasized that the plan could be amended later with further public input, as well as by the next mayor who will take office in January 2022. Gross said the transfers now under consideration “absolutely make it more difficult” to amend the plan. 

“This is not the way I understood the assurances that were given” by the administration earlier this year, Gross said. 

Lamb also said  he thinks it makes it harder for the plan to be revised later.

“This lack of control is concerning, and I believe it could lead to accountability issues down the road,” Lamb wrote in the Friday letter. He wrote that the funds “should be drawn down as needed rather than a one-time direct transfer.”

Council will vote Tuesday to give final approval for four American Rescue Plan transfers: $2.5 million to nonprofit OnePGH for a guaranteed basic income pilot, $80,000 to the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, $17.5 million to the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and $74.9 million to the URA.

“There’s no way that the URA has a plan to spend $74 million in the next three months,” Lamb said. “So why would we give them $74 million? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Gilman, in an email to PublicSource Friday, said the cooperation agreements with the agencies “will have strict controls, reporting requirements, etc. We agree with the controller on the need to guarantee full accountability and transparency in the distribution of these funds.”

Lamb said he wants these funds to be distributed “the way that we handle most of the business we do,” with the agencies making individual invoices for various projects and having money released on a case by case basis. 

Gross was the only member of council to oppose the measures this week when they received preliminary approval. Councilman Anthony Coghill was absent.

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource's local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org and on Twitter @chwolfson.

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