Congress is holding up $10 million in Pittsburgh projects | Pittsburgh City Paper

Congress is holding up $10 million in Pittsburgh projects

click to enlarge Summer Lee in front of the US Steel Building
Jared Wickerham
U.S. Rep. Summer Lee

In a virtual conference alongside community leaders this morning, U.S. Rep. Summer Lee announced $10.7 million for 15 projects across Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District, which includes Pittsburgh, in the form of community project funding (CPFs). Democrats brought back these politically popular allocations, formerly called "earmarks," in 2021 after a decade-long freeze over ethics concerns. Lee plans to use those millions to, among other things, tackle inequity, improve infrastructure, and reimagine the Tree of Life building. In spite of "poison pill" amendments and partisan rancor, Lee was able to marshal the CPFs, carefully worded so as not to fall afoul of Republican rule changes, through the House Appropriations Committee and into the FY2024 federal budget.

There's just one problem: that budget hasn't come up for a vote yet due to discord in Congress. Congressional Republicans' protracted Speaker fight and daylight between moderates and hardliners on the right resulted in a November continuing resolution to fund the government into early 2024 — but no movement on the budget bill. While the continuing resolution averted a shutdown, and the U.S. House and Senate were able to come to terms on defense spending last week, the CPFs remains in limbo as Congress heads into a holiday recess. The situation has left organizations in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District without money that would allow them to complete what are, in some cases, long-overdue projects.

"In a normal year, getting those projects that far through the [legislative] process ... would usually guarantee those funds would've already hit us," Lee said. This year, "because of Republican chaos, we haven't been able to move on government promises and do the basic things our job entails."

Homelessness and food insecurity are stubborn challenges, especially in winter — the county's Department of Human Services declared a Code Blue temperature warning that runs through Wednesday morning — and community leaders say the federal grants would help them provide more hot meals to those without shelter.

Colleen Young of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank said the recent spike in food insecurity is the largest since the Greater Recession. "Based on our internal data, these numbers continue to rise," Young said. The food bank supported more than 32,000 Allegheny County households monthly over the past year, a 28% spike over 2022's figure. Mark Latterner of the Jubilee Soup Kitchen likewise said the federal grants set aside for the 12th District would help offset the rising demand they're seeing, and leaders at the City of Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority say they're waiting on $500,000 for a community kitchen in Larimer and other funding for affordable housing.

The Tri-COG Land Bank (TCLB) is likewise expecting half a million dollars for abatement of abandoned properties and sustainable reuse of vacant lots. On the North Side, the YMCA says their 96-year-old building, which includes affordable housing on the upper floors, needs updates to continue to provide community services, especially for poorer and older residents.

"If you can imagine, it is a building that has only one thermostat, has no elevators, has stairs literally everywhere, even from the entrance on the street," Carolyn Grady, senior vice president at the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, said. The organization would use $1 million in CPFs to renovate the building and add a new childcare center, which Grady said is "desperately needed on the North Side."
click to enlarge Donta Green has dark skin, dreadlocks and a beard and sits before a partially obscured sign about working hard.
Screenshot from Dec. 19 press conference
Donta Green speaks about the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh's plans for community project funding

There are also funds for career development programs. Donta Green, executive director of the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh (TIP) and coach of the Westinghouse Academy football team, said the funding set aside for TIP would be a "game changer for our students and the companies they go on to work for." Green's organization provides not just job training, but also financial literacy programs, driver's ed, and more. He said government grants would allow TIP to "hire our students and keep them employed while we train them until they can overcome whatever barrier is keeping them from long-term employment."

Other projects include stormwater mitigation at Barrett Elementary School in Homestead — ALCOSAN's director of government affairs Jeanne Clark said the plan would mark a step forward in the authority's state-supervised efforts to stem sewage runoff — a bridge in Irwin, funds to divert young Pittsburghers away from the justice system, and almost $1 million for the reconstruction of the Tree of Life building. Lee said the memorial and education center will become "a vital community gathering space that's going to educate all of our community against antisemitism." There are a further $500,000 set aside for the 10.27 Healing Partnership, which has provided trauma services in the wake of the 2018 synagogue massacre.

"Federal funding has allowed us to provide counseling and programming, including during the recent trial," director of the partnership Maggie Feinstein said in a press release. "The proposed new appropriation would allow us to continue to serve the victims of the attack."

Lee said it's "important that we transcend the politics" to fund local investments that are "not just superficial fixes." She's hopeful the budget will pass before next year's looming deadlines after the holidays.

Community leaders say sooner is better for all concerned — Grady said the Y has twice had to update its plans due to price increases but remains ready to get to work.

Addressing Lee, she said, "We do very much hope that your colleagues [in Congress] are able to come together, come to a swift agreement, and help us ... get about the business of what we, frankly, love to do, which is serving others."

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