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City Officials Eying COVID-19 Aid Warily

McKeesport, other Pa. cities warning of deficits ahead

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
May 07, 2020
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

McKeesport officials will have difficult choices to make in the months ahead as the coronavirus pandemic strains the city’s already-tight budget.

Following Wednesday’s city council meeting, Mayor Michael Cherepko said that although federal officials have promised relief for municipalities with pandemic-related expenses, the aid packages in most cases don’t cover wages and salaries.

“We’re all dealing with COVID-19 and the impact it’s having, but I’m very concerned about the economy and I’m very concerned about the deficits we’re already seeing,” Cherepko said.

Other cities also facing ‘dark days’

McKeesport is not the only municipality facing difficult decisions.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said in April that city faces “tens of millions of dollars” in lost revenue and predicted “dark days ahead for the city’s budget,” according to the PublicSource website.

In Johnstown, according to the Tribune-Democrat newspaper, city officials are predicting they will lose $500,000 to $2 million of their projected revenue for the year.

Officials in Scranton were hoping that eastern Pennsylvania municipality would be ready to exit Act 47 distressed status this year. Lost tax revenues as a result of the coronavirus pandemic may force Scranton to remain under Act 47 protection, the Scranton Times-Tribune reported.

Wage taxes, permit fees among lost revenues

With many businesses closed for the past two months, and no definite timetable when they will reopen, Cherepko said McKeesport is losing wage tax revenue, permit fees and other forms of income.

For instance, the Jacob Woll Pavilion at Renziehausen Park was booked solidly on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and many other picnic pavilions were reserved for graduation parties and other events. All of those events are being canceled and fees are being refunded, Cherepko said.

“When people lose work, they can’t pay anybody,” he said. “Oftentimes, taxes are the last things they pay.”

Help allocated through CDBG program

The city has been offered up to $646,000 in federal assistance for COVID-19 response through the Community Development Block Grant program, he said, and McKeesport is “grateful” for the allocation.

But the money can only be used to cover direct supplies and expenses, such as personal protective gear, Cherepko said.

“There are so many strings attached, I don’t know how we’re going to be able to use it,” Cherepko said. “If all they’re going to reimburse us for is equipment, that’s crazy. How many masks can we buy?

“We were taking the position to tell employees ‘If you’re sick, stay home,’” he said. But when someone in the police or fire departments is off sick, someone else has to work overtime to cover their shift, Cherepko said.

City police are performing additional crime suppression patrols because schools have been closed since March 13, he said, and that has also increased overtime costs.

The federal Department of Justice has announced that grants will be available for public safety expenses, including, potentially, police overtime, and the city will be pursuing that money, an official said.

“It would be nice for someone to step up and help us fill the holes in our budget,” Cherepko said.

Jason Togyer is editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published May 07, 2020.

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