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Allegheny

More money from Allegheny County's 'Clean Air Fund' goes to office renovation

Theresa Clift
| Wednesday, May 2, 2018, 6:24 p.m.
The Allegheny County Health Department's Clack Health Complex in Lawrenceville
The Allegheny County Health Department's Clack Health Complex in Lawrenceville

The Allegheny County Board of Health on Wednesday authorized spending another $66,000 from the Clean Air Fund on a project to renovate department office space.

The controversial expense is set to be followed by a request in September seeking about $4.5 million from the fund for the project's construction costs.

Representatives from three environmental groups urged the board not to approve the expense Wednesday.

“The Clean Air Fund exists because companies have broken the law and are being penalized for threatening our health,” Rachel Filippini, director of Group Against Smog and Pollution, told the board Wednesday before the vote. “This money belongs to the residents of Allegheny County, who have suffered from the adverse health effects of air pollution, and should be used to improve air quality. This is not the county's slush fund or a back-door economic development fund.”

The department's Air Quality Program employees have outgrown its office at the Clack Health Complex in Lawrenceville. The department has been planning for several years to move employees to another building in the complex that houses other department employees.

The air quality program's staff monitors pollution levels in the county and penalizes companies that violate county rules.

Fines paid by companies go to the Clean Air Fund, which has a balance of $12.1 million. In total, the office renovation's costs will take about $5 million from the fund, said Dr. Karen Hacker, health department director. Roughly the same amount will also be taken from the Title V Air Quality Fund for the project.

Filippini questioned why county officials signed a contract with Massaro Construction Group for $153,375 in June to make roof repairs to the Allegheny County Courthouse, a project not related to the air quality program office renovation.

In July, county officials approved an amendment to the roof contract to pay Massaro an additional $583,006 to renovate the building that will be used for the Air Quality Program employees.

Filippini raised questions about why that approval occurred roughly 10 months before Wednesday's vote.

Ron Sugar, a deputy director of the health department, defended the timing of the approvals. He said if the board had decided not to approve the work, the county would not have been required to pay Massaro.

“If the project is not approved (by the board), the work won't be done,” Sugar said. “The contract is in place. We're not committed to paying dollars.”

The Air Quality Advisory Committee last month voted 4-2 to recommend the $66,000 be used for the renovations, according to Fillipini, who voted against it.

For the board vote, it was unanimous, though several members raised concerns.

“If this fund is meant for the clean air, why are we putting up so much money without asking for county help?” said Dr. Kotayya Kondaveeti, a board member.

The county's rainy day fund is about $46 million, according to the latest budget.

The county's Air Quality Program is built to be self sustaining, not to accept money, said Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health.

Board member Caroline Mitchell defended the expense and asked her fellow members to vote in favor.

“If we have a building and we need to have it repaired so our technology that can be housed, that's certainly something that's in line with our mission,” Mitchell said.

Board member Joylette Portlock said she hopes the department could increase transparency about the fund and to use it to fund more projects to improve air quality.

“There's been a lot of mystery over the fund in the time I've been on the board and I'd like to see that de-mystified,” she said.

In January 2016, the board approved spending $450,000 from the fund for design and engineering work for the project. In 2015, $108,976 was spent from the fund for a feasibility study.

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669, tclift@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tclift.

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