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GASP Disappointed - But Not Surprised - By Clean Air Fund Audit Findings

Allegheny County Controller Corey O’Connor on Tuesday released the results of a long-sought audit of the Clean Air Fund, finding that more than twice as much money was spent on normal operating costs in two of three years examined by auditors than on projects to improve air quality and educate the public.

“We are disappointed by these findings but certainly not surprised,” GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. 

From O’Connor’s press release announcing the results of the audit:

Administered by the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD), the Clean Air Fund had a cash balance of more than $10 million for a significant portion of the audit period, January 2021 through September 2023. But only a small portion of the cash balance ranging from 1.6 percent in 2023 ($157,565) to 6.1 percent in 2021 ($704,586) was used to fund air-quality-related projects annually.

"These funds are derived from fines for air quality violations that directly impact the communities where these industries are located," O'Connor said. "That's why it is critical — and the intention of the law that created the Clean Air Fund — that these communities are to benefit from additional projects to mitigate these harms. Our audit shows that the County has fallen far short of meeting this intent."

Auditors found that a provision permitting ACHD to use up to five percent of the Fund's balance at the end of the preceding year to fund normal operating costs of the Department's Air Quality Program created an incentive for ACHD to retain a significant cash balance in the Clean Air Fund. This amounted to over $1.7 million during the audit period.  Meanwhile, just over $1.4 million was allocated to project expenditures.

"The clear purpose of the Clean Air Fund is to support projects beyond the County's primary pollution control duties. These tasks are vital, but they also have their own dedicated funding streams. Our communities should be seeing progress result from the robust balance in the Clean Air Fund," O'Connor said.

The $489,000 permitted to be allocated for operating expenses in 2023 had not been transferred from the Fund as of the conclusion of the audit, and ACHD staff indicated to auditors it did not plan to do so.

A recent shortfall in the Air Pollution Control Fund, which funds ACHD's primary air quality efforts, could have prompted the retention of large reserves to fund operating costs. A proposal by ACHD in 2023 to address this shortfall by allowing 20 percent of the Clean Air Fund balance to be diverted for normal operating costs was not approved by the Board of Health.

While ACHD is currently studying fee revisions that could reduce the shortfall in the Air Pollution Control Fund, these efforts are not expected to be completed until the end of 2024. 

"Professional and Technical support" expenditures totaling $265,233 were also made throughout the audit period.

These included partial salaries for an attorney and two air quality engineers ($97,985), transcription services ($48,924), a forensic examination ($10,000), and other miscellaneous professional services ($108,324). While technically permitted under the ordinance governing use of the Fund, these expenses are not in keeping with the Fund's primary purpose of funding community projects and education.

By ordinance, the Clean Air Fund is specifically for the disbursement of funds "to support activities related to the improvement of air quality within Allegheny County and to support activities which will increase or improve knowledge concerning air pollution, its causes, its effects, and the control thereof."

Auditors found that ACHD has not widely communicated to the public the availability of the Clean Air Fund for air-quality-related projects by organizations outside County government. For instance, the general Clean Air Fund project application is not available on ACHD's website. Those interested in requesting support from the Clean Air Fund can reach out to the Air Quality Program by completing an electronic form

"The availability of these funds does our residents little good if community organizations are not aware of them or how to access them. Robust efforts must be made to promote the Clean Air Fund as a resource for projects than can impact our communities, specifically vulnerable populations in heavily industrialized areas which are directly impacted," O'Connor said.

The audit concluded that "Opportunities to use Clean Air Fund resources to directly improve air quality in Allegheny County and to undertake projects that would assist in addressing the impacts of air quality violations in other ways have been missed."

"The repeated findings of elevated air pollution in Allegheny County are the strongest indicator that the Clean Air Fund must be used proactively and effectively to protect our residents. These millions are doing them little good sitting in the bank."

Editor’s Note: GASP staff is reviewing the audit, which you can read for yourself here.

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