GASP to Board of Health: Investigate Air Quality Program Budget Woes; Make Plans not Demands
The Allegheny County Board of Health on Wednesday approved for public comment changes to local air quality regulations that would allow the Air Quality Program to utilize a greater portion of a fund intended to benefit community environmental projects - from 5% to 25% or $1.25 million (whichever is less) for a period of four years.
If approved the proposed changes would also allow the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) to recoup from air polluters direct costs associated with air quality enforcement.
GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell was one of several clean air advocates to speak out against the proposed changes.
Here's what he told the board:
Good afternoon. I’m Patrick Campbell, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, a local nonprofit group working to improve our region’s air quality since 1969.
Today, the Allegheny County Health Department is expected to ask you to approve for public comment changes to Article 21 allowing its Air Quality Program to recoup direct enforcement-related staffing costs. The changes would also allow the department to take a greater percentage of the Clean Air Fund for its operational expenses.
ACHD and county leaders have been adamant that the changes aren’t just necessary as a “stop-gap” measure meant to plug a budget shortfall of nearly $2 million. Using a greater portion of the Clean Air Fund has been floated by ACHD and county leaders as the only way to get the Air Quality Program on sound financial footing.
GASP fully supports a well-funded air quality program and is in favor of permitting ACHD to bill air polluters for direct enforcement-related costs - it makes good fiscal sense. What we reject is the conclusion that raiding the Clean Air Fund is our only hope of balancing the Air Quality Program’s budget.
At the last Air Advisory Committee meeting, the county manager presented a budget presentation that created more questions than answers. During the two-hour meeting, she was unable to provide concrete answers to basic financial questions posed by members. But she was clear on one thing: Using county general fund money wasn’t a possibility.
To us, it isn’t that the county is unable to better fund its Air Quality Program, Allegheny County has chosen not to make it a funding priority.
Instead, the administration seems intent on siphoning cash from a fund created to help our most vulnerable environmental justice communities, not ACHD’s bottom line. Consider this: From 2020-2022, $3.2 million in Clean Air Fund money made its way back to ACHD’s coffers while only $604,000 was awarded to local groups for neighborhood projects.
We ask this board to use your authority to get to the bottom of the Air Quality Program’s budget woes, insist on more transparency, and advocate for more county funding to stem one of our region’s most pressing public health and environmental justice issues.
Editor's Note: GASP continues to follow this issue closely and will let you know when the public comment period opens. Stay tuned, we have an explainer in the works that will make weighing in on the proposed changes quick and easy.