Westmoreland commissioners told to ‘do the right thing’ with covid relief money

Westmoreland County residents have a big shopping list for federal coronavirus relief funds but one unified message: “Do the right thing.”

That was the common refrain from the dozens who testified Thursday during two public hearings held at Westmoreland County Community College about how county leaders should spend $105 million in American Rescue Plan funds.

Suggestions ranged from mental health treatment to housing aid and food security programs. Others lobbied for help for small businesses and the creation of a county health department.

“This money is to help with rental assistance, for people who have lost their homes. This is what this money is for: rescue,” said Kay Emery of New Alexandria.

The county commissioners are seeking public recommendations about how the money should be allocated before a final spending plan is unveiled early next year.

The county received $52 million, the first of two installments, in the spring. The second portion of the money is expected to arrive in 2022.

George Hawden, an Arnold councilman, urged commissioners to distribute the money equally among the county’s 65 municipalities.

John Horanic of Latrobe called for money to be directed to the arts.

Jerry Keller, a restaurant owner in Rostraver, said some cash should be used to help businesses such as his that struggled in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“Covid has hit the small guys like us very hard,” Keller said. “Please help the small guys.”

Commissioners said they will wait until more specific federal guidelines are released before announcing a plan for the funds. Initial guidelines limit the money to coronavirus relief programs, human services and water and sewer projects, and broadband internet upgrades.

Commissioners said they’re open to a variety of uses for the money, including social services and other bigger-ticket community improvement projects.

“I’m in favor of getting rid of blighted properties,” Commissioner Gina Cerilli Thrasher said. “We‘ll see what that number is to actually make a difference, but right now the money can’t be used for that.”

Brian Lawrence, director of the county’s redevelopment authority, estimated about 1,500 blighted properties throughout the county are ripe for demolition.

“They are ‘billboards for hopeless places’ that need help the most,” Lawrence said.

An online survey of potential uses for the federal dollars, which has been active for the last month on the county’s website, so far has removed more than 800 responses, according to Meghan McCandless, the county’s finance director.

Health care concerns such as covid testing, vaccines, mental health treatment and addiction recovery ranked as the top priority, she said. Infrastructure improvements were second, followed by using the funds to repay local business, nonprofits and government for lost revenue and costs associated with the pandemic.

The county has until 2024 to allocate the American Rescue Plan money and through the end of 2026 to spend it.

For Thursday’s speakers, there is an urgency to spend the money now.

“This money will change lives and change communities,” Keun Johnson of Greensburg said. “No one should be left behind.”

Sarah Deegan of Greensburg is one of many members of the progressive grassroots group Voice of Westmoreland who spoke Thursday and has lobbied the commissioners for months to spend the money on social service programs. Deegan insisted the group’s priorities are in line with those of the general public.

“We are imploring you to do the right thing,” Deegan said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .