Allegheny County, RAD hold off on helping Wilson Center get back on its feet

Council deadlocked as Dec. 6 budget deadline nears

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A proposed $500,000 grant to the faltering August Wilson Center for African American Culture temporarily sank Allegheny County's $50 million capital budget Tuesday, with a deadlocked vote keeping it in committee despite a looming budget deadline.

County council's budget committee split, 3-3, on whether to put the budget up for consideration before the full council, which is required to approve a spending plan by Dec. 6. Because of the holiday weekend, there's little chance the committee will convene again before council's meeting on Tuesday, just three days before the deadline.

That means that if council wants to obey the law -- there's no penalty if it doesn't -- it will have to pull some fancy parliamentary footwork to pass the budget on time.

"I love democracy," said council member Bill Robinson, D-Hill District, the budget committee chairman, who proposed the $500,000 capital grant to assist the center.

It was the second piece of bad news the August Wilson Center received Tuesday; the Allegheny Regional Asset District voted earlier that afternoon to withhold its $300,000 allocation until the troubled center emerges from foreclosure with a sound financial plan.

That's the same plan the grant-making body proposed in October, when Dollar Bank foreclosed on the center's $40 million Liberty Avenue building after the struggling nonprofit stopped paying its mortgage. The RAD board also has frozen $225,000 of the center's 2013 allocation.

"The expectation is that eventually a plan will be worked out so it can continue to operate," RAD executive director David Donahoe said. "The district board has said repeatedly that we need a viable budget and a plan of operation going forward."

The same concerns came up at the council budget meeting Tuesday evening. Council member Michael Finnerty challenged Mr. Robinson's proposed grant, arguing it took money from needed projects -- repairs to county parks, Allegheny County Jail improvements and upgrades to the county mailroom, among others.

"I think it's important that we take care of our roads and bridges, our equipment, our buildings first," said Mr. Finnerty, D-Scott. "If push comes to shove later down the line, I'm sure we can come up with something to help them out."

Mr. Finnerty tried to remove the grant from the capital budget proposal but was voted down by Mr. Robinson, Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square, and Amanda Green Hawkins, D-Stanton Heights.

In turn, he voted down the entire budget, joined by Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, and Nick Futules, D-Oakmont. Mr. Robinson closed the meeting before another proposal was made.

Mr. Futules said the full county council likely will try to pull the capital budget from committee to consider it at Tuesday's meeting. The committee has already approved the county's $817 million operating budget, which will face a vote Tuesday.

Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497. First Published November 26, 2013 8:40 PM

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