Erie Davis County executive and council disagree over $5 million pledge to Behrend
Erie County Executive Brenton Davis has pledged millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 assistance to a single manufacturing hub that he says will spur more investment in the region.
But in order to deliver on that pledge, Davis wants to divert funds from a transformative grants program that has been supporting hard-hit communities for about a year.
Erie County Council members Mary Rennie, Andre Horton and Terry Scutella say the pledge violates the spirit of the US rescue planwhich was to provide immediate relief to those most affected by the pandemic.
They also say Davis made the pledge unilaterally, without public hearings, public votes, and disregard for county government process and procedures.
“It’s not even a rubber stamp, it’s a bearing,” Rennie said of Davis’ approach to the board.
At a Sept. 15 meeting, Davis officials asked the board to support a resolution to greenlight the use of U.S. bailout funds toward the proposed center.
The resolution was filed after Rennie, Horton and Scutella said the administration was simply seeking council support after already committing funds to the project.
Council is due to revisit the resolution at a finance committee meeting Thursday at 4 p.m. at the Erie County Courthouse.
Davis eyes Penn State Behrend project
The pledge in question involves $5 million in US bailout money that Davis wants to spend on developing a manufacturing and engineering center at Penn State Behrend’s Knowledge Park.
The $5 million is a local game for a state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program $8 million grant. If awarded, the RACP grant — in addition to local county and Penn State University matches — could provide the project with around $16 million.
The center is the first phase of the RESOLVE project and is one of 15 projects in Erie County competing for an RACP grant. It’s the only one Davis is supporting with US bailout funds.
Davis is looking for regional partners:Davis seeks regional partnerships to maximize federal grant funding
In a statement, Davis said the new center would make the region a “world leader in battery research and testing” and make the region a magnet for jobs and investment, particularly in the Wabtec Corp plant. in Lawrence Park Township.
He said using the $5 million was a “logical approach” since the money was part of an existing budget line, Transformative Grants, in the 2022 US bailout budget.
However, Rennie says Davis is “playing favorites” among potential RACP nominees and has committed funds to the center – before seeking board approval – to bolster his chances of securing the RACP award.
The funds were to help several community projects
Speaking to The Times-News, Rennie said the Transformative Grants budget line was for the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authoritywhich received the first round of this funding in 2021 and has a grant process in place to support vital community projects.
Davis officials said the money was fair game because the 2022 U.S. bailout budget did not specify the Gaming Revenue Authority as the recipient of the funds.
“If the ECGRA doesn’t have control over it, that doesn’t automatically mean the county executive has control over it,” Rennie said. “In other words, if we haven’t appointed a fiscal agent, that all means the council has to appoint a fiscal agent for that money. The county executive doesn’t have complete power to go into any line of the budget and just plunder it for his own ends.”
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Perry Wood, executive director of the Gaming Revenue Authority, said he expected to receive the $5 million and had held “organized rural listening sessions” this summer to determine which projects needed support. to be supported.
“It would be a shame to see this funding diverted from the Transformation Grants to communities like Millcreek, Girard, Corry, North East and Union City,” Wood told The Times-News. “The County Council has been put in a very difficult position to be asked to choose between their constituents and a single project.
Wood said that listening sessions showed an “urgent need for investment” in dozens of projects, from water lines and broadband in Girard to expanding sewer service in the Northeast Borough and Township.
“It’s projects like these that would go unfinished,” he said.
While Rennie, Horton and Scutella each voiced their support for Project RESOLVE, they questioned whether US bailout funds were the appropriate funding source.
“I think the money can basically be used for what it was meant to be used for,” Scutella said. “There are still people and other organizations that are hurting and I think it would be best to use it for them.”
Council attorney says Davis violated home rule charter
At a Sept. 15 finance meeting, county council attorney Tom Talarico said Davis “usurped” the council’s authority by pledging the funds without council approval.
He also said that if the council approved the resolution to support the use of U.S. bailout funds, it would “break the law as much as the county executive.”
“He, on his own, usurped the authority of the county council and claimed he had the power to get involved and influence Wabtec, Behrend, RACP, the government – all giving them the feels like that money has already been appropriated,” Talarico said of Davis. “He has no authority to do this. He is completely irrelevant.”
Horton questioned why the board’s three-person ad hoc committee — which was formed by the board in July to recommend changes to the 2022 U.S. bailout budget — hadn’t reported back to the board on the matter.
The board creates an ad hoc committee:County council forms committee to reallocate US bailout funds
County Chief Information Officer Chris Carroll, in an email to The Times-News, said Davis had met with the ad hoc committee on several occasions and that the committee had “indicated its support for this commitment to Project Resolve.” .
However, ad hoc committee members Brian Shank and Jim Winarski said they were unclear on such a commitment.
“To the best of my recollection – no,” Shank said of the ad hoc committee backing the $5 million pledge.
Winarski said, “I would say people liked the idea, but I don’t know if there were ever any commitments.”
Schauerman, the third member of the ad hoc committee, could not be reached for comment.
Rennie pointed out that if the resolution passes, the county council will “pass” to the county executive. If that fails, the county will be “on the hook” to find funds elsewhere, she added.
Penn State Behrend denies Davis pledged funds
In an emailed statement to The Times-News on Tuesday, Robb Frederick, deputy director of news and information at Penn State Behrend, said no one had pledged funds for the RESOLVE project.
“No official, including the current county executive, has at any time made any pledges of funding for this project,” Frederick said. “We have always understood that any local funding allocation for the center would require county council approval. We recognize and respect the council’s role in this process.”
However, Davis and his chief administrative officer, Doug Smith, acknowledged in a statement and at a board meeting, respectively, that $5 million in US bailouts had been “committed” to the project.
Documents obtained by a Times-News right-to-know request also show that Davis emailed the Erie County General Authority on Aug. 19 — which submitted the RACP request on behalf of the county — and wrote that $5 million in U.S. bailout funds was an “agreed-up” figure for Project RESOLVE.
The RACP grant application also indicates a local match of $8.4 million – which includes the $5 million investment.