Controversial referendum seeks Allegheny County tax increase to fund kids’ programming

Trib LIVE – Voters in Allegheny County will be asked Tuesday to approve a 0.25-mill tax increase that would support children’s programming across the county, but opponents have criticized the proposal as a “slush fund” and questioned its necessity.

The ballot referendum seeks an amendment to the Allegheny County Home Rule Charter that would create the Allegheny County Children’s Fund and levy a 0.25-mill tax increase on all properties in the county.

The tax hike would amount to $25 for each $100,000 of a property’s assessed value.

It would generate about $18 million annually to fund preschool and after-school programming and meals for underprivileged children, according to the proposal.

Proponents, including a steering committee made up of 10 groups providing child advocacy and programming, said the fund is sorely needed.

Nearly 7,000 children in the county are on waiting lists for preschool and 42,000 kids live in homes where annual income is below the federal poverty level, according to Dave Coplan, executive director of Turtle Creek-based Human Services Center Corp., one of the steering committee members. He said a survey last year of 1,000 families in the county indicated that 74 percent of parents would enroll their kids in a preschool program if one was available to them.

“The most important question in front of people today is: Do you think the kids of Allegheny County deserve better than they have today for early learning, after-school programs and meals,” Coplan said. “It’s a modest investment. It’s going to help kids. It’s going to have public oversight.”

Critics call that sentiment “good marketing,” but say they have many unanswered questions about public oversight, how the money would be allocated and whether it’s necessary considering public agencies already direct considerable tax dollars to the same programs.

Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and the Pittsburgh Public School District earmarked a total of about $9.4 million for after-school programming and meals during their current fiscal years, officials said.

“The narrative they’ve formed is that if you’re against this, you’re against children,” said Moira Kaleida, Pittsburgh school board member from Beechview. “I think that’s a really good marketing strategy, but I don’t think it’s true. It is my hope that taxpayers will see this referendum for what it is, which is a money grab.”

Sala Udin, Pittsburgh school board member from the Hill District, said he supports the fund. So does Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

But Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald supports the concept while opposing the tax increase, spokeswoman Amie Downs said.

“It’s important for us to start education earlier than kindergarten, and these funds will allow us to get started at an earlier age,” Udin said.

Patrick Dowd, a former Pittsburgh City Council member who now heads Allies for Children, an advocacy group and member of the fund’s steering committee, said the money would go into a county fund dedicated exclusively to children’s programming.

He said the county executive and Allegheny County Council would approve an ordinance creating an advisory commission and a county office staffed by up to five people to oversee the fund. Council would make recommendations for how the money should be spent each year. The county manager would create an annual budget based on the recommendations and send it to the county executive and council each year for approval, Dowd said. The fund would be audited each year.

Program providers would apply for funding through the children’s fund office.

“All the decisions about the administration and anything that has to be done about the operation of this fund will all be passed by public ordinances,” Dowd said. “We want this to be a fully public fund, and we want the public to be engaged at all levels.”

Jamaal Craig, executive director of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network in Pittsburgh, which opposes the fund, questioned whether money would be provided equally to providers in underprivileged communities.

“There’s just too much vagueness,” he said. “It’s just bad policy to say, ‘Let’s go out and get the money and then we’ll put the structure and how it’s going to be used in place.’”

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