By Carley Bonk, Point Park University - When voters enter the ballot box in Allegheny County on Tuesday, they’ll notice a ballot referendum listed as the Allegheny County Home Rule Charter Amendment for the establishment of an Allegheny County Children’s Fund.
The fund has three simple goals for the betterment of children in the county: early learning programs, after-school programs and good nutrition.
But some residents are wondering just how the proposed $18 million, collected through an increase in property taxes, will be allotted.
The simple answer is that it hasn’t been decided yet.
“We are talking about a single question on the ballot that asks the county voters whether or not we want to create a fund for kids dedicated to early learning, after-school programs and nutritious meals,” said Brian Magee, CEO of PUMP and a steering committee member for the initiative. “So it’s really the start of the process before required policies, standards, strategic planning and goals are established that are subject to public process.”
The Children’s Fund website, Our Kids. Our Commitment., breaks down funding as a 0.25 millage rate increase for homeowners to pay an additional $25 annually on each $100,000 of assessed value. Based on Allegheny property assessments, most residents would be paying an extra $30 a year.
Though these proposed programs are proven to increase the well-being of children, some coming out against the initiative say that not enough information has been provided on exactly how this $18 million will be distributed and who will be in charge of doing so.
Great Public Schools Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) have released public statements on why they are rejecting the fund , weighing the need for another level of bureaucracy and the lack of details surrounding the initiative.
Penn State Harrisburg political science Professor Emeritus Steven Peterson said that when it comes to raising taxes, people want to know just where that money will be going.
“I do think that if you use the ballot to make policy, it’s important that you at least make sure people have a decent idea of what they’re voting for,” he said. “It seems to me that these three areas all have demonstratively positive effects on kids, but I also think it would be helpful and useful for people to know how they will be implemented.”
Magee said that community engagement is important to the process of creating the fund. With over 63,000 signatures gathered between June 19 and Aug. 7, the campaign more than reached the 40,000 signatures required to bring the issue to the ballot.
“It really reflects just how many individual conversations we had with members of the community over the summer to generate interest and support for this initiative,” Magee said. “From the very start, it’s been a very community-centered process.”
Those collecting signatures reached all 130 municipalities and every precinct in Allegheny County.
“A number far exceeding anything Allegheny County has ever seen, a historical figure,” Magee said. “That was really important to us because it is a county-wide initiative.”
If the fund is voted into establishment, taxes for it would start accumulating on Jan. 1, 2019, though the first dollar would not be spent until Jan. 1, 2020. Magee said that, if the initiative passes on Election Day, the 12 to 14-month period of community engagement to shape the fund will begin.
“There is language in the amendment that speaks to the funds being distributed with the following things in mind: need, effectiveness and fair and equitable allocation,” Magee said. “That language to us is essential to what we are trying to accomplish. All of these concerns on allocation would take place during this 12 to 14-month period.”
Though it is the elected, accountable officials who will be making the decision, the steering committee also supports the creation of an advisory commission of experienced volunteers who would provide counsel on what works best for their community’s children.
In addition, there will be a yearly financial audit with public results and a study every five years to measure effectiveness and guide future investments.
Those in support of the fund say it is an investment into the county as a whole.
“When we give our children the best opportunities to succeed, we are giving our region a brighter future,” Magee said.
Though the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers is a member of Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, which came out against the initiative, it said the organization has not officially announced a position on the issue.
“We haven’t officially taken a position,” said Dan Evans, a spokesman for the federation. “Basically, our position is to support anything that supports benefiting childhood education.”
When it comes to raising taxes, the public response can be critical, Peterson said.
“There are some people who will probably say, ‘No,’ just on the general principle that they don’t like taxes,” Peterson said. “Some will probably say, ‘Yes,’ on the general principle that these are good, beneficial ideas. There are others who will want more reflection. The challenge for those who advocate is to speak to people willing to consider it and demonstrate the value.”
For more information, a copy of the Nov. 6 sample ballot can be viewed at: https://alleghenycounty.civicengine.com/
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