Allegheny County voters narrowly denied a ballot measure to increase property taxes for child well-being programs.
The campaign asked county voters to approve a property tax increase of $25 for every $100,000 of assessed value to bolster early childhood learning, after-school and nutritious meal initiatives.
Organizers for the Children's Fund, though, say they're hopeful that so many people voted in support of the effort.
"We respect every voter in this county,” said Patrick Dowd, executive director of Allies for Children, one of the nonprofits that organized the campaign. “Every single person that cast a vote, we believe they cast it with the best of intentions for kids and for the county. That’s not a question. But there are still these gaps that need to be closed and we’re going to come back and try to figure out how to do that.”
Supporters gathered Tuesday night at the Children’s Museum on the north side clad in the purple “Our Kids, Our Commitment” t-shirts they often wore when campaigning. Some volunteers spent hours at precincts throughout the day talking to voters about the ballot question.
The campaign for the Allegheny County Children’s Fund spent nearly $1 million dollars in the months leading up to the general election. Volunteers canvassed municipalities and a Pittsburgh PR firm ran a marketing campaign including billboards and radio ads for weeks asking voters to vote "yes" for the initiative.
Ten local nonprofits formed the steering committee that wrote the ballot question and created a two-page amendment to the County’s Home Rule Charter that called for the creation of an office to distribute the nearly $18 million dollars organizers expected would be collected. The amendment also called for a volunteer advisory committee to oversee the process.
County Council would have had to abide by those rules but would also have had to write legislation detailing the role of the office and who would be on the advisory committee.
Critics of the measure said organizers did not allow for deliberation and input from the community. County Controller Chelsa Wagner urged voters to reject the referendum, saying the ballot questions raised too many questions.
Some critics, including the Education Rights Network and the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, also urged residents to vote no because the fund didn't guarantee that the collected money would be spent equitably.
Supporters of the fund say the work isn’t over. Dowd said he is encouraged that so many people across the county voted to support increased funding for the three target areas.
“Even the folks who voted 'no,' we still think care about those things—they just didn’t happen to prefer this particular method of solving the problem. We’re uplifted by that. We think that’s a positive statement,” he said.
Dowd and other organizers thanked volunteers for their dedication and said the nonprofits are committed to the work as a “long-term strategy.”
“We still know there are nearly 7,000 kids without access to pre-K programs and we have to figure that out. There are still 40,000 plus kids in Allegheny County who are hungry and about 10,000 kids who don’t have access to after-school programs,” he said. “We’ve got to figure that out as a county. We know that these are really important programs and all of us are going to be back in our offices tomorrow trying to figure out how to fix that. That’s what we do for a living.”
Cara Ciminillo, executive director of Trying Together an early learning advocacy group, said she is proud that organizations with their own distinctive missions came together for this project.
“When we think about children’s healthy development we also know that it’s about the hours that they spend outside of school, whether it’s before care or aftercare,” she said. “We also know it’s about are they getting enough nutrition on weeknights and weekends? For this fund, it was an opportunity to collectively think about how do we make an impact on a child as a whole rather than as parts?”
She said she was encouraged by the awareness the campaign raised for the three areas that support a child’s healthy development.
“Even for the folks that said no, they didn’t necessarily say no to kids—they maybe just said no to that mechanism. I think that’s an important thing to remember,” she said.
The initiative was led by Allies for Children, Allegheny Partners for Out of School Time, Higher Achievement, the Human Services Center Corporation, the Mentoring Partnership, Pressley Ridge, PUMP, Trying Together, United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh.