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KDKA Investigates: Is New Tax Necessary To Fund Early Childhood Education?

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- There's a lot of playing going on at the Riverview Children's Center in Verona, and there's a lot of learning, too. They may not know it yet, but just by being there the preschoolers are getting ready for kindergarten and life beyond.

"So, children learn how to be attentive, they learn how to be patient, they learn how to regulate their emotions," said Betty Lisowski, the executive director of the Riverview Children's Center.

Research shows that programs like Rivervew are effective in giving kids, especially disadvantaged kids, a leg up. But while half of the children there are subsidized, funding is always in jeopardy.

"The system we have right now is like a house of cards. When you pull any one piece of it out, it jeopardized everything that you've built," said Lisowski.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

That's why voters in Allegheny County are being asked to raise their own property taxes to fund programs like Riverview. If approved, the Nov. 6 referendum would increase your county property tax by 0.25 mills, or about $25 a year on a house assessed at $100,000, and would raise about $18 million a year.

"We believe making this local investment is the smartest thing we can do right now for our kids in this region, especially these proven programs early learning, after school and meals for kids," said Patrick Dowd, whose Allies for Children program spear-headed the movement.

But while it's tough to argue with the intent, critics of the referendum are vocal and many, including the Allegheny County Executive himself.

"I'm for the Pre-K program. I think it's something we do need to find a way to fund. The problem I have with it is, we always use property tax," said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Pennsylvania already has some of the highest property taxes in the country, sixth highest nationwide, and Fitzgerald believes the referendum organizers need to look elsewhere.

"There's other ways to fund it. We're the only state that doesn't have an extraction tax," he said.

But Dowd says they've already looked high and low.

"We don't have the opportunity to go and get a sugary beverage tax," he said. "We've been waiting for years on a shale tax. We believe this is the best way to go, and we've taken it to the people of Allegheny County to ask them if they agree that this is the best way to go."

Still, the criticism doesn't end there.

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner questions the need to create what she calls another level of bureaucracy within county government to administer the program. She also says the organizers never appeared at a County Council meeting or held a public hearing. More importantly, she says it's unclear just who has funded the effort.

"I think what's most important is that there be a transparent process so people can make an informed vote," Wagner said. "I can tell you that I, as a voter, cannot make an informed vote, because I don't even know who's funding this."

KDKA's Andy Sheehan: "Has there been a lack of transparency? Have you been up front?"
Dowd: "No, no we're compliant with all appropriate laws relative to elections."

So far, campaign finance reports show that funding comes from just three sources -- $150,000 from the special needs Pressley Ridge Foundation, $160,000 from the Human Services Center Corporation, and $45,000 from Dowd's own Allies for Children.

Money to pay for a professional campaign of television ads, canvassers and high-gloss mailers and door-hangers. All needed, says Dowd, to make the case to help fund programs like Riverview.

"We believe if we do our job right and continue to communicate with people, the residents of this county will see the value of these programs and make this investment," he said.

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