County Controller Chelsa Wagner: Children’s Fund ballot question presents a false choice

By November 1, 2018 11 Comments

Chelsa Wagner

By Chelsa Wagner
Allegheny County Controller

Seinfeld fans remember the Festivus episode well, including when George raised money for the “Human Fund” — “money for people.” Jerry responded, “It has a certain understated stupidity.”

As we all cast our ballots on Tuesday, let us behold the wisdom of Jerry Seinfeld as it pertains to the Children’s Fund referendum.  We are being presented with a false choice:  to be for the kids or against them. In reality, we can do so much better.

I have spent most of my career in public office focused on how to better allocate precious funds to early childhood education and education equity more generally.  Candidly, it has been a deep passion of mine dating back to my college years, when I majored in public policy with a concentration on Urban Education at the University of Chicago and wrote my thesis on the importance of Head Start for the most vulnerable populations.  I have served on countless boards and in volunteer positions focused on how we better serve our kids in Pre-K and beyond. If there was a prudent effort to invest in our children, I’d gladly go to bat to try to convince every taxpayer in this County that we must support it.  

And yet this referendum pains me, because though it seeks public support for the most noble and worthy investment, there’s little if any guarantee it will do that.  We are asked to invest with no security in our investment. As a student of public policy and the elected fiscal watchdog for this County, I will tell you bluntly:  It reeks. It shows precisely where we as Democrats are failing to lead on issues of great concern by not utilizing our public funds to have the greatest impact. Here’s why this initiative is particularly concerning:

  • Lack of accountability of your tax dollars:  The supporters have said the lack of specificity is to leave open the democratic process. In other words, fund it first and the County will legislate later. Unfortunately, this path has not served Allegheny County residents well to date.  The best example is the Clean Air Fund. This fund is intended to help remediate the effects of pollution on our most vulnerable populations (think kids in Clairton, Braddock, etc. whose asthma rates are off the charts). Instead, $5 million of that money is replacing a roof on offices of the Health Department because County officials have capitalized on a loophole. That is outrageous, and it is the same type of mismanagement this flawed legislation promises. It is an unsecured loan on County tax dollars.
  • Taxation without representation: Public disclosures show this initiative’s supporters have spent upwards of $1 million to convince County taxpayers to vote yes.  However, never did the advocates appear before any elected body before they engaged in this full-on public relations campaign. This is where Jerry Seinfeld looms large:  People were asked when signing petitions, “Do you want more kids’ programming?” Of course we do! But the $18 million sought to be generated by the tax each year is far from enough to alleviate or fix any one of the three problems identified as the purpose of the fund. Thus, based on the lack of specificity, we may spend money on studies, administrative costs, professional development and other extraneous costs with no deliverables, and taxpayers may be lucky if 20 cents on the dollar ever gets to an actual child.

Though I firmly believe we can make no better investment of public resources than in our youth, I will be voting ‘no’ on the ballot referendum.  That is because I have no confidence that these tax dollars, governed by the proposed home rule amendment as presented, will go to the children it purports to serve.  Organizers have told us to have faith, but as Controller of Allegheny County, I know better. The Children’s Fund ballot initiative, like the Clean Air Fund legislation, lacks the specificity that would ensure these dollars are not squandered.  

No effort was made to work through the normal channels of government to identify funding for more services to children in Allegheny County, nor to contemplate how the money the County spends now could better directed to address these needs.  Instead, paid canvassers, well-connected political consulting firms in D.C. and in Pittsburgh, and a professional ad agency put together a full-fledged public relations campaign. If we are going to ask our homeowners for more, the purpose must be clear and the process transparent. We see the need, but we have not seen a plan.

We need to return to the democratic process as it is meant to be carried out with real plans and real input from the community and service providers, and then we can build a campaign we can all get behind.

And our elected leaders need to finally make good on their promises to extract funding for public priorities from our City’s behemoth, untaxed non-profits, rather than turning solely to the taxpayers.

This is not a choice between addressing the needs of our children and not. This is a choice of whether we seek to do it transparently and effectively, or if we just hope the next $18 million is able to make a dent in these serious problems without knowing how even the first penny would be spent.

I am hoping that on Wednesday we may begin a meaningful and inclusive dialogue on the real needs identified by this campaign’s organizers and the best way to address them. Despite the $1 million-plus spent on the campaign to convince voters to vote yes, the organizers bypassed the democratic steps that would have provided for community-wide input and would have ensured that this referendum was not plagued by such uncertainty and skepticism.


  • Sara Smith says:

    I am concerned about her opinion. Is she saying we can not be assured of her accountability for these dollars as our county controller? Or any of our tax dollars? And that she does not trust our elected county officials? If this fund is established ultimately our elected officials including Chelsa will be overseeing this fund with the guidance of an advisory committee. I am voting YES and plan to hold our elected officials accountable.

  • Zachary Sloane says:

    I am missing the narrative on why the organizers are trying so hard for this if it’s a bad idea. The backlash and ‘no’ arguments seem to me to suggest some nefarious intent (i.e. raising the spectre of DC based PR firms). Is that what we are meant to believe on hearing this argument? Or is the idea that these are well-intentioned, but misguided and naive progressive activists? I wish that were made clearer. She almost makes it sound like the organizers intentionally want the public to blindy support something which is bad for them. I have a hard time believing that…why would they do that?

    • Marcy Pocci says:

      Zachary, they wouldn’t do that. This is a very purposeful movement to care for the children in our county in three specific areas: early learning, after school programs and nutrition. Why would this be so wrong? There will be a separate office, budge and audit on the Children’s Initiative Fund to ensure that the funds are distributed appropriately etc. I vote YES!

  • Jessica Conway says:

    A little critical thinking reveals the logical fallacies (crucify these do-gooders for past sins of others), numbers pulled from thin air (’20 cents on the dollar’), and false accusations (‘never did the advocates appear before any elected body’; this is not a thing) in this misguided opinion piece. Seems there will always be those who are bitter that a good idea was not their own. It’s an enthusiastic YES for me, and I will remember this paltry attempt at political posturing come your next campaign.

    • PB says:

      Thank you, Ms. Wagner. I’m a “NO” vote for the sole purpose that I don’t toss blank checks at the feet of private citizens claiming to do the work of government agencies. It’s astonishing to me that random individuals can make up tax policy then put it to the voters with a misleading signature-gathering campaign, followed by a tv ad campaign that omits the one material fact (this is a property tax) that is the sole source of funding its existence: Who is being disengenuous here? All that’s missing is Sara McLaughlin and a street scene from Dickens’ London, circa 1840. Is this how tax policy is determined —A 20-word question on a ballot? Maybe you haven’t seen the mouth-breathing idiots who show up to vote in Allegheny County, 37% of whom are there for the free donuts at the polling station. How about we ask City or County elected officials to do the job they were elected to do and introduce legislation, debate it, and open the discussion to public comment?

  • Jim Kozlowski says:

    Chelsea Wagner brings a healthy and experienced skepticism of this proposal to the debate. A lack of specifics is a recipe for abuse. I will vote NO on principle. A more carefully defined proposal is in the best interest of taxpayers, and our children. By the way, I liked the Seinfeld analogy.

  • Todd N. says:

    Remember why the RAD tax was created? Remember the whole “Regional Renaissance Initiative” debacle from the general election of 1997 & the subsequent “Plan B” (i.e., “screw the voters, we’ll do whatever the hell we want”)?

    I don’t trust this ballot initiative for as far as I can toss it. It’s a “NO” for me.

  • Greg Spicer says:

    Thank you Chelsa Wagner for you thoughtful and informed opinion piece. I too will be voting NO on this latest scheme to funnel public tax dollars to private interests that have zero accountability to tax payers. It’s hard to believe that this is even Constitutional. Like you, I favor increased funding for pre-K and early childhood education but through the normal democratic processes. Also, you have my admiration for speaking out while other public officials remain silent. I wish that you would run for Mayor of Pittsburgh. You would have my vote.

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