County council urged to keep tax hike on table

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Allegheny County Council members were urged to not rule out a property tax increase if it would allow the county to head off large cuts next year in programs benefiting children and families.

Several speakers brought that message before council's budget and finance committee Wednesday night as members began their fiscal review.

More than 50 people addressed council on the topic.

The $5 million cut in nonmandated social service programs proposed by outgoing county Executive Dan Onorato would result in a loss of $17 million in state aid. Speaker after speaker told council that it made no economic sense to turn down those dollars.

"Most people would give $5 million to get $22 million," college student Ciana Gaines, of Wilkinsburg, told council.

Pittsburgh voters on Tuesday approved a 0.25-mill increase in the property tax rate to support the Carnegie Library system. That vote suggests that "citizens have more courage about tax increases than politicians think," Ken Regal told council. Mr. Regal, the co-director of Just Harvest, an anti-poverty and anti-hunger organization, urged council members to "take this lame duck budget and put it out of its misery."

Community leaders, corporate officials, parents and service providers spoke at council's public hearing and at a "Campaign for What Works" rally earlier in the day outside the County Courthouse, Downtown.

While Mr. Onorato's duties include submitting an annual comprehensive financial plan, council has the final word on spending. Mr. Onorato's proposal was only the starting point for budget talks, Councilman William Robinson, D-Hill District, said. He chairs the budget and finance committee.

Council is scheduled to take a final vote on the budget Dec. 6. But because 2011 is a municipal election year, council members would have another opportunity to reconsider the budget during the first 35 days of the new year.

About 150 people attended the rally to oppose the human service budget cuts. They included many mothers pushing strollers, preschool children and men and women in wheelchairs.

Among the agencies hardest hit by the proposed spending reductions are family support centers. Many people in the crowd at the rally carried signs with messages praising their programs, which include parent counseling and after-school activities.

The youngest speaker was Nakyia Thompson, 7, of Wilkinsburg. "Do not balance the county budget on my back," she said.

"Why cut what works?" United Way president Bob Nelkin asked the crowd, urging them to repeat the words as a chant.

Loss of the $22 million in total spending on children, youth and family programs would mean the immediate loss of about 1,000 jobs and higher taxpayer expense in the future for courts, prisons and foster care, he warned.



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