Skip to main content.

Fragmented local government a challenge in addressing pockets of high child poverty in Allegheny County

Fellowship Story Showcase

Fragmented local government a challenge in addressing pockets of high child poverty in Allegheny County

Picture of Richard Lord
Fragmented local government a challenge in addressing pockets of high child poverty in Allegheny County
Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette
Post-Gazette
Wednesday, January 16, 2019

By Kate Giammarise

Allegheny County's patchwork of highly fragmented municipal governments, combined with a reliance on local property taxes for services, is an obstacle to tackling concentrated pockets of high child poverty and need, officials said this week.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week launched a series, Growing up through the Cracks, focused on how poverty impacts children, families and communitiesThere are seven Allegheny County municipalities in which half or more of the children live in poverty: North Braddock, Mount Oliver, Rankin, Duquesne, McKeesport, Clairton and Wilmerding.

“You've got real haves and have nots in this county,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald in a December interview, after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette presented him with the data used as the basis for Growing up through the Cracks, a series which started this week.

“There's just a big disparity,” he said. “As we continue to see a gap growing, between the haves and the have nots, I think we've got to come to sort of a way to bridge that gap, whether it is regionalization of some of these municipalities, so that they can use efficiencies and economies of scale, or even some more of a regional revenue source that can maybe solve that problem.”

Mr. Fitzgerald is staunchly opposed to raising property taxes, and any increase in either sales or income tax would require enabling legislation to be passed by legislators in Harrisburg.

Some of the communities are still struggling from the loss of steel and other industries, Mr. Fitzgerald noted. 

The series "really highlights the need for services we’re not paying enough attention to," said county Councilman Paul Klein, who represents part of the city of Pittsburgh, plus Homestead, Munhall and West Homestead. “It’s unacceptable.”

The first part of the series featured Rankin, where around half of children are in poverty as a result of the concentration of subsidized housing, and where hopes for the future are pinned largely on the long-delayed redevelopment of the Carrie Furnace site.

“A lot of these common themes you're seeing: a reduced tax base that has ... been occurring for decades, since the collapse of heavy industry in the late 70s, early 80s. If you look at the population numbers in a number of these communities, you are going to see significant reductions. You've got properties that are not occupied, people moved away and the values were low and were maybe unable to be sold,” he said, leading to a shrinking tax base. 

While most human service programs in Allegheny County are delivered by a unified, county-wide department, municipal services such as public safety or dealing with vacant properties are delivered by an uneven patchwork where the communities with the greatest need tend to have the least resources. 

Mr. Fitzgerald has championed a bill at the state level that would allow for “voluntary municipal disincorporation” of some of Allegheny County's 130 municipalities.

“One of the pieces of legislation, not that it was an answer to everything, was the voluntary disincorporation [bill] that we thought would allow at least a tool for some of these communities to maybe access more of a broad base of resources,” he said. Disincorporated municipalities would get services from the county.

Legislation to allow for such disincorporation passed the state Senate last year unanimously but died in the state House.

It will be introduced again this session, said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, whose district includes Rankin and Mt. Oliver.

A Pitt Institute of Politics study noted that elsewhere in the country, municipal disincorporation is “widely” used.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he can encourage mergers of cash-strapped local governments, but county government has no ability to force them to disincorporate.

“I would love to see, again, many of these municipalities consolidate. At the very least, consolidate around services, particularly around public safety services and again, possible education, and school districts that could merge.”

Mr. Costa also said he favors building on investments in education, increased early learning programs, job training programs for parent and teens, and increasing the minimum wage to aid those communities. “When the parents are out of poverty, the kids are out of poverty,” he said.

Mr. Fitzgerald also pointed to efforts to boost education and skills training so all students in the region are able to take advantage of jobs in technology, energy, finance, and the so-called “eds and meds” sector.

“You have to have a level of skill to be able to access that, and that's the challenge in providing those skills, particularly in some of those communities that don't have the resources in their school system to provide that,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.

Last year, voters in Allegheny County rejected a measure that would have funded children's programs such as meals, after school programs and early learning programs, via a 0.25 mill property tax increase. Since then, advocates for a Children’s Fund are continuing to “have ... conversations” about if any parts of the proposal could be brought to fruition, said Patrick Dowd, who led the effort.

“We still think that the initiative — while it was not what the public wanted — we think that there are important elements that ought to be re-examined,” he said.

"The referendum attempt went down, but it’s not something we can ignore," said Mr. Klein. "It’s certainly something that’s back in play. Where can we find the resources to have a great impact?”

 State Rep. Austin Davis, D-McKeesport, who represents McKeesport, Clairton and Duquesne, said the Mon Valley in particular is hurt by municipal fragmentation, and similar fragmentation of school districts.

“I don't know what the answer is, I don't have it figured out. But I know we can't continue to go the way we are going for the next 50 years. ... I think this is a conversation we need to be having in Harrisburg and across the state,” he said.

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909. This story was produced with assistance from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism‘s Data Fellowship. 

[This story was originally published by Post-Gazette.]