When voters in Miami overwhelmingly renewed a tax on themselves last summer to fund youth services, they illuminated a rarely used path to financial security for youth programs in tough economic times.
In August, 86 percent of voters approved a referendum to reauthorize and make permanent the Miami-Dade Children’s Trust, which each year delivers about $100 million in tax money to such youth services as after-school programs, day care, school nurses and help for disabled youth.
The vote put Miami-Dade in the lead among about 10 Florida counties that fund youth services through tax districts – an approach that is getting noticed elsewhere.
“This could be done in any community in the nation,” said Trust Chairman David Lawrence.
But the victory came only after two years of focused work and an earlier failure. And the concept has had mixed success around Florida.
Florida has 15 children’s councils, which together generate more than $400 million annually for youth services in their counties, according to the Florida Children’s Services Council, their advocacy group.
Eight of them, like the one in Miami-Dade County, are special taxing districts that are funded by a property tax.
Nearly all the rest function minimally or not at all because they were set up as “dependent councils.” Their funding comes from county governments rather than through voter-approved taxing districts. That creates funding and political problems, especially when the counties face difficult financial years, explained Mary E. Freeland, the first executive director of the Jacksonville Children’s Commission, a dependent council.
Building the network of councils has been a slow process. The first children’s services council started in 1946, through the creation of a special taxing district to raise funds that were allocated by the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County (St. Petersburg). Forty years later, the state Legislature approved the Juvenile Welfare Services Act, which allowed Florida counties to hold referenda to create special districts that could impose property tax levies. The funds are channeled to local youth programs, both public and private.
For example, agencies getting funds through the Miami-Dade Trust include Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Miami, the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet and the Family and Children Faith Coalition.
“We have had a long, hard road of 40 years from the first [council] to the second, with spurts and halting progress since,” said Jim Mills, who served for 23 years as executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board in Pinellas County.
How to Win
In Miami-Dade, voters actually rejected a Children’s Trust referendum by a 2-1 margin in 1998. In 2003, voters were asked again to support a referendum establishing a trust, and it passed with the proviso that they would vote again on making it permanent in 2008.
The work on this year’s referendum began about two years ago. It took about $1.6 million in political action committee money that Lawrence and his team raised. That money was spent on building grassroots support for youth issues among the various agencies and community groups, such as Bishop Victor Curry of the New Birth Baptist Church, the NAACP and Hispanic leaders at Univision Radio. It also included advertising, a faith-based strategy, field offices, bumper stickers, yard signs, palm cards in three languages and other campaign paraphernalia.
“There was a level of energy and excitement that I have never seen around a campaign,” said Diana Ragbeer, director of public policy and communications for the trust.
The keys to victory, according to Lawrence, a former Miami Herald publisher who led the referendum campaign: “This takes the emergence of leadership, hard work, raising money, building allies, working across the [political] aisle and, more than anything else, it takes a leader to keep people in the tent, be inclusive culturally, and otherwise take a couple of years of his life to get it done.”
Lawrence said he got calls from other councils and counties around the state wanting to find out how the victory was won.
The Jacksonville Children’s Commission is one of the councils that have been examining the Miami-Dade campaign. Executive Director Linda M. Lanier is officially neutral on the idea of whether Jacksonville’s council should put forward a similar referendum, but she said some Duval County officials are considering it.
“The need is so great,” Lanier said. “Child poverty here is deep.”
Collier, Leon and Alachua counties are looking more closely at a referendum, said Mills, the former head of the Pinellas Juvenile Welfare Board. He noted that those three counties, as well as Jacksonville (Duval County), had previously voted down referenda to create tax districts for children’s councils.
Referenda to dedicate tax funds to youth services have succeeded before, mostly on the West Coast. In 1996, voters in Oakland, Calif., approved Measure K, known as the Kids First initiative, which set aside a percentage of the city’s general revenue for such services. A second version of the initiative, which requires more funding, passed last month. And in 2002, California voters approved creation of the After School Education and Safety (ASES) initiative, which dedicates funds for youth programs based on a complex formula. (See “Growing Pains,” November.)
What often kills such referenda, however, is anti-tax sentiment, particularly in more conservative counties, said Kristin Vallese, spokeswoman for the Florida Children’s Services Council in Tallahassee. A California initiative championed by actor and director Rob Reiner to provide universal preschool lost overwhelmingly in 2006 because of the $2.4 billion tax bill attached.
Other critics of special taxing districts note that carving out taxes for particular issues can fragment and weaken government by creating competing special interests and restricting the flexibility of elected officials to make funding decisions.
Nevertheless, some county leaders around the country see Florida’s children’s services councils as an intriguing idea for funding youth services, said Don Murray, senior legislative director of the National Association of Counties in Washington.
Murray noted that there are other innovative funding models, such as the public-private, nonprofit Smart Start and its regulator, the North Carolina Partnership for Children. Smart Start uses $300 million in state general fund revenue and foundation grants to fund children’s programs in North Carolina’s 100 counties. “It’s one of the most exciting partnerships in the country,” he said.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the councils now is the Florida government’s dire financial straits – a situation shared by most states. Anticipating drastic cuts in children’s funding in the Legislature in 2007 and this year, the councils hired an executive director for their statewide association, contracted with three well-connected lobbyists and successfully pushed to stave off or reduce cuts, Vallese said.
The battle is on again, as Gov. Charlie Crist has told state agencies they need to cut their budgets by 10 percent. “That means some programs could go away,” Vallese said.
Despite the budget issues, Mills is more optimistic than ever about the good the councils can do, saying the culture in Florida is changing.
“In the 23 years I’ve been here, this is about as positive I’ve felt about the state pulling together on children and family policy,” he said. “The bureaucracy has loosened up and people are more willing to take the risk of talking to someone in another agency. Now you can talk about what real need is.”
Shera Dalin is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. email@example.com.