Children’s Trust referendum called off


Proponents of an initiative that would’ve created a special taxing district to fund children’s services throughout the county withdrew their request for a November referendum after both Indian River Shores and Orchid opted out of the venture.

Even with the city councils of Vero Beach, Sebastian and Fellsmere having joined the County Commission in endorsing the Children’s Trust proposal, promoters of the decades-old, grassroots effort feared the referendum would fail without the participation of the affluent beachside towns.

Had the island town councils embraced the initiative, which was to launch in 2023-24 and be funded by property taxes, the towns would have provided a disproportionate share of the revenues.

Instead, the County Commission hopes to expand and enhance the county’s children’s services programs through increased funding when needed, improved oversight and greater accountability.

The commissioners voted unanimously last week to instruct County Attorney Dylan Reingold to draft an amendment to an existing ordinance to give them the flexibility to double the millage rate that funds children’s services from 12.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to 25 cents per $1,000.

The commissioners would review the funding during their annual budget workshops.
“A lot of the programs we fund still have waiting lists,” County Commission Chairman Peter O’Bryan said.

The amendment also would include the hiring of a full-time administrator to work with the 13-member Children’s Services Advisory Committee, which is charged with identifying and assessing the needs of the community’s children, as well as vetting the agencies that request county funds and recommending which applicants should get them.

The new administrator would report directly to County Administrator Jason Brown.

Finally, the amendment would slightly alter the committee’s makeup, requiring that one member possess a business background.

The Children’s Trust Exploratory Committee, which led the drive for the creation of a special taxing district, applauded the County Commission’s latest steps to improve children’s services.

Lisa Kahle, the exploratory committee’s facilitator, called the commission’s recommendation for raising the millage cap a “good-faith signal that quality children’s services are a priority for all residents.”

Kahle said the committee is grateful for the commission’s “engagement and support” of the Children’s Trust’ priorities.

“It was important to the community leaders who have worked on the Children’s Trust initiative,” she said, “that the entire community be part of the solution that will support our children and families with quality programs so that every corner of the county can flourish and prosper.”

Commissioner Susan Adams defended the county’s efforts to provide children’s services and disputed what she described as “ridiculous” claims that CSAC’s shotgun approach was merely throwing money at programs nobody is monitoring.

“I would just say you shoot and hit more birds with a shotgun than you do with a rifle,” Adams said. “And when you’re trying to create change in your community, you have to look at the bigger picture.”

Adams said she supports the commission’s efforts to explore other ways to accomplish the goals targeted by the Children’s Trust, adding that she had spoken to some of the initiative’s opponents who expressed an “air of elitism” and questioned how “playing basketball can make a good taxpayer out of a child.”

When she asked if they had ever spoken to anyone who had utilized the county’s children’s services programs, she said, they replied that they hadn’t.

“While I might just be a country girl from Fellsmere, west of I-95 – and I might not know anything about anything over in the more fancy parts of town – what I do know is empathy,” Adams said. “And what I do know is helping advocate for your community to be a better community.

“To do that,” she added, “you have to leave your home and actually go to those communities and go to those programs and do your part to make them better … You can’t just sit back and point fingers.”

It wasn’t surprising, though, that the towns decided against participating in the referendum and, ultimately, the taxing district.

Together, the towns account for only 3 percent of the county’s population, but they would’ve generated 20 percent of the Children’s Trust tax revenues – 17.7 percent by Indian River Shores and 2.3 percent by Orchid.

Town Council members from both seaside municipalities said a large number of residents in those communities already enthusiastically support nonprofit groups, including some that provide children’s services.

In addition, many of the townspeople are seasonal residents registered to vote in other states, making them ineligible to cast ballots in a county referendum here.

The Children’s Trust proponents, though, say philanthropy isn’t enough to provide the necessary countywide services, such as early child care, mental health counseling, afterschool recreation and athletic programs.

The initiative was to launch in fiscal 2023-24 and be funded by property taxes: 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for the first four years and increasing to about 38 cents per $1,000 over the final eight years.

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