Children’s Services Council supporters relish more time ahead of 2020 vote

From the Tallahassee Democrat

Now the real work begins.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, Leon County commissioners committed to a 2020 ballot initiative to create a Children’s Services Council. The move bought supporters time to mount an education campaign and build community support. It also mollified opponents who argued that the process was moving too quickly.

A Children’s Services Council in Leon County — a notion that failed to pass in a 1990 special election — was resurrected in March by County Commissioner John Dailey. The public hearing to decide its fate featured impassioned pleas and stinging criticism as supporters and opponents spoke for more than three hours.

Supporters wanted voters to decide the fate of a Children’s Services Council this year. Dressed in powder blue T-shirts stamped with a child’s handprint, they flooded the commissioner chambers.

Jon Moyle, the chief cheerleader for the local effort, was the last of 80 speakers to stand before commissioners. He never wavered from his sooner rather than later stance.

In the end, despite their sizable numbers, supporters weren’t able to secure a 2018 ballot measure. Some walked away defeated. Others saw a triumph.

“I think it was a good decision. I’m happy they acted to put it on the ballot,” said Moyle, a Tallahassee attorney and chairman of the Our Kids First political action committee lobbying for the local effort. “My personal preference would have been for it to be sooner rather than later, but I understand some valid and legitimate points from others in the community have been raised.”

What seemed to matter to supporters was that the issue wasn’t going away. It will be on the ballot in two years. That’s ample time to answer those with burning questions. But some say, children, including 40 percent of third-graders in Leon County who aren’t reading at grade level, can’t afford to wait.

The 2020 option was an 11th-hour idea that came from community members and business leaders and gained traction at the dais.

Some residents and business owners bristled at the idea of more taxes. A Leon County CSC could raise the property tax rate up to half a mill or $42 per $100,000 in taxable property value per year.

Saying the proposal wasn’t ready for “prime time” on the November ballot, county Commissioner Mary Ann Lindley made the motion for the 2020 commitment, and her fellow commissioners agreed in a unanimous vote.

“The last four weeks leading up to this hearing have been remarkable,” she said. “I think the goal for us is not to walk away with winners and losers but to see how we can make this work for our children.”

Lindley said the “starting line is today.”

If it had been placed on the November ballot and approved, Leon County would have been the ninth community in the state with a CSC. The measure required a simple majority of the County Commission to get on the ballot.

Dailey, who jump-started the community conversation with his surprise motion in March to hold a public hearing, said Leon County was at a crossroads. He said the poverty rate was unacceptable as was the knowledge that children were going hungry every day.

“I’m ready for some action. Having said that, it needs to be responsible action,” he said, lending his support for a 2020 ballot effort.

“It’s our job to find consensus in this community,” continued Dailey, who is running to be the next mayor of Tallahassee. “I do think there’s this amazing middle ground.”

Commissioner Bill Proctor, who supported the idea of a Children’s Services Council, opposed a delayed ballot measure. On Tuesday night, he didn’t try to hide his displeasure with fellow commissioners. He compared the delay to jilting a bride at the altar.

“They are just kicking the can down the road and gets people off the hook from having to take a definitive position,” Proctor said. “I’m very disappointed that we couldn’t man and woman up to do what would serve the needy. I see very little distinction in what we did tonight from those who are separating children at the borders of America. We have allowed for continued separation of children and services. It’s a sad night.”

Commissioners floated the idea of including a $150,000 grant to help build a community coalition for the effort, but after further discussion delayed that decision.

One beneficiary of such a grant could be The Our Kids First PAC, which formed a leadership council of community and business heavyweights. With more than $40,000 raised, it was prepared to begin its education campaign the day after the public hearing if commissioners approved a ballot measure this year.

That didn’t happen. Now the PAC must regroup. The PAC is suggesting the council may focus its energy on early childhood development, juvenile crime and mental health services.

“We’re going to look forward to some conversations on the next step,” Moyle said. “We want to understand what this next step is. Our plan was to raise $100,000 and to run the campaign. We thought we could do that now. This is a different issue.”