Coronavirus a curve ball for proposed Leon County Children’s Services Council, tax

From the Tallahassee Democrat

The Our Kids First campaign for dedicated money to improve the lives of local children is facing ups and downs in the coronavirus era.

The property tax and Children’s Services Council on the November ballot could be a tougher sell during an unrelenting pandemic. The Political Action Committee pushing the initiative has also struggled with fundraising.

By March, before the coronavirus ballooned across the state and country, the campaign completed dozens of presentations to small but vocal groups, representing clusters of potential voters.

The healthcare crisis hit home and collapsed the economy. In-person interactions were suspended when the campaign had hoped to have at least double the number of presentations completed.

So far this year, less than $6,000 has been raised. Two months netted no financial contributions toward the $100,000 goal. Campaign finance records show a total of $70,697 to date.

“We have money in the bank,” said Jon Moyle, Our Kids First PAC Chairman. “We are where we need to be right now. If people feel compelled to donate, we sure would appreciate it. But, we’re moving forward, and we’re going to get the message out. We have a good team to do it.”

However, in recent weeks, heavyweight endorsements are re-energizing the campaign.

The Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce is supporting the ballot effort — a powerful signal from the private sector that left some observers relieved and others troubled.

Several organizations also are lending support: the Big Bend Minority Chamber of Commerce, United Way of the Big Bend and United Partners for Human Services, to name a few.

“A CSC will be an important tool in the fight against poverty and any hope we have for creating a more equitable future for every citizen starts with providing for the health, welfare, and education of our children,” said Sue Dick, the Chamber’s president and CEO.

The Chamber stance is it’s time to act; others vehemently disagree.

Skeptics of the Our Kids First ballot effort say the pandemic and ongoing economic uncertainty is bringing small businesses closer to ruin. Property owners and businesses, they say, can’t afford another bill when money is already drying up.

‘Quiet, authentic and genuine’ tenor

While the August primary election is around the corner, voters won’t have their say about the creation of a Leon County CSC for four more months.

If voter approved, a Leon County CSC would decide its focus areas based on broad-brush guidelines spelled out in statute.

It could impose a property tax rate of up to half a mill or $42 per $100,000 in taxable property value per year — representing up to $8 million per year.

A Planning Committee, a respected cross-section of policy and decision makers representing law enforcement, education, healthcare and nonprofits and the private sector, offered tailored recommendations as a blueprint to get started.

It landed on three general priority areas: success in school and life; healthy children and families; and stable and nurturing families and communities. The committee was careful not to advocate for or against the creation of a Leon County CSC.

Members spent an exhaustive year and a half combing through research on other dedicated-funding councils and testimonials for and against one in the capital city.

Now, the Our Kids First PAC and backers are quietly preparing. They plan to get past the primary election hangover, then the campaign will emerge.

“Nothing is going to happen en masse until after the primaries are over,” said Steve Vancore, a partner at VancoreJones Communications, a Tallahassee-based firm heavily involved in political campaigns. and spearheading the campaign at a deep discount.

“Right now, it’s time to let the primaries take shape, and the campaign will take shape after the primaries,” he said.

Vancore, a pollster, said the general election is a “perfect” scenario based on three factors — the presidential race is the only big-ticket item for Floridians, voter turnout will be high and few electoral distractions with a major ballot initiative.

“Here’s what I know, in Leon County, we’re the kind of community that cares about each other and we take care of each other,” Vancore said. “I think this was well conceived. This wasn’t something that someone just pulled out of their ear.”

A recent VancoreJones poll of Leon County residents showed 58% of respondents would vote in favor of creating a local Children’s Services Council compared to 23% who wouldn’t vote in favor of it. The poll showed 19% were unsure or refused to answer.

The message to the public needs to be quiet, authentic and genuine and get past all the other noise dominating the general election, said Gary Yordon, a political consultant and former Leon County commissioner.

“The key to any campaign today is not to get louder than the noise,” Yordon said. “The mistake that people make is because there’s so much noise, the only way to get heard is to get louder.

Storytelling is a big part of this, and I think the CSC has a great story to tell,” Yordon added. “This is a wonderful opportunity not just for a snapshot of our community album for today but to build that album out to how we want it to look in the future.”

Doubts, concerns persist

The coronavirus pandemic shone a light on how some children in Leon County live and barely survive, proponents say.

When schools abruptly closed due to a state-mandated sheltering in place, children in financial trouble were left hungry. Schools were a means to a meal.

The community stepped in. Nonprofits took the lead and scores of businesses offered free lunches to students to fill in the gaps. Some were convinced more must be done.

Others, while understanding the need and noble intentions, aren’t convinced a Children’s Services Council won’t be more than a frivolous waste of tax dollars that lacks sufficient oversight.

The idea of imposing a new tax amid rising unemployment and waves of business closures is an ill-timed and foolish notion during a pandemic, some critics contend.

Doug Wheeler, president of the Network of Entrepreneurs and Business Advocates, said the group has lingering concerns about imposing a new tax on property owners.

“I certainly think there’s an aspirational component to that. When you talk about levying a tax, I think you need to be specific,” Wheeler said. “Anytime you add another tax burden on the backs of businesses, that’s concerning.”

Wheeler pointed to Leon County landing at the No. 16 spot out of 67 counties in the 2019 Florida Child Well-Being Index, a census of issues to assess conditions impacting children.

“No one is arguing that there’s not room for improvement,” Wheeler said. “I think we’re just saying let’s have a little more discussion about the best way to address some of those issues.”

Barney Bishop, a member of Citizens for Responsible Spending, said the process has been flawed from the beginning. He noted the professional caliber of those who served on the Planning Committee but said few members asked tough questions.

He fears another unnecessary bureaucracy and duplicity if a Leon County CSC is created, adding the lack of elected accountability within the group is another red flag.

“We know what’s the right thing to do, and this group isn’t prepared to make the tough decisions on who gets money and who doesn’t,” Bishop said. “They’re not going to keep their people’s toes to the line and do what they need to do to make sure the expenditure of the dollars are the best possible outcomes that are documented.”

Bishop said Tallahassee doesn’t have Fortune 500 companies and small businesses represent the foundation of the private sector.

“The truth of the matter is it’s the worst time possible,” he said. “Not unlike the Great Recession, and in some cases worse, we have so many people who are unemployed. Small businesses are hanging on by a thread.”