BOYNTON BEACH —
More than 28 years ago, Elaine Webb Alvarez and Judy Goodman first lobbied politicians and stumped among the electorate to convince them that Palm Beach County needed a local agency with its own taxing power to help children and families.
Now, they’re at it again — to save the thing they helped create.
The Children’s Services Council, which effectively got its start in 1986 when county voters agreed to tax themselves for children’s services, faces another referendum Nov. 4. This one asks voters whether the council should be reauthorized to continue as a district with a taxing authority.
Alvarez, who lobbied the Legislature to create the law allowing the 1986 referendum, and Goodman, who spoke throughout the county urging its passage, have formed a political committee called Friends of Children’s Services to urge voters to vote yes again.
“This is about helping children. This is so critical that we keep the support of children’s services continuing at the high level of support that we have been doing for generations,” said Goodman. “I worked on this never dreaming we’d have to do it again.”
This year’s ballot question is a consequence of a 2010 state law pushed by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, that requires county referendums every 12 years on whether the taxing power of a children’s services district should be continued. A timetable was set for the eight counties that have such a taxing district, and Palm Beach County was given until the end of 2016 to hold its re-authorization vote, but the council asked the County Commission in December to put it on the 2014 ballot.
Tana Ebbole, the council’s director since 1994, said that if county voters turn down the measure, “The Children’s Services Council would close our doors and transfer all assets and liabilities to the Board of County Commission June 30, 2015. So basically we would be closing shop and all of our funded programs would be closing shop as well.”
Ebbole said the taxing district decided to put the issue to voters in November because they didn’t want it hanging over their head for any longer than necessary.
“There’s three counties (St. Lucie, Martin and Okeechobee) to the north of us that had to go in 2014. So part of our thinking in looking at it was one, we had it hanging over us. That’s a very stressful thing, frankly, to have that hanging over us, and with the counties to the north going in 2014 that was another factor. As well as Broward to the south was debating when they were going to go,” Ebbole said. “We felt like the momentum should be all of us going together.”
More than 150 people have donated to the Friends of Children’s Services political committee, including Ebbole and several of council’s other top executives, as well as such community leaders as County Commissioner Shelley Vana, former State Attorney Barry Krischer and West Palm Beach attorney Gerald Richman.
The committee is headed by Goodman and Alvarez, and the treasurer is Kim Lee Bove, the director of operations at Cornerstone Solutions, a political consulting firm based in suburban West Palm Beach.
As of June 27, the committee has raised $121,065 in contributions, according to financial reports submitted to the supervisor of elections office. Contributions include $5,000 from a limited liability company run by County Commissioner Jess Santamaria, $10,000 from Florida Power & Light and $15,000 from the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches.
Alvarez also has contributed $10,000, and Goodman and her public policy firm, Judy Goodman PA, have contributed $2,500, records show.
The committee spent $38,424 through the June 27 reporting deadline, with $31,000 going to Cornerstone Solutions for research, web design, campaign and consulting services, and event expenses.
Goodman said the committee has not polled voters to gauge whether the ballot question will pass but plans to do so. She said Cornerstone Solutions research was done before March to see how the public would respond to the language used in the ballot question. She declined to give that information to The Palm Beach Post, but said the response was positive, and she believes that the public understands what the question asks of the voters and what the council does.
However, in an email to county administrators last month, Ebbole asked how the county would respond if voters turn down the ballot question. In the message, Ebbole said it appears some voters think the county would pick up the tab.
“It has come to our attention that some folks in our community are under the impression that, in the unlikely event that the Children’s Services Council is not reauthorized, the County Commission will continue the funding of our programs and services,” Ebbole wrote in the June 23 email.
In response, County Administrator Bob Weisman said it was unlikely the seven-member commission would pay for those programs.
“I think the Board would take a negative vote as a dictate from the public to severely reduce continued (council) services under County auspices,” Weisman wrote in a June 27 reply.
For 2013-14, the council has a $110.7 million budget, 87 percent of which goes to programs and services, and has 102 staff members. Nearly $92 million of that budget came from property taxes, based on the council’s tax rate of 70 cents per $1,000 taxable value.
The council proposes cutting the 2014-15 tax rate to about 69 cents per $1,000 taxable value, which would still increase the property taxes it collects to about $96 million, a jump of about 4 percent.
In 2013, the council helped about 77,000 children and 300,000 families. Its four primary goals, according to Ebbole, are that babies are born healthy, children are free from abuse and neglect, children are meeting developmental milestones and that children have access to quality after-school and summer programs.
Ebbole said the law prohibits her from advocating for the re-authorization but will speak personally about why she thinks the organization she runs is so important.
“To me, the value of what this organization brings to our community and to our children’s families, you can’t put a price on it and you can’t put a value on it,” she said. “It’s a remarkable thing that this county has supported all these years and really is quite special.”
Click here for a link to 20 agencies that received the most funding from CSC in 2013-2014.
ON THE NOV. 4 BALLOT
Shall the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County, which provides early learning and reading skills, development, treatment, preventative and other children’s services in Palm Beach County, be reauthorized to continue in existence as a district with voter-approved taxing authority, with independent oversight and accountability as required by law, unless and until it is dissolved as specified in s. 125.901 (4) (a), Florida Statutes?