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Children may knock Wakulla 2020 off the ballot

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By JENNIFER JENSEN
jjensen@thewakullanews.net

An educational workshop on the possibility of establishing a Children Services Council for the county took a dramatic turn and led to the Wakulla County Commission discussing the future of the Wakulla 2020 plan.

Chairman Alan Brock brought forward the idea of establishing a Children Services Council after different citizens discussed the idea and hearing that Leon County was moving in that direction. He said he wanted to inform the commission and citizens about the council.

"I didn't expect it to go in that direction," Brock said.

The council is a special district created by ordinance and approved by voters through a tax referendum. This would create an independent taxing authority that funds children's programs and services in the county.

There are eight counties in the state that have created a CSC and seven of those are independent taxing authorities. Others operate as dependent districts and rely on funding from different sources, such as the county government, according to Florida Children's Services Council CEO Brittany Birken. The Florida Children's Council represents the eight special districts in the state and serves to support and connect the councils.

Independent Children Services Councils levy ad valorem taxes and the maximum amount that can be levied is 50 cents for every $1,000 of taxable property value. A small portion of the increase in the millage rate, .013, goes to the Florida Children's Services Council. Birken said they use an equitable dues formula. For St. Lucie County, that amount is around $10,000 annually.

Brock said a half a mill would bring in $500,000 for the county.

The discussion turned to the Wakulla 2020 plan because both would be seeking voter approval of a tax to fund their projects.

The Wakulla 2020 Advisory Committee has already been established by the commission and is working to prioritize transportation projects throughout the county and come up with ballot language to be added to the November ballot.

Several commissioners did not feel comfortable with two referendums on the ballot and wanted it to be one or the other.

Commissioner Mike Stewart said the commission needed to prioritize.

"If I had my druthers, this would be ahead of the 2020 plan," Stewart said.

He added that the Wakulla 2020 plan was a good one, but felt children were more important.

Commissioner Jerry Moore originally said he was in support of anything for children, as long as it benefits the greatest number. To him, this meant a large majority of the money should go to parks and recreation. If it didn't, he wasn't going to vote for it. At the April 16 county commission meeting, he said he would not vote for adding the tax referendum to the ballot at all.

"Citizens don't want another tax," Moore said.

Commissioner Randy Merritt said he is more concerned that the One-Cent Sales Tax might not be renewed in 2014 if voters. The One-Cent Sales Tax goes to public safety, transportation and roads, public facilities and parks and recreation.

"The timing issue for me is everything," Merritt said.

He didn't feel comfortable asking the voters to pay for transportation and roads, and then two years later ask them to pay for something that also funds transportation. He was in support of the Children's Services Council because there wasn't any overlap.

Brock and Commissioner Lynn Artz said they were OK with having both on the ballot. Artz said she shares the concerns with the One-Cent Sales Tax, but those should have been expressed earlier to the citizens who have led the push for the Wakulla 2020 plan.

Brock didn't want to see Wakulla 2020 taken off the ballot and CSC put on if there wasn't support.

"Both need citizen backing," Brock said. And Wakulla 2020 has that support and it became a project led by a citizen's group.

Wakulla 2020 Advisory Committee Member John Shuff said hundreds of hours have been spent on this plan and trying to move it forward.

"It is unfortunate that the commission is pausing on this critical economic issue," Shuff said.

Instead of placing a the half-cent sales tax on the ballot to fund the Wakulla 2020 plan, Merritt said the Wakulla 2020 Advisory Committee could be used to prioritize transportation projects funded by the One-Cent Sales Tax.

Merritt also mentioned establishing a Community Redevelopment Area for the Crawfordville area which would help fund the major project of the Wakulla 2020 plan, fixing Highway 319.

Shuff said the CRA is an excellent opportunity for Crawfordville.

"Our plan was a transportation plan for Wakulla County," Shuff said.

The Wakulla 2020 Advisory Committee will meet to establish its future plans, Shuff said. He added that this issue was too important to let go.

"Last night's discussion was just that, a discussion, for a decision to be made, the initiative will have to be placed on the agenda," Shuff said.

Brock said meetings with Birken and the Wakulla County Coalition for Youth and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee are being set up to discuss the Children Services Council and to see if there is support. If there is support, those groups would then need to ask that it be placed on the agenda at a future commission meeting for it to move forward.

Many CSCs perform a needs assessment to determine where the money should go, Berkin said. Some counties have focused on early learning while others have invested in after school programs. Most of the councils give money to existing organizations and do not compete with the programs already offered, but help them fill in the gaps.

The Florida CSC would offer support, lobbying, communication and sharing information among councils and data and trend analysis.

If established, the CSC would consist of 10 members. They are school superintendent, school board member, district administrator for local Department of Children and Families, juvenile court judge and county commissioner. Five other members are appointed by the governor and the county commission would offer recommendations. The committee would then decide where the money goes and would also set the millage rate each year.