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Vero and Sebastian approve vote on tax for Children’s Trust, but will Shores and Orchid?

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of November 11, 2021)

The proposed creation of a new tax to fund the Children’s Trust of Indian River County – a decade-in-the-making, grass-roots initiative to invest in the health and well-being of the community’s youth through proven and impactful programs – is far from a slam dunk.

Imposing the new, phased-in  tax, which would raise $5 million to $10.5 million per year, would require the passage of a referendum by the majority of the county’s voters. But before that can happen, the proposal is being circulated to get the local municipalities on board.

The Children’s Trust would not create a new agency to serve the county’s children. It would establish a dedicated revenue stream to fund existing nonprofit and agency programs through a competitive grant process.

The programs and services the new tax would fund include early childcare (such as Head Start), extended day, mental health, mentoring and even afterschool recreation and athletics.

The County Commission voted unanimously in May to direct County Attorney Dylan Reingold to continue planning for a November 2022 referendum on the proposed property tax increase and present the initiative to the county’s five municipalities.

But Reingold said this week the commissioners still must approve putting the referendum on the ballot, and it’s unlikely they’ll vote until early next year.

Thus far, the cities of Vero Beach, Sebastian and Fellsmere have agreed to participate in the referendum. The towns of Orchid and Indian River Shores haven’t yet rendered a verdict.

Orchid interim Town Manager Cherry Stowe said Children’s Trust proponents are scheduled to give a presentation to the Town Council on Dec. 1.

“I don’t know if the council members will make a decision then,” Stowe said, “or at a later meeting.”

Indian River Shores Town Manager Jim Harpring said Town Council members discussed the proposed referendum at their October meeting and are expected to vote on a resolution this month or next.

“Some council members had follow-up questions for the Children’s Trust, and all of them wanted to solicit input from town residents,” Harpring said. “Our council meets monthly, so we still can put it on the agenda for November or December.”

If either or both of the towns reject the referendum, residents there will not be subject to the new tax and the projected collections for the next taxing district will be smaller than predicted.

According to Reingold, the proposed referendum would ask voters to approve an increase in their property taxes for 12 years – beginning with 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for the first four years, then rising to about 38 cents for the final eight.

If approved, the new tax would become effective for the 2023-24 fiscal year. Proponents project it will raise more than $5 million in the first year and, assuming 3 percent annual growth in the county’s tax rolls, increase incrementally to $5.5 million in 2026-27.

When the rate increases in 2027-28, the taxing district’s projected collections would jump to $8.55 million and climb steadily to $10.5 million in 2034-35.

“After 12 years, we should have some good data on how these programs are doing,” Children’s Trust Exploratory Committee facilitator Lisa Kahle said, “so that seems like a reasonable amount of time to start with.”

Twelve years can also be a long time, County Commission Chairman Joe Flescher said, if during that span the county experiences anything resembling the economic collapse of 2008, when the county had to decrease funding and delay expenditures.

He’s worried that, if voters approve referendum, those tax dollars must go to fund Children’s Trust programs – even if there’s a crippling economic crisis.

“My only concern is that we don’t have the ability to respond to economic conditions as they come,” Flescher said. “If something bad happens, we can’t say, ‘We can’t afford this.’ There’s no mechanism to roll it back.

“I’m all for doing what we can for our youth,” he added, “but we also have to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollar and address the needs of the community at large.”

Reingold said he expects the Orchid and Indian River Shores town councils to reach their decision before the end of the year, so he can bring the matter back to the County Commission no later than February.

If the commissioners vote to go forward with the proposal, Reingold said he would draft the referendum’s language, which state law limits to 75 words, and send it to county Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan.

Swan said she would need to receive the referendum by Aug. 12 to include it on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Even if the referendum gets to the ballot, there’s no way to predict its fate, which could depend on the economic conditions at the time.

“When we voted to advance the referendum last spring, the price of gas was $1.89 a gallon – now it’s $3.50,” Flescher said. “There’s a segment of the population here that’s trying to put food on the table and might not be able to vote yes.

“The initial tax increase isn’t much, but it becomes substantial over time,” he added. “If this goes forward, it’ll be the taxpayers’ decision whether to fund this initiative, and a lot can happen between now and next November.”

If the commissioners vote against placing the referendum on the ballot, or if the initiative is rejected at the polls, Flescher said the commission almost certainly will re-examine its current approach to children’s services.

“If the referendum fails,” he said, “we can always look at what we’re doing now and make changes.”

For more than 20 years, the County Commission has provided funds to children’s programs and services through its Children’s Services Advisory Committee. Those monies come from the county’s general fund, however, and can be reduced or eliminated at any time.

Kahle said Children’s Trust proponents want to secure – and increase – funding for those and other much-needed programs and services through the referendum.

“We’re eager to get the word out to the community,” she said. “Once 2022 is here, we’ll start making presentations to different organizations and appearing at different events. Anywhere we can talk to people.

“This is a community issue, and we want to engage with the community,” she added. “We need everyone’s support.”