Orange County tax would raise $58 million a year for children

Orange County Commissioners, then voters would have to approve


ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – If you believe the numbers presented by "The Children's Trust" at the Orange County Commission's workshop Tuesday, the county is lacking critical services for children.

Dick Batchelor, Chairman of the Children's Trust, the group pushing for the proposed half-mil property tax -- $50 for every $100,000 of taxable property -- told commissioners the time to act is now.

"Seven thousand homeless children in the school system, 14,000 child abuse cases, 3,400 kids on the wait list for early childhood education, 25 percent of the kids living in poverty in this state," Batchelor said.

Batchelor wants the proposed tax to be put on the ballot in November for Orange County voters to decide. County Commissioners would have to hold a public hearing and vote to approve placing the proposal on the ballot.

Dozens of other speakers echoed Batchelor's sentiment that children are in dire need of help in Orange County.

"There is a clear and desperate need for additional assistance for our children," Deirdre Mcnab said. "Orange County has one of the lowest average incomes because of our service economy."

A Pine Hills pediatrician read to the commission a list of her unmet needs.

"My patients need more access to mental services, they need quality affordable child care services, and they need programs to address violence prevention and mentoring," the doctor said.

But Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs countered with a presentation from county staff, concluding that Orange County is already spending $303 million on children and families this year alone.

"There are some problems with the data we've been presented, problems that give me pause to move forward with what we've been presented," Jacobs said. "One of the things expected of us is to make sure we asked the questions we need to ask for us to make sure we're basing a decision on good and valid information."

[WEB EXTRA: Orange County's presentation on Children's Trust proposal]

Jacobs said she was concerned that the tax money -- $58 million raised annually -- would be controlled by an independent tax district made up of five people appointed by the governor, the state DCF administrator, the schools superintendent, one school board member, one county commissioner, and one juvenile judge. 

"To some people, independent is good. We like independence, right? Independent, in this case, means independent of direct accountability to voters," Jacobs said. "The biggest challenge I have with this is in my life, I have never agreed that people who aren't elected should be able to tax and spend our tax dollars. It makes no sense to me that the only option the Children's Trust is willing to consider is an independent taxing district. Any other conversation has been off limits."

Batchelor said he's open to discussion about the independent tax district.

"If the county could come up with $58 million every year in new money, don't take that money from existing children's programs, and guarantee that it's recurring revenue, and guarantee it will not be cut in the future, then we're open to discussion," Batchelor said.

Community advocate Cynthia Harris said some cannot afford the tax.

"When you're talking about taking money out of their property taxes in addition to their taxes, $2 (per month) is a lot for a single parent or senior," Harris said. "You're talking about paying their medication or property tax and possibly get a tax lien."

Jacobs also expressed concern about high salaries for upper management at the Trust and how the tax money would be spent, comparing it with the other eight Children's Trusts established in counties around the state of Florida.

"You have to have legal, have to have financial, have to have a budgeting operation, have to have procurement," Jacobs said. "Hillsborough and Pinellas both have 55 employees. Hillsborough was at nearly 30 percent overhead before a single dime went to not-for-profit organizations."

Jacobs said she expected salaries between $100,000 and $200,000.

"The mayor said $140,000 but they'll be running a $58 million enterprise, so looking at it, you're probably going to be in salary range," Batchelor said.

Jacobs said she needs more information.

"The public is counting on this board to know the facts, what we're talking about, what we're going to provide," Jacobs said."Is it a quarter mil or half a mil? Are we going to feed everyone, provide healthcare, mental health care? We can't do all of these."

Orange County spokesperson said the county will do its own needs assessment. 

"The Board wholeheartedly agreed that children are a top priority," officials said. "However, when presented with numerous errors and inconsistencies in the Needs Assessment Study provided by the Children’s Trust, they did not feel confident taking any action at this time. 

"Mayor Jacobs and several board members were also very uncomfortable with creating a taxing district not directly accountable to the taxpayers of Orange County, which would have the authority to levy $58 million in taxes, an 11.3 percent over the current county-wide millage. The Board directed the Citizens’ Commission for Children to oversee a consultant to conduct a thorough children’s services needs assessment and prioritize those needs. A work session will be scheduled at the conclusion of their efforts. Additionally, in that future work session, the Board will decide whether additional funds from the County’s $4 billion budget will be allocated for children’s services in FY19/20 or whether a referendum is necessary."

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