TALLAHASSEE — Florida's nine regional children's services boards on Thursday narrowly survived what they saw as a grave threat: a plan to ask voters every six years whether to renew the tax-assisted boards or abolish them.
The county-created boards have the power to collect property taxes to help meet the needs of children in the county and help to reduce infant mortality, juvenile crime and child abuse and neglect.
The oldest children's services council in the nation is in Pinellas County, and has been known since 1945 as the Juvenile Welfare Board. The newest is in Miami-Dade, where two years ago voters renewed the life of The Children's Trust by an 83 percent edge.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, a fiscal hawk, said he had no criticism of the boards' track record, but allowing unelected boards permanent power to levy taxes amounted to "taxation without representation."
"The power to levy taxes and spend public money only comes from the people," he said. "What's happening is that there's a proliferation of these special taxing districts throughout Florida."
Negron's bill had strong bipartisan support and seemed to be on a fast track in the Senate. But the House version was killed in a committee Thursday by a dramatic 7-7 vote as two Republicans joined five Democrats to defeat the House version (HB 1227), sponsored by Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach.
The votes of Republicans John Wood of Winter Haven and Ron Schultz of Homosassa were pivotal, as Negron, who was not allowed to testify, helplessly watched one of his legislative priorities go down in flames.
Schultz, a former long-time Pinellas resident, said he wondered why a referendum requirement would make children's services its first target. He said he voted no because he had first-hand knowledge of the county's Juvenile Welfare Board, which collects about $30 per year per county resident.
"It's the most difficult vote I've made so far," Schultz said afterward, as Democrats patted him on the shoulder and thanked him. Recalling his past work in Pinellas, he said: "I was president of the girls clubs. I worked with the Juvenile Welfare Board, and I know what a good job it can do. I saw this as a real threat to them, and it gave me real problems."
The councils noted that they are accountable to county commissions, and that at any time, local government can call a referendum to keep or abolish them. They are also subject to open meeting and public records laws and are audited regularly.
Gay Lancaster, executive director of the Pinellas board, said the current precarious economic climate made her especially fearful that a referendum could spell the demise of the organization.
"If people have an option of any kind to reduce their taxes," Lancaster said, "they might not think about all the thousands of children who might be left without services."
The children's services councils, one of which operates in Hillsborough County, serve more than 60 percent of the state's most vulnerable children.
Times/Herald staff writers Anne Lindberg and Lee Logan contributed to this report.