Raise property taxes before you cut services to children.
That's the appeal Pinellas County's Juvenile Welfare Board heard over and over and over again during a four-hour meeting Tuesday night that attracted about 170 people.
"Cuts to children and families never heal," Sharon Carie, chairwoman of Pinellas Advocates for Children and Families, told the board.
"We as citizens and taxpayers of Pinellas County are ready to pay the extra dollars to keep cuts from happening to children and families," she said.
Carie came from Tarpon Springs and brought to the board more than 2,000 petitions she said were signed by taxpayers. She was one of about 60 people who spoke on the idea of raising the JWB's tax rate as a way to avoid having to make up to $6.3-million in cuts to programs benefiting 9,700 children at risk.
About 170 people — leaders of nonprofits, school principals and teachers, parents, children and regular tax-payers — attended the hearing at the Pinellas Park Performing Arts Center.
Virtually everyone who spoke urged the JWB to raise its millage rate to save the programs.
Gulfport attorney Tommy Minkoff, chairman of the South County Council, a group of residents who advise the JWB, urged the board to consider all options in tackling the budget shortfall.
"Try to streamline where possible," Minkoff said. "Build collaborative efforts … utilizing infrastructure already in place to deliver services as cost-effective as possible."
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As the local government body specifically charged with paying for programs to protect children at risk, the JWB is the primary financial supporter of many nonprofit organizations.
After a round of cuts last year, the JWB's budget for programs this fiscal year was $51-million, virtually all of it coming from property taxes.
But like cities, counties and other local governments that levy property taxes, the JWB expects reduced revenues next year for two reasons.
First, Amendment 1 expands the homestead exemption for local government taxes but not school taxes.
Second, the collapse of the real estate market is driving down property values.
Now the JWB is pondering whether to raise its millage rate to recover some of the revenue it expects to lose from the reduction in the tax base.
The JWB includes elected and judicial officials. Some hope the public will see the safety of children as a worthy reason to raise taxes. Some also argue that spending some money on crime prevention now is better than spending a lot more later on incarceration.
The JWB's millage rate last year was 0.7384 mills, or about 74 cents in taxes for every $1,000 of assessed, nonexempt property value.
At Tuesday's meeting, the JWB staff circulated as an example an increased millage rate of 0.8069.
That would add $12 to the $114 that JWB currently collects, on average, from homeowners. That additional $12 a year would make up the $6.3-million the JWB expects to lose.
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The programs in danger include help for homeless families, violence and crime prevention, child care, youth programs and mental health for severely emotionally disturbed children.
At Tuesday night's meeting, two middle schools girls asked the board to not cut $718,000 from Violence Prevention, a school-based program run by Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services.
"Now that I'm in this program I haven't gotten a referral in three months," said Kassandra Diaz, 14, a seventh-grader at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo.
"My grades are better and my future actually holds something positive now," Diaz said.
Amanda Green, 14, an eighth-grader at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in St. Petersburg, told of how Violence Prevention counselors helped a friend.
Her friend "had a little much on her plate and dealt with it by inflicting physical pain on herself," Green said.
"If it weren't for the programs (the counselors) run, I don't know if she'd be here today," Green said.
A statewide child-protection advocate who sees the 62-year-old JWB as a model agency came to urge the board to make a bold stand and raise its tax rate.
"I have been a 30-year admirer of this board," said Jack Levine, founder of 4Generations Institute in Tallahassee. "The state of Florida and the nation has learned from you."
The JWB can serve as an example to the other eight similar agencies in Florida struggling to decide whether to raise their taxes, he said.
"At this time in the lives of children, leadership is essential," Levine said. "I urge you to max your millage. It will be celebrated. It will be honored."
The JWB board will decide whether to increase the millage in July when it votes on a final budget for the fiscal year that starts in October.
Based on support from the children's advocates who attended the meeting, board members seemed inclined do so.
"I think we need to have a vision for Pinellas," said county Commissioner Kenneth Welch, who chairs the JWB's budget committee. "I think that's what's lacking in Tallahassee."
Jose Cardenas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4224.