The Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board's Children's Services Council has voted to adopt a proposed millage rate of 0.7915, which is more than 3 percent below the rolled back millage rate, or the amount needed to equal last year's income.
As a result, our budget for programs for at-risk children and working-class families will be reduced by $1.9-million. We estimate that 1,100 children in Pinellas County will lose services next fiscal year.
The proposed millage is, however, an increase over the current rate of 0.7384, mainly because property valuations have been reduced by about 8.5 percent.
Let me put the community's investment in perspective. In 2008, the average homeowner in Pinellas County will pay about $123 per year to serve vulnerable children in our community. In 2009, the average homeowner will realize a 5 percent, or $5.75, decrease in the portion of the property tax levied by the JWB.
Through this investment, we can work to ensure children are safe from abuse, prepared for school and have a better chance to succeed in school. As a result, we hope to have productive adults in Pinellas County, prepared to share their own talents and resources rather than require additional and more costly resources.
Around the state, other locally supported Children's Services Councils, like the JWB, invest in prevention and early intervention programs that are proven to promote healthy births, improve school readiness and achieve early school success. The local programs funded by Children's Services Councils throughout Florida reduce reliance on more costly state-level, taxpayer-funded programs and services.
James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has said that investments in young children may be the best way to stimulate economic growth, and investments in young children's social and emotional development may be the most productive of these investments. After all, just because economic times are difficult today doesn't mean we should stop investing in the future. In fact, just the opposite is true.
We must all think in terms of return on investments even when it comes to serving vulnerable children and their families. Our Children's Services Council, the JWB, can demonstrate return on investments for our community. For instance:
• In 2005-2006, 7,078 children in Pinellas County were verified as being abused or having some indication of abuse. The JWB funded an Emergency Response Team that diverted 1,513 children from the child welfare system at a cost of $1,300 per child. Comparatively, a child in the system today costs $100,000 over a 10-year period.
• Some 266 children were kept out of the child welfare system through the Kinship Services Network of Pinellas County, a program offering help for children living with grandparents.
• Pinellas County's high school students serving in-school suspensions during the 2006-2007 school year increased to 26.9 percent, the highest rate in eight years. To help, the JWB funded 19 programs for 10,812 children to improve their chance at school success.
• Child care has proven to be a wise investment in school readiness. The JWB provided child care scholarships for more than 2,000 children in 2007, allowing their parents to go to work.
If we don't invest in the future of our community, our own future is in jeopardy.
Gay Lancaster is executive director of the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board.