This piece first appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat.
A new poll of Tallahassee residents suggests public support for a comprehensive and integrated approach to addressing severe social problems facing the county’s children. But the same poll suggests local policymakers should take a big long breath before moving forward with proposals to raise taxes or risk losing at the ballot box.
Overall, the concept of a countywide Children’s Services Council might make sense. As Mimi Graham pointed out in a Your Turn column, years of study have identified best practices and effectiveness for structuring programs to get the best benefit.
Advocates — Jon Moyle, Walt McNeil and Monesia Brown in another Your Turn column — have said, after reviewing a 1,500 page document assessing the county’s “need,” that the council would focus on three key areas: early childhood development, mental health, and juvenile crime.
This is all good work. But it may not be enough to pass muster at the ballot box.
The public opinion poll conducted by Clearview Research provides a mixed message at best. Two-thirds of the respondents supported the general concept of creating a Children’s Services Council. But public support will rise and fall based on the priorities set by the council and the public’s confidence the council will implement effective programs.
The survey, unfortunately, provides little practical insight into council priorities or whether citizens would support a tax increase to fund them. After all, who objects to keeping children off drugs, staying out of jail, or shielding them from abuse? High response rates to these to these questions without associated costs or trade-offs would expected.
Ultimately, the council’s success at the ballot box will rely on convincing voters that higher taxes will support effective programs. The concept of a Children’s Services Council appears to have broad public support. Thus, advocates may want to consider shifting strategies to present a practical, workable plan with the following features:
Assurances that any new tax revenues will not simply allow county government to dedicate general funds already going to children’s services to other programs.
A menu of services in their identified three priority areas that will be considered for funding for any new funds raised for the council.
Specific accountability and performance measures based on best practices that will be used to evaluate progress and success, including timelines.
An institutionalized mechanism for sunsetting ineffective programs.
A sunset provision for the Children’s Services Council, including an expiration on any taxes approved to raise funds, if the council fails to show significant progress on its major priorities over a specific time frame.
For many Tallahassee citizens, the current plan seems well-intentioned but vague. Putting proverbial “meat on the bones” on the current sketch would go a long way toward assuring that the Children’s Services Council is not just another way to raises taxes to fund more inefficient and ineffective government programs.
Samuel R. Staley is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University.