The Escambia County Commission is holding a public hearing Thursday to discuss whether to move forward with a proposed referendum that would authorize a county-wide tax and governing board focused on the health and well-being of children.
The ballot measure provides for a half-mill levy that would raise nearly $8 million a year for 10 years to fund a Children’s Services Council to be known as the Escambia Children’s Trust.
Heading up the push are Ron Ellington and Kimberly Krupa, executive director of Achieve Escambia. Krupa says it's a bold move, but one that's needed to improve the plight of children and youth in the county.
"A lot of our indicators and outcomes that we measure are actually getting worse, things like child abuse," she said. "Escambia County is now ranked fourth in Florida in the number of kids who are abused and neglected. Things like juvenile arrests, where we’re also ranked 4th in the raw number of youth arrested and incarcerated before they turn 18."
"We’re already investing in negative outcomes. It’s not like we’re not already spending the money now,” declared Ron Ellington, campaign coordinator for the Escambia Children’s Trust.
"We just built a $150 million new jail. We’re paying $4.2 million a year to debt service that jail. We’re paying $33,000 a year to keep a person housed in that jail. The county spends $8.6 million a year reimbursing the state for their pro rata share of the juvenile detention center and for Medicaid charges."
So far, Ellington and company have been successful in building public backing, with over 150 letters of support, including endorsements from Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson, Escambia County School Board, and Greater Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce.
To date, there are nine counties that have tax-supported Children’s Services Councils that consist of 10 local members. Krupa says one of the first crucial action steps after the referendum passes is an independent, transparent needs assessment.
"The findings from that evaluation will drive the investments" she explained. "And, how a Children’s Services Council works is that they issue contracts to programs based on needs identified in this objective assessment. We would expect the first funds to be distributed in the summer or early fall of 2022 based on this analysis."
Krupa adds that there are several critical oversight measures in place, including quarterly monitoring, annual reporting, Sunshine regulations, and performance requirements.
"So, if programs aren’t delivering outcomes for kids, then that contract is revoked. So, it’s a system of checks and balances that’s pretty unique in the country. Florida is the only state to have this in place, and we’ve really seen so many transformational successes in our neighboring counties as a result of these checks and balances."
Initially, the focus will be on three priority or “bucket areas,” based on the greatest needs in Escambia County.
"We see the biggest return on investment being birth to 5 (years old), specifically, birth to 3 years old," Krupa explained. Lots of children falling behind immediately after being born. And, we see that in our kindergarten readiness results, where only 47% of our entering kindergarteners are ready for school. We believe we can catch a lot of those developmental learning issues in the early years, with, frankly services that don’t exist in this county."
Krupa says one of the programs being funded elsewhere that would help address those early development years in Escambia is Universal Nurse Home Visiting.
"Eighty percent of new moms take advantage of this serve where a trained professional nurse comes to your home and teaches you how to be the best possible new mom you can be, whether that’s help with your own mental health and well-being, how to look for developmental milestones for your baby, or how to nurse."
Helping families break generational cycles of abuse and neglect, and addressing the needs of middle and high school kids are other priority areas.
Escambia County staff have indicated that there’s room to put the issue on the November General Election ballot, with no additional cost. But, with the economic fallout in the community due to the coronavirus pandemic, is it a good time to move forward with such a referendum?
"It’s a very challenging time for everybody and or heart goes out to all the people affected by this," said Ellington, acknowledging the loss of life and livelihoods as a result of the outbreak.
"But what it also has shown is that it has exacerbated the problems we already had. As Kim said, we’re on top of most of the bad lists in the state and this has magnified those problems. So, we think this absolutely is the best time to go forward with this. Because the problems coming out of this, and we will come out of this, but history will show we’ll come out of this with more problems than we started with, and if we’re not preparing for this right now, then we’re never gonna make the break-throughs in this county that we deserve and our children deserve."
Escambia Commissioners will give residents a chance to speak on the proposed Escambia Children’s Trust referendum at a 5:37 public hearing. A majority vote would put the issue on the November ballot.
"The opportunity here is for the commission and stand up and say, “Yes, we want to be a part of allowing the voters to vote on this," Ellington declared.
Krupa's final argument ahead of the public hearing, "Call your county commissioner and tell them our kids can’t wait. The time is now, and we’re tired of being last place in Florida."
For background information or to view the live stream of the regular board meeting, visit myescambia.com.