In Florida's Dade County, More New Ideas Percolating

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Local governments in Florida are moving toward adoption of a novel method for funding child-welfare services--creation of a special taxing authority dedicated solely to the young.

The initiatives--patterned after one pioneering Florida county's move 40 years ago--are the first in the nation to apply to child welfare the longstanding practice in which residents of a locality tax themselves for a specific service, such as the water system or the fire department.

Advocates of the approach hope that it will become a national model for efforts to improve health, dropout-prevention, and other programs for children.

The latest advance for the child-welfare tax idea came Sept. 6, when voters in Dade County voted by a 2-to-1 margin in favor of a new child-welfare authority for their community.

If given final approval by voters in November, the new body will have the authority to impose a property tax of up to 50 cents for each $1,000 of assessed value. That taxing power will produce an estimated $25 million to supplement existing funding for child-welfare services in the county, which includes Miami.

Two other Florida counties--Pinellas, which was the pioneer, and Palm Beach--already have child-welfare taxing districts. Two more--Hillsborough and Martin--will hold referendums on the idea later this year, and supporters say more than a dozen others are considering it.

The Florida model could have special significance for educators. Not only would new funds become available for children, but education officials would play a role in deciding how they would be spent.

Under Florida law, the local superintendent of schools and a member of the school board sit on the governing board of the child-welfare authority, along with a county commissioner, the local chief of the state health department, and five others appointed by the governor.

Child-welfare services in Florida and elsewhere already receive funds from state and local governments. But advocates of the special tax authority argue that a new source of funds is needed as well.

Moreover, the tax-authority concept allows decisions about funding for children to be made at the local level, the advocates say.

"The programs are the responsibility of a local governing board, made up of local residents with knowledge of what is needed in the community," said Phillip J. Porter, director of Harvard University's division of health-policy research and education.

"It gets very close to the people who are served. It gets down to the grass roots and local control," added Dr. Porter, administrator of Healthy Children, a national program to help communities improve health care for needy children, and a leading proponent of the tax-authority idea.

Barbara A. Kauffman, executive director of the Palm Beach County Children's Services Council, also pointed to the ability of locally based taxing authorities to tailor spending to meet the needs of the community.

"Each county has to look at this entity and decide how it best fits their situation," she said, noting that the needs of relatively affluent Palm Beach County are far different from those of the much larger Dade County, with its wide assortment of urban ills.

In addition, she and others said, the local tax authorities can address problems that have seemingly been slighted by the state. "The state has failed to provide adequate funding for children, particularly in the area of juvenile delinquency," said Judge Seymour Gelber, the administrative judge of the Dade County juvenile court and a prominent advocate of the special taxing district.

The concept of taxing authorities for specific services is already a well-established one.

The U.S. Census Bureau counted more than 29,000 special taxing districts in 1987, according to Healthy Children. Most are independent of local government and devoted to such specific purposes as building highways, fire protection, flood control, hospital service, or community development.

"It seems to me these districts could be created in other states because every state in the union has special taxing districts," Dr. Porter said.

Although there was no significant organized opposition to the Dade County proposal, the idea of child-welfare tax authorities is not without its critics.

Some object to the increased tax burden imposed by such proposals. Voters in Polk and Sarasota counties, for example, rejected similar plans in 1986.

Another possible criticism of the idea, Dr. Porter conceded, was that it might create a patchwork of poorly coordinated local programs, with considerable duplication of administrative costs.

Pinellas County is considered the birthplace of the special district for child welfare, and the model for the plans being adopted by other Florida counties.

Its Juvenile Welfare Board in Pinellas was created in the 1940's through the efforts of a juvenile-court judge who was worried by the number of delinquents and neglected children appearing in his court.

The legislature passed a special law allowing the taxing district only in Pinellas County.

Today, the district has an annual budget of $14 million and serves 80,000 children a year through some 70 programs. The program does not provide services directly to children, but concentrates on planning and coordinating the activities of a number of public and private child-welfare agencies.

Child-welfare advocates in Palm Beach County gave new life to the Pinellas model in 1986, when they won legislative approval for a law allowing all counties in the state to establish their own child-welfare tax authorities. Palm Beach voters approved the plan in the same year.

The council recently began its first funding program, which will provide $2.9 million in services through September 1989 from its first year of tax collections. It will also allocate an additional $2.5 million from 1988-89 taxes.

The council will spend $406,000 on child care, for example, and $327,000 on youth mental health.

The council based its funding decisions on a needs assessment in the community. It asked local service providers to tailor their requests for funds to the problems on its priority list, which highlights drug abuse, the dropout rate, and the lack of recreation and child-care services.

"We put the burden on the provider community to show they were addressing the problems," said Ms. Kauffman.

"The top two problems we identified had to do with substance abuse,'' she said. "Drugs can easily be purchased on the streets and in school. The council decided early on that it would not put its dollars into long-term treatment. Our small pot of money would be lost."

"We decided we'd invest the majority of money in preventive programs," she added.

The council decided to provide $54,000 to the Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County to fund a substance-abuse-prevention program aimed at 9,000 kindergarten students. Another $186,000 will be spent on similar programs targeted at older students.

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