Lucas County Children Services has prudently scaled back its latest levy request in an effort to persuade county commissioners to place the issue on the November ballot. The commissioners should leave the decision about the tax increase in the hands of the voters who would have to pay for it.
Last week, the committee of county residents that reviews levy proposals refused to endorse Children Services’ request for a seven-year, 1.9 mill property tax increase to replace a five-year, 1.4-mill levy that expires in 2016. After that rejection, the agency reduced its proposed levy to 1.75 mills. County commissioners are expected to vote Tuesday on placing the levy before voters.
Children Services offers vital protection for many of Lucas County’s most vulnerable and at-risk children. By trimming its levy request, the agency is acknowledging the concerns of voters who are financially strained and may suffer from levy fatigue.
Dean Sparks, executive director of Children Services, told The Blade’s editorial page that the agency will spend all but $800,000 of its fund balance by the end of this year. If the levy fails, he said, the agency will have a $300,000 deficit by the end of 2015. Children Services has an annual budget of about $40 million,
It would seem tough to persuade voters to expand what amounts to a reserve fund, but the agency has used that money for a decade to cover operating costs. In 2003, its fund balance was about $30 million. As the economy tanked, state and federal funding dried up. Mr. Sparks said the agency must rebuild its fund to at least 10 percent of its operating budget to avoid a fiscal crisis.
Children Services has reduced its annual budget by $6 million since 2007. The agency has eliminated 40 staff jobs, delayed equipment purchases, and cut out spending on such things as drug and alcohol treatment for parents, advertising and marketing pitches, and tuition reimbursement for staff members. Children Services has adjusted its priorities to address such issues as heroin addiction and sex trafficking.
Voters will likely share some of the concerns the review committee expressed. The agency still has an active levy for two years. Its budget projections for the past three years were inaccurate. Mr. Sparks said changes in local property valuations and state and federal funding threw off the agency’s fund balance, but concedes that “we were off by quite a bit.”
The commissioners should allow Lucas County voters to decide whether to raise their taxes to help meet the needs of nearly 1,000 children who are in custody or otherwise served by Children Services. These programs can be expensive — their absence even more so.