Kent mulls childhood millage


(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Kent County is considering whether residents will vote on a six-year millage to support early childhood development services.

First Steps Kent, a public-private partnership that works to strengthen and coordinate early childhood services in Kent County, is requesting the millage for 2018-24 to help fund a gap in prevention and early intervention services.

The organization did an analysis in 2017 of gaps in services and funding the millage would benefit.

Those gaps mean more than half — about 22,000 — of Kent County children eligible for early childhood development services are not receiving those services.

The millage would allow the county to levy 0.25 of a mill, which is equal to 25 cents per $1,000 of the taxable value on all real and personal property subject to taxation.

The first year’s amount levied is estimated at $5.7 million.

With a median home value of $181,000 and a median taxable value of $100,000, the median cost to taxpayers would be $50 per year, according to county officials.

The majority of funding would be used to provide families in Kent County with programs and services to improve young children’s health, social and emotional development, and school readiness.

About 4.5 percent of the funding would support effectiveness, accountability and coordination of the early childhood system, including evaluation, data alignment, quality improvement and capacity building.

The programs and services the millage would support are outlined in Kent County Community Plan for Early Childhood, developed in 2011 by First Steps and local partners. Programs to be funded do not include preschool or child care because of current state discussions and other collaboration.

The Business Journal has reported on poor Michigan academic levels, including a 2018 State of Michigan Education Report by Education Trust-Midwest showing Michigan third-graders are the “lowest-performing students in the U.S. among peers based on the state’s assessment.”

First Steps is among several organizations, including Business Leaders for Michigan, that support early childhood improvements.

“We believe … the importance of addressing the whole child is critical for the future, not only of our country and our state but, certainly, our nation,” said Kate Pew Wolters, First Steps co-chair.

Kent County Commissioner Tom Antor said low academic performance is an important issue, but he hears it as the reason behind every millage of this type.

“They always bring up third-grade readings levels, but they never fix it,” Antor said.

Kent County Commissioner Betsy Melton was adamant this issue is worth supporting. She said there are too many children who do not succeed because their lives begin without the proper support.

“We are bringing students who have been raised in quicksand up to kindergarten, and they are asked to perform the same as those coming from a house built on rock,” Melton said.

Kent County Commissioner Roger Morgan said he is a “firm believer” these types of services would best be left to the Kent Intermediate School District.

The proposal cited national and local studies that show every $1 spent on these types of services saves taxpayers between $3 and $13 on the cost of current services in the areas of public education, health care, law enforcement and criminal justice.

The subcommittee believes the long-term benefits are worth the investment.

Antor said he does not support the proposal because he believes there is plenty of money “out there,” but it is being “misused.”

He used the University of Michigan as an example, which has an endowment fund of nearly $11 billion yet receives over $300 million annually from the state. He also noted Wayne State University, which received $196 million in 2017, yet only one-third of students graduate.

“I would love this to be funded with some of that money,” Antor said.

“The system is broken,” he said. “We need to insist that some of that money comes back for initiatives like this because the money is out there, and I’m telling you it’s wasted, period.”

The millage would be administered with the same model as currently used for the senior millage and with independent oversight and regular performance reports to the county.

As with the senior millage, the administrator of the funds would be required to braid them with other public and private revenue sources when possible.

“This method is consistent with the community’s deep cultural value in the use of public-private partnerships as a means to addressing community needs,” the county’s millage subcommittee said in its recommendation.

The original proposal asked for 0.5 mills over seven years, but the subcommittee limited it to the current proposal, citing federal and state funding shift developments still in play, a possible shifting of local priorities and a need for more current and well-documented performance.  

The proposal was recommended to be placed on the November ballot by the millage subcommittee, which includes Kent County commissioners Stan Stek, Emily Brieve, Harold Mast and Phil Skaggs.

The Finance and Physical Resources Committee approved the proposal June 19. The Legislative and Human Resources Committee must approve the proposal at its June 26 meeting before a board vote June 28.

“In my opinion, it is well worth the investment for us as commissioners to allow our voters to decide whether or not they would like to see their children entering kindergarten on an even playing field,” Melton said. “They’re all going to be in the future together, and I think we cannot continue being shortsighted in underfunding.”

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