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Property tax hike on city ballot would fund early childhood support services

Property tax hike on city ballot would fund early childhood support services

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ST. LOUIS — The campaign for a property tax increase for early childhood programs in the city has raised similar concerns about ballot language and funding that sunk an initiative in St. Louis County.

The Nov. 3 ballot measure, Proposition R, asks city voters to increase property taxes by 6 cents for every $100 of assessed value for early childhood services. The tax increase would raise about $2.3 million a year to be managed by the Mental Health Board, which operates the city’s Children’s Services Fund and Mental Health Fund to award grants to nonprofit service providers. The board took in $12.2 million in tax dollars in fiscal 2019.

A state statute allows the tax dollars to be used for substance abuse treatment, homeless shelters and crisis hotlines among other mental health services, but does not specify funding for ages 0 to 5. Early childhood services could fall under the statute’s designation for “prevention programs which promote healthy lifestyles among children and youth and strengthen families,” said Jama Dodson, executive director of the Mental Health Board.

If the proposition passes, the owner of a home valued at $150,000 would pay about $17 more each year in taxes, starting in 2021. The bill was introduced in May by Alderman Shameem Clark Hubbard, D-26th Ward, and unanimously passed by the Board of Aldermen.

Dodson said the Mental Health Board is expected to pass a resolution this month that would further commit the new tax dollars to early childhood programs such as Nurses for Newborns, which currently receives grants from the agency.

Neither St. Louis Public Schools, the city’s largest provider of free preschool with more than 2,000 students, nor charter schools would be eligible for grants, Dodson said, because “our policy is we don’t duplicate what’s already a tax-funded effort.”

The funds would go toward support services such as developmental screenings or home visits, and cannot be awarded for tuition subsidies for families or wage increases for workers at child care centers, Dodson said.

Emails obtained through a public records request show Dodson helped develop the ballot language with advocates for Proposition R and thanked members of the Board of Aldermen for passing it. Dodson said she was only advocating for early childhood services, not the campaign.

“I can only talk to people about the need for programs, but as a government agency, I will never be able to publicly support the ballot initiative,” Dodson said.

The Mental Health Board will be expected to follow the “set of visions and values” laid out by the nonprofit group WePower in its Playbook report on early childhood education, said Joey Saunders, the group’s director of policy and systems change.

“I do want to keep up with things. If the ballot passes, we need to know what everybody promised or thought about (where the funds should go),” Dodson said.

According to the emails, Dodson preferred to call the ballot measure Proposition C, for child. Advocates pushed Proposition R for the Ready By Five campaign led by WePower.

In St. Louis County, the campaign was for a half-cent economic development sales tax on the November ballot to raise $80 million annually. The state statute regulating the tax funds allowed for infrastructure expenditures in or outside of the county without requiring that any be spent on early childhood education. The bill’s sponsor, County Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, dropped the initiative in August before the council could vote on it.

Ray Cummings, president of American Federation of Teachers Local 420, said he’s concerned the nonprofits behind the city’s campaign will dictate the funding or circle it back to themselves.

“I think the community needs to understand there’s more to it than trying to help kids. It’s who’s behind the curtain,” he said.

Prop R funding

The Ready by Five campaign, which has registered two political action committees, raised $156,406 in a July 22 fundraiser that was not reported to the Missouri Ethics Commission. Maxine Clark, treasurer of one of the committees, said in August that the money would be reported to the state.

Saunders of WePower said the fundraiser was not for political activities and the money went to the First Step to Equity Fund hosted by the St. Louis Community Foundation, a nonprofit that manages charitable donations. The First Step to Equity partners include WePower, IFF and SouthSide Early Childhood Center, nonprofit groups that were involved in crafting the ballot measures and promoting the Ready By Five and Proposition R campaigns.

Clark said she is not seeking the tax money for the mixed-use Delmar DivINe development in the former St. Luke’s Hospital on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis, which is expected to include a child care center. Prospective tenants of Delmar DivINe also include IFF and the education nonprofit Opportunity Trust, a WePower funder.

The Ready By Five city political action committee, led by treasurer Stephen Westbrooks of IFF, has reported a $20,000 donation from Washington-based Children’s Funding Accelerator. Political consultant Todd Patterson of Kansas City works with the Children’s Funding Project and Ready By Five.

The campaign is focused on winning in November and plans to continue pushing for early childhood funding at the local and state level, said Charli Cooksey, founder and CEO of WePower, especially during a pandemic that has only heightened the needs of families.

“This is about where children are being served, where they can access more resources,” she said. “We’re putting children and families first.”

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