Eagle Co. seeks tax hike for early childhood programs
Eagle County voters, including those in Basalt and El Jebel, will decide in the Nov. 7 election whether to approve a property tax hike that would boost early childhood development efforts.Proponents call the tax hike a wise investment that will benefit families by helping improve child care, health care and education programs for the roughly 7,000 kids under age nine in Eagle County.If approved, the property tax increase would raise about $3.5 million in 2007, and grow in following years as property values increase. The tax would expire in 15 years unless renewed by voters. The question is 1A on the Eagle County ballot.Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi headed efforts to get the tax on the ballot and has been a leading proponent in the campaign.”We know that working families are really struggling to find affordable day care, or even find it period,” Menconi said.There is an existing shortage in both the Eagle Valley and the Roaring Fork Valley. “People are panicking,” Menconi said. “We have to create more open slots.”The tax revenues could help that issue in several ways. First, revenues from the tax could be used to build more child care centers and provide seed money for small in-home child care centers, Menconi said. For example, if a mother with a small child wanted to start a part-time day care in her home, funds could be made available for proper training.Second, the tax could help low-income families pay for child care, Menconi said. That would increase chances that the kids are better prepared once they start school, Menconi said, and that benefits all families – regardless of whether they receive subsidized child care.Third, the tax could help child care centers recruit and retain workers by providing dollars for training and even help them raise their pay, according to Menconi. Most child care centers pay workers between $10.50 and $14 per hour, he said. Poor pay translates into high turnover. If funds were available to raise that pay and train teachers, it would translate into better quality education for young kids, Menconi said.Critics say the proposal is too general. In a letter to newspapers in the Eagle Valley, Mike Lederhause of McCoy labeled the proposal a “baby-sitting tax” and said the ballot measure talks about how the funds theoretically could be spent but does not focus enough on specific programs. Voters deserve more details, he wrote. Homeowners in Eagle County will pay an additional $11.50 per $100,000 of assessed value if the property tax increase is approved. That would be $57.50 more in taxes for owners of a house with an assessed value of $500,000.Basalt resident Michael Bair considers himself someone with questions about the proposal, but he is not necessarily a big foe. Bair, president of the Roaring Fork School District, said he supports the concept of early childhood development because it is demonstrated to be effective. However, Eagle County’s ballot question provides no information on how the funds would be spent. “It’s too much of an open page,” Bair said.The spending would be determined by the commissioners at any given time, not experts in childhood development, Bair said. He wants a program that integrates cooperation with school officials and health service officials in Eagle County. As president of the school board, he is unaware of any efforts by the tax’s proponents to discuss the program with school officials, he said.Bair suggested the proponents of the plan adopt a pilot program modeled after a program that is successful elsewhere. They should define how they will track the success of the program in both the short- and long-term, he said, and there must be built-in accountability.Menconi acknowledged there is a lot of interest in specifics of the program. “The number one question I get asked is how do we know how the money will be spent,” he said.Menconi said a year-long study of early childhood resources in Eagle County was completed by experts in the field in July 2006. It includes recommendations for the highest priorities for improvements.If the ballot measure passes, the commissioners will appoint an advisory committee of professionals in early childhood development fields. They would recommend which of the priorities to fund first. The county commissioners would make the final call on spending.More information on the need for the tax and the proposed program can be found online at http://www.eaglecountycares.org.Menconi said some of the advisory committee members would come from the Roaring Fork Valley portion of the county. He claimed that would assure some of the funds would be spent in that part of the county.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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