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A do-over worth doing

Many Eagle County voters feel that last November’s no vote on the “Kiddie Tax” should have ended the discussion. But proponents of new early childhood spending, led by Commissioner Menconi and the Vail Daily’s editorial board, have resurrected this issue on the basis that the voters were OK with additional spending as long as it came from “existing” funds.

This debate will not be resolved on the pages of the Vail Daily. So instead of allowing this issue to polarize the valley, here’s a suggested solution to the impasse: Let’s ask the voters. But let’s also frame the question so it accurately reflects the issues.

Objectivity and accountability should be our goal. So it’s suggested here that the Board of County Commissioners postpone its decision on early childhood development spending for a few months and poll the voters when the county mails out its ballots next fall. This would be similar to how the county polled the voters regarding the recent no-smoking ordinance.

If the voters agree with additional spending, the BoCC can in good conscience allocate these funds in the county’s 2008 budget. If the poll says “no,” then the commissioners will have received their marching orders directly from the voters instead of those with predetermined interests.

The question might be phrased as follows. “Would you support the additional $20,000,000 in early childhood development spending under the following conditions?”

The commission would then spell out where the money would come from, what other county services it would impact, what specific programs the money would be applied to, whether or not people living here illegally would be eligible, and most importantly, what specific goals these expenditures are intended to achieve.

According to a recent Vail Daily article, the proposed $1.6 million for new early childhood development spending in 2007 would come from the county’s 2006 budget “surplus.” But the county’s early childhood services strategic plan proposes additional spending of $5,305,974 in 2008, $4,417,773 in 2009, $4,442,555 in 2010 and $4,556,344 in 2011 for a grand total of $20,366,486 over five years. While the board can only vote to spend next year’s dollars each budget year, the article didn’t indicate where the next $18.5 million would come from. This is precisely the type of information the poll question should detail.

While locating $1.6 million in the county’s surplus may appear to be resourceful, the proponents of additional spending are silent on the issue of what other uses those dollars may have.

For example, a separate Vail Daily article addressed the overcrowding at our Justice Center. In that same article, Commissioner Sara Fisher commented that she didn’t know where the financing for a new facility would come from. So here’s a thought ” could a couple of years worth of county “surpluses” be a good place to start?

A few years ago I read about public entity that also faced over-crowding problems in its jail. In that situation, a judge issued a court order to either build a new jail or face contempt charges. So for just a moment, picture a judge issuing a similar order in Eagle County.

Where might the $40 to $50 million it would cost to build a new jail or expand our existing facility come from? The answer is simple; it must come from the ‘surplus’ or additional taxes, or both. So while arguing against spending money on kids is a non-starter, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul is fiscally irresponsible.

Much has also been written about the number of child-abuse cases in Eagle County. In fact, in his responses to me; Commissioner Menconi used child abuse as his primary justification for additional early childhood spending. (For the record, there were 376 reported and 11 confirmed cases of child abuse in Eagle County in 2006.)

While statements about protecting kids make for compelling sound bites; upon closer examination, the county’s early childhood development strategic plan says little about addressing this issue. Instead, it offers a mixture of loosely defined benefits, goals, outcomes and objectives.

For example, the strategic plan’s goal regarding child abuse is, “To protect from violence.” Its projected outcome, “Families receive comprehensive early childhood services to prevent child abuse and neglect and promote development.” But neither tells us how those activities will be measured.

Likewise, the strategic plan’s “social and emotional development” goal states,

“Children experience emotional well being and develop social competence,” but fails to define its terms or tell us how we’ll know when the kids are “socially competent.”

Perhaps the voters would be more inclined to allocate the county’s limited resources towards additional early childhood spending if the strategic plan presented the community with goals that were specific, easy-to-understand, measurable and time-bound. Besides, wouldn’t the kids benefit more if the county measured “results” rather than assess the process?

For instance, the poll question could stipulate “By spending an additional $20,000,000, Eagle County will A) reduce its reported instances of child abuse to 300 in 2008, 225 in 2009 and 175 by 2010; B) improve early-grade test scores by 10 percent in 2008, 8 percent in 2009, etc; C) decrease early-grade absenteeism by 3 percent per month …” and so on, for each and every expenditure in the early childhood strategic plan.

This debate has stirred emotions including threats of a recall. But the county doesn’t need further divisiveness; it needs leadership from the commissioners.

Nonetheless, we’re still in a good position because we have the time and the vehicle to finally determine what the voters really want.

So imagine for a moment a board of commissioners that’s focused on solutions and accountability. Imagine!

Butch Mazzuca is a business consultant and writes a bi-weekly column for the Vail

Daily. He can be reached at bmazz68@earthlink.net.


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