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Menconi: Early childhood needs still exist

Arn Menconi
Vail, CO Colorado

In The Federalist, James Madison wrote that the nation’s leaders need to listen intently to the expressed desires of the public, but should not be prisoners to the public’s literal demands. Instead, leaders in a democracy should “discern the true interests” and common needs of the people and then “refine the public view” in a way that transcends the surface noise of pettiness, contradiction, and self-interest – Prof. James O’Toole, DU School of Business

The allegations that I did not listen to the voters when approving early childhood development after voters turned down a tax are simply false and misleading. Since when did turning down a tax increase translate into now you can’t fund that area?

About 20 years ago, Eagle County voters turned down a tax to fund a megahertz system for radio towers that would have allowed for improved emergency services. Afterwards, Sheriff A.J. Johnson and the Board of County Commissioners went ahead and found funds to build a $10 million system. Was that not listening, too?

How about when a metro district tries to fund improvements, our school district goes to build more buildings or a fire district needs to expand operations ” do they now take into consideration that if the tax is defeated that they cannot spend funds in the area until voters say so or they will be facing a recall? That simply doesn’t make sense.

Turning down the Early Childhood Development vote defeated a tax increase and collection of nearly $4 million each year for the next 15 years. That’s it. What the board did approve is $800,000 being allocated to Early Childhood Development for one year, and now for a second.

The early childhood development policy initiative began over four years ago when Commissioners Tom Stone, Peter Runyon and I voted to spend nearly $70,000 to study the need in Early Childhood Development based on concerns brought forward by constituents and staff. Over the next year, over 100 professionals in the field who live in our county developed a needs assessment.

Their conclusion was that the county was in need of $6.8 million in funds for services and over $14 million dollars short in facilities. We have done similar studies in senior assisted-living facilities, health care needs and transportation. We fund studies and research to determine if there is a deficiency and how we can improve it. If a deficiency is proven, then we determine ways to fund it.

We then conducted a survey to see how the voters would react to a ballot question on early childhood and found 51 percent were in favor of a tax without being informed by a campaign as to the need. During the campaign, we had the endorsement of hundreds of business leaders, elected officials and nonprofit professionals.

What we didn’t expect was a negative ad campaign run through a Denver law firm seasoned in running those types of campaigns.

That same group was funding the defeat of home rule and the Avon elections of Ron Wolfe and Brian Sipes. They were hiding behind election laws so we never knew who didn’t have the integrity to show their faces. I knew then that an organized campaign that used half-truths would make for a difficult campaign.

Like any election, there were other hurdles ” such as how we were competing with the school district and library tax, how we were on an off-year election and, most importantly, how early childhood initiatives typically lose their first and second times on a ballot.

But what I heard the most during the campaign from those against it was this: “Why can’t you find it in the already existing budget?” The second criticism was that this is a blank check, and opponents wanted better definition of where the money would be spent.

Hindsight being 20/20, I would have been more prescriptive as to were funds would go instead of relying on the study’s recommendation as being proof enough. We should have written the ballot language to include as much as possible.

After the ballot did not pass, I was left with the fact that the problem still existed and went back to the early childhood group and asked them to develop a list of critical areas that could be funded with a million dollars.

In the end, the Board of County Commissioners listened to voters. We care about kids and believe that investments made now are a savings later to society. We did what the public supported by using the existing budget.

After the county commissioners funded the early childhood initiative, a quality of life survey was taken where 90 percent of respondents said Eagle County should be providing “the same or more” services for children, seniors, and those with special needs.

Now a community-wide collaborative called Bright Start is leading in bringing programs and services to more children in a more productive way. They are our community leaders, and I thank them for their values and vision.

Arn Menconi is an Eagle County commissioner.


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