SUTTONS BAY — Just 99 votes ensured approval of an Early Childhood Services tax proposal in Leelanau County.
Voters moved the measure forward on a vote of 3,343 to 3,244.
The five-year 0.253-mill property tax is meant to make sure children from birth to 6 years are ready for school. The services provided by the proposal are free for all children regardless of family income.
The millage will cost the owner of a home with a taxable value of $150,000 about $38 per year. It is expected to bring in $728,000 in its first year and about $3.6 million over five years.
Leelanau County Commissioner Patricia Soutas-Little was co-chair of the committee that brought the millage forward.
“It was close — we knew it would be close,” Soutas-Little said. “I’m so appreciative of the community that realizes the importance of early childhood services that are needed for our parents, our grandparents and those who are raising children.”
The money raised will be used to hire three coordinators to expand the Parenting Communities program already in place in the county. It also will hire two social workers to do assessments on children and a part-time person who will work to ensure services are not duplicated.
Coordinators will lead guided play groups for children, allow for more home evaluations and follow-up visits for parents. All of the services are voluntary and done only after a parental request.
About $43,000 raised by the millage will be used to expand mental health or dental services to children.
The program will be administered through the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department.
The close vote showed how divided the community was over the proposal, said Leland resident Karen Zemaitis. She said she is disappointed it passed.
“I felt it was not a well-thought out plan,” Zemaitis said. “They were asking for a lot of money — what I think is a lot of money — for something that’s going to serve so few families.”
Leelanau County has other issues that need to be looked at first, such as affordable housing for families. There also is the issue of parents being unable to find affordable day care, which the millage does not address.
“I think we could have found a better use for that kind of money,” she said.
In 2018 there were about 1,100 children aged 0-6 in Leelanau County. About 30 children currently participate in Parenting Communities, with play groups meeting in Northport, Suttons Bay, Leland and Glen Lake.
Children who are found to be behind in their skills or development can get a home visit from a coordinator if the parent has requested it, or may get a referral for further evaluation.
Parenting Communities was originally funded by grants and private donations and employed six people. Funding has dried up and the program now has 1.25 employees, Soutas-Little has said.
“This is the beginning of working in collaboration to enhance the programs we have,” Soutas-Little said. “This millage makes that possible. I’m excited to get started.”