SUTTONS BAY — An interim agreement and budget for development of a new program to deliver early childhood services was met with some resistance at the Leelanau County Board meeting.
The program, which will be free for all children from birth to 6, regardless of family income, is paid for by a five-year millage passed by voters in November that will bring in $728,000 in its first year. The health department has an overall budget of $2.8 million.
The interim agreement was created by the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department, which is expected to administer the program. It outlines costs of $375,934 for the six to 12-month period that will be needed to get the program up and running, said Lisa Peacock, health officer.
It was recommended for approval at the county board’s next meeting Jan. 21 on a vote of 4 to 3, with Commissioners William Bunek, Debra Rushton and Melinda Lautner voting “no.”
The three commissioners have opposed the millage from the beginning.
The three commissioners said the board is moving too fast and should seek requests for proposals before handing the program over to the health department, as there might be a different agency that could deliver the services at a better cost.
“This is being rushed through way too fast,” said Lautner said. “I’m disturbed by the whole process.”
Bunek agreed, saying the process makes him very nervous.
“There’s nothing to compare this to if we go ahead,” he said.
Rushton said she was amazed that there was such a rush on the childhood services program when another issue — whether the Cherry Capital Airport should change its governance model — is moving along so slowly.
“The health department may be the best option, but we don’t know that,” Rushton said.
Trustee Patricia Soutas-Little said the health department is the logical choice to administer the program.
“The health department has a tremendous track record in these kinds of programs,” Soutas-Little said. “I don’t know why we would go out and look at other agencies when we have the health department here.”
Lautner said she is concerned that the program was pushed so hard by health department officials. Lautner recently lost her seat on the health department board when the Leelanau board opted to appoint Trustee Tony Ansorge, who supports the early childhood program.
Soutas-Little and Ansorge sat on a 32-member committee that studied early childhood issues and came up with the millage proposal.
The new program is to be modeled after the Parenting Communities that has been in place in the county for years. Funding for that program originally came from grants and donations, but has been on the decline.
The health department had been contracted to do some of the home visits, but funding ended on Dec. 31, Peacock said.
“That’s one of the reasons we’ve been working so hard on this,” Peacock said.
Parenting Communities holds play groups for young children around the county, with children found to be lagging in their skills able to get a home evaluation and follow-up visits, if needed, at the parent’s request.
In 2018 there were about 1,100 children aged 0-6 in Leelanau County. Numbers of how many children are currently being served or how many are estimated to need home visits were not available.
Under the agreement services would be delivered through seven positions, including a program supervisor, a program coordinator, a licensed social worker and community health workers. The positions are not full time, though some could be combined to create a full-time slot, Peacock said.
The budget created by the health department includes about $160,000 in salaries and wages, $18,560 in supplies and materials, about $20,000 in other expenses, such as communications and space, and another $99,770 in indirect expenses, such as phones, utilities and payroll.
Commissioners questioned how the new program would be funded, as the new tax will not be collected until December.
County Clerk Michelle Crocker said there are three options available to the county: Start the program in 2021, after the tax is collected; pay for it out of the county budget; or advance the funds from the county’s general fund and then capture the money in December when the tax money comes in.
County Administrator Chet Janik said he has spoken to the county attorney and while uncommon, advancing the tax money is legal.
Ansorge said it’s a one-year process to get the new program in place.
“The question is, do we want a year to implement the wish of the voters,” Ansorge said.
Trustee Ty Wessell admonished commissioners who are fighting the proposal.
“One of the reasons we’re struggling with this is we’re not working together,” Wessell said. “We need to start acting as if this is the will of the voters and move forward.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Sue Miller, who spoke during public comment. Miller, who was also on the committee, said she’s tired of some commissioners who continue to say that no one knew about the proposal, which passed by a slim margin.
“The assertion that no one knew about the millage is false and I’d like to put that to rest,” Miller said.
Presentations were made at every township board and village council meeting, at women’s clubs, churches and service groups, Miller said. There was also information on social media, in school newsletters and in several local newspapers, she said.
“I’m not sure what else could have been done to reach the voters,” Miller said. “The voters have spoken and it’s time to move ahead.”