Financial backing strong in high-stakes fight to keep Children's Trust
By Ted Carter
Supporters of the Miami-Dade Children's Trust have laid plans for a $1 million-plus campaign for renewal of the half-mil tax that raises about $100 million annually to enhance the health, development and safety of children.
The half-mil tax won voter approval by a two-to-one margin five years ago. But today's worsening economic times could make it difficult to achieve the overwhelming voter support received in 2002, supporters say, though they note that safety nets for infants and children are needed more than ever when households are in financial peril.
"It would be a massive loss to the community," said trust Chairman David Lawrence in detailing the stakes involved in the vote on the five-year renewal.
On the other hand, keeping the Children's Trust alive would be "a great legacy for this community," Mr. Lawrence said.
Miami-Dade County commissioners agree. They all lined up last week to co-sponsor Barbara Jordan's ordinance to put the renewal on the Aug. 26 ballot. "I fervently want to see this continued," Katy Sorenson said. "We're going to have some tough times ahead, and we're going to need this more than ever."
A political team headed by internationally known political pollster Sergio Bendixen has been recruited to lead the campaign. He will be joined by Susan Vodicka, a former partner in Mr. Bendixen's firm, who will serve as campaign manager.
Also playing key campaign roles will be Alfredo Balsera and Da-Venya Armstrong. Mr. Balsera, a public relations specialist, will be responsible for Spanish-language media, and Ms. Armstrong will coordinate the campaign within black communities.
Mr. Bendixen and other supporters will be working behind the scenes for the next couple of months to line up community support for the tax renewal, said Mr. Lawrence, a children's advocate and former Miami Herald publisher who helped to create the trust. "Next week we'll be meeting with black ministers," Mr. Lawrence said in an interview last Thursday.
"We're all over the place, speaking wherever we get the opportunity," Mrs. Vodicka said in an interview Monday. The message they deliver is a simple one, she said: "We're picking up the check for an awful lot of important things in this community."
A political action committee created by supporters has raised $1.3 million so far, a significant portion of which came from business leaders and their companies. "That speaks for itself," Mrs. Vodicka added about the financial support the campaign is getting. Business leaders "very much get this," she said.
Look for most of the campaign spending to come in late July and early August, Mr. Lawrence said. "We'll be holding most of our powder dry until then."
Mr. Bendixen, whose Miami-based firm Bendixen & Associates does polling for organizations and companies around the world and specializes in assessing Hispanic public opinion, is working pro bono, according to Mr. Lawrence. "He will call all of the strategy in the campaign."
Mr. Lawrence and other proponents say the half-mil tax costs the owner of a median priced home in the county about $61 a year and in exchange provides an extensive range of services to infants and children. About half the approximately $100 million raised yearly goes to programs for children 5 and under, the trust says.
Miami-Dade is one of eight counties in the state — including Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough and Pinellas — with a dedicated source of funding for infants and children governed by children's services councils.
In Miami-Dade, the trust and its 34-member board are careful to ensure the money is spent to supplement services and not replace dollars that federal, state and local governments would otherwise spend on children, trust proponents say. That provision is a key selling point to voters, Mrs. Vodicka said. "I think that was really one of the brilliant aspects," she said. "It allows us to point to a track record and the way this thing is structured."
The trust board is made up of appointees by a range of entities, including the governor's office, the county commission, the county manager's office, the county mayor's office, the State Attorney's Office, Miami Dade College, the Coalition of Chambers, the county Parent Teachers Association, United Way, Alliance for Human Services, United Teachers of Dade, the National Conference for Community & Justice, the district administrator of the Florida Department of Children & Families and the 11th Judicial Circuit, Juvenile Division.
The trust has 95 employees. At times, contracts for all the consultants and contractors could number 50 for a high, depending primarily on provider need, and 30 on the lower end, according to trust spokeswoman Diana Ragbeer.
"The administrative cost for the Children's Trust is 6% for this fiscal year, which is below industry standards," Ms. Ragbeer said in an e-mail.
Legislation creating the trust specifies that the trust board and its funding are independent of local government officials. That circumstance could help the trust make the case to voters who may be angry and frustrated by the county commission's recent decision to tap a voter-approved transportation tax to buy new Metrorail cars because the county had neglected to maintain its current fleet in previous years. Some have labeled the commission's action a "bait-and-switch" by which the county promised to spend the money on new services but instead spent it on a backlog of needs.
The Children's Trust money is off limits to the county commission, Mr. Lawrence said, and added he does not think the commission's recent grab of the transportation money weakens chances for voter renewal of the trust. "I have lots of faith in voters being able to distinguish" between the actions of the trust board and the county commission, he said.