Children Services levy wins by more than 1,000 votes

With the cost of foster placement to Washington County Children Services rising exponentially, an independent committee promoted a 0.55-mill levy to support the program.

On Tuesday, voters showed their approval: the measure passed by more than 1,000 votes.

Committee co-chair Mike Webber watched tensely in the conference room at the board of elections office as results began coming up after the polls closed Tuesday night. Although early voting showed the yes votes for the levy leading by 10 percentage points and still well ahead by the time a quarter of the voting day election precincts had been counted, Webber remained cautious.

“The last time it looked like this until the rural areas came in,” he said.

The previous levy a few years ago failed in the end by about 300 votes.

“It gave us a strategy for this one,” Webber said. “What money we had, we put into Beverly, Waterford, Reno, Watertown…”

By the time 48 of the 50 precincts had come in and the 1,000-plus vote lead held up, Webber said, “That ought to be it. I think I’ll be able to sleep tonight. On behalf of the children in the foster program, I want to thank the county.”

When asked what comes next, Webber said, “We’ll keep fighting to control costs, and after that talk to the folks at the state about how the opioid crisis affects our children.”

Willa O’Neill, the other co-chair for the committee, said the campaign was a great bi-partisan effort — she’s the chair of the county Democratic Party and Webber chairs the Republican Party.

“We had been hearing positive things about the levy,” she said.

O’Neill said her involvement in Big Brothers Big Sisters has given her an understanding of the need for foster care because many of the children in the club are in foster care.

“The need is becoming greater all the time. This has been a bipartisan effort because these kids belong to all of us,” she said.

“We’re elated, and we appreciate the support of the county in getting this passed,” said Children Services board member Doug Mallett.

The levy, which will go into effect at the beginning of 2019 and continue through the end of 2023, will impose a tax on a house in the county appraised at $100,000 of about $20 a year, raising about $817,000 a year for five years, according to the committee.

Children Services board member Timothy Loughry has said the county has funded the service at only half its budget request, and Mallett has said the agency is spending out of its dwindling reserves to meet the need.

Additionally, as the caseload has grown, the number of social workers on staff has declined. Compared to 12 years ago, the caseload has tripled and the staffing level at the agency has been reduced by 20 percent. The board and administration say the opioid crisis bears most of the blame for the dramatic increase in the number of children taken into care.

A random selection of voters at the First Church of the Nazarene polling station on Millbrook Road late Tuesday mainly expressed support for the levy.

Barbara Hintz, 82, said she voted in favor of it “because children should have a chance in life, they deserve the right to live.”

Jan and Alan Hunt both voted for it.

“We have friends who have foster children,” said Jan Hunt, 77. “We know what it means. We have an adopted granddaughter.”

Kelli Cawley, 51, voted yes on the levy.

“With the opioid epidemic, there’s triple the need. These children are innocents,” she said.