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Prop 1 sales tax for children's services passes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 14, 2008 - Updated late on Nov 4 -With 93 percent of the vote in, Proposition 1, a quarter-cent sales tax increase to fund mental health and substance abuse programs for children, was winning with a healthy 61 percent of the vote. Nobody could be more jubilant than Kate Tansey, campaign manager for Putting Kids First and clinical director of Catholic Family Services, who praised St. Louis Countians' concern for children. 

While Prop 1 had no organized opposition, it did have several obstacles to overcome: a general resistance to raising taxes, a confusion with Proposition A and lack of TV ads, said Tansey.

The victory, said Tansey, was due to the group's "true grass-roots work," including door-to-door work and working at the polls. 

"Our petition drive (to get on the ballot) made a big difference," she said. "It helped us tell the story of the unmet needs of children in St. Louis County. Now our children will have these resources for years."  

What is Prop 1?

“Prop 1 is a St. Louis County-wide initiative to create a community children service fund to help fund mental-health and substance-abuse services for children 19 and under,” Tansey said.

A wide range of services would benefit from the money. They include: crisis intervention services, respite-care services, services to unwed mothers and teen parents, outpatient substance-abuse treatment services, family-intervention programs, individual, group or family counseling and therapy services.

State law determines what services are eligible.

Why is this tax necessary?

Funding for mental-health and substance-abuse programs is not guaranteed in state and federal budgets, Tansey said. “Every time there is a shortfall in the federal or state budgets," these are the programs that get chopped out, Tansey said. “This has happened for the last number of years.”

The result: children forced to wait for services in the county. “We just don't have the funding to continue the work some of the agencies have been doing in the county for over 150 years. That goes from the children's homes to outpatient counseling to school-based programs.”

Federal funds available under Title 4 for prevention programs that schools put together to help keep kids off drugs, alcohol and cigarettes have been “drastically cut,” she said. “At this point, we're all vying for the same grants, trying to get the same funding. There just isn't enough to go around.”

What would this tax cost St. Louis County residents?

It would add a quarter-cent tax to retail sales in the county. “For every $4 of purchase in St. Louis County, one penny would go into a bank to help fund these services,” Tansey said. “So if you spend $100 in St. Louis County, a quarter -- 25 cents -- will go into a bank. For the average family, it will cost about $52 a year or about $1 a week.”

How much would the tax raise annually?

Approximately $40 million.

How would the money be used?

If the proposition passes, funds would start to accrue in April and would become available next fall. Public agencies, not-for profit agencies and school districts would submit proposals to a granting agency, which would be overseen by a board of at least nine members, all from the county, Tansey said.

There are any number of needs the increased tax could help meet, Tansey said. For example, the county has no substance abuse programs for teens that are free.

Funds could also provide for temporary shelters for children. “One of the biggest needs currently is for temporary shelters for children who can't remain at home because of neglect or abuse or parental substance abuse,” Tansey said. “More than 1,800 kids needed help this way in St. Louis County in 2007. We were able to help 300 of those kids. Our ability to put services out there has really shrunk. Youth in Need in St. Charles, which has this funding, was very helpful in getting those kids protected, and Covenant House in the city is helpful. But we just don't have enough here in St. Louis County. That's just a really striking example.”

Is there any opposition to Prop 1?

Tansey acknowledges that voters may not be in the mood to increase any tax with the current economic crisis. Yet she's hopeful Prop 1 will pass. “I think people are very receptive,” she said. “What they're saying is, 'It's so worth it.' This money will stay local. It will help our kids locally. People really perceive it as a wise investment. They're going over to St. Charles and spending money, but it's not helping their kids -- it's helping St. Charles' kids which is great but..."

What happens if Prop 1 fails?

"Services to children will even be reduced further,” Tansey said. “Some agencies may even close.”

What organizations support the initiative?

A whole alphabet soup of local agencies including BJC Behavioral Health, Boys and Girls Town, Catholic Charities, Children's Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis, Edgewood Children's Center, Epworth Children and Family Services, Evangelical Children's Home Family Resource Center, Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition, Jewish Family and Children's Services, Kids in the Middle Kids, Lutheran Family and Children's Services, Mental Health Association of Greater St. Louis, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, Nurses for Newborns, Our Lady's Inn, Our Little Haven, St. Louis Arc, Young Women's Christian Association, Young Men's Christian Association, and Youth Emergency Services.

Ballot language

PROPOSITION 1- - Community Children's Service Fund

Shall St. Louis County, solely for the purpose of establishing a community children's services fund for the purpose of providing services to protect the well-being and safety of children and youth nineteen years of age or less and to strengthen families, be authorized to levy a sales tax of one-quarter of a cent in the County of St. Louis?

Kathie Sutin is a freelance writer in St. Louis.