When the results came in from Tuesday's primary election, the numbers for the proposed 1.5-mill, 10-year Children Services levy were better than those from last November's general election, though they were not quite good enough.
The unofficial results from Jackson County ballots show the levy failing by only 158 votes, with 2,304 votes cast in favor of the measure and 2,462 cast in opposition. Last November, the levy measure garnered the support of 46 percent of voters that participated in the election, compared to 48 percent in this year's primary election.
In the wake of this news, Jackson County Job and Family Services (JFS) Director Tammy Osborne-Smith issued the following statement to The Telegram on Wednesday, May 9:
"On behalf of the Jackson County Department of Job and Family Services, I would like to extend my appreciation to those individuals who volunteered or supported our efforts to pass the Children Services levy. I am grateful for the countless number of hours that people contributed toward our efforts to share our message. Obviously, yesterday's loss was devastating. Of course, this loss almost assures that our agency will be seeking funds from the Jackson County Commissioners so that they may assist with rising costs in Child Protection in Jackson County."
Statutorily, the commissioners are required to cover such requests for funding, and as the county is already on a tight budget, moving large amounts of money from the general fund will most assuredly result in budget shortfalls elsewhere.
Last year, neighboring Vinton County passed a 1.5-mill Children Services levy. Additionally, other area counties including Scioto, Pike, Ross, Athens and Adams all have levies as well, with Athens actually having two active levies. In all, Osborne-Smith has said that 80 percent of the state's children per capita are covered by a levy.
One of the main reasons why the proposed 1.5-mill levy is needed, according to Osborne-Smith, is the ever-increasing cost of foster care placement. Since 2013, JFS has experienced a major increase in the number of children in the agency's care. In fact, since that time, Osborne-Smith has said that number has doubled, and with greater numbers comes a greater financial responsibility. This profound change, she explained, can be attributed to several challenges, one of which is drug addiction.
Often times, Osborne-Smith has said the necessary care for children in such situations requires them to be removed from their parents and placed in foster care. She said the first avenue always explored is that of kinship placement, where the child is placed with a family member or another loved one. However, there is now an increased level of trauma with these children as well as a pattern of generational addiction in families, at times involving not only the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, but even the children themselves.
As a result of this, Osborne-Smith has explained that getting these children the level of care they require can equal a cost of up to $400 or $500 a day, for things like crisis stabilization, mental/behavioral health treatment and even alcohol/drug addiction treatment.
Between $60,000 and $68,000 is appropriated annually for children services in Jackson County. As an example of how far that money can go, Osborne-Smith mentioned during a March meeting of the Coalton Village Council, a young man in her agency's care who carries a cost of around $12,000 a month, due to the severity of his developmental disabilities as well as his severe mental and behavioral health issues.
"Last year, we begged, borrowed and pleaded with counties from the south to the north to pull in almost $400,000 our agency did not have," Osborne-Smith told Coalton Council members in March. "We were that far short."
That funding, she continued, is money that her agency would have otherwise been forced to ask of the county commissioners. Seeking money from these numerous other counties, Osborne-Smith said, was an arduous task, but she said she knew the county couldn't afford the cost.
Commissioner Paul Haller shared Osborne-Smith's sentiments regarding the levy's defeat on behalf of the county board.
"We are disappointed the levy did not pass," he said via email. "It would have relieved foreseeable stress on our county budget."
From here, Haller stated Osborne-Smith and her staff will try to cover the cost and if they are unable to do so, the agency will need to request funding from the commissioners.
"The commissioners by law then will have to cover the forecasted cost which could be over $350,000," Haller said. "Without additional revenue coming into the county general fund to cover the added expenditure, the commissioners along with the auditor would then work to balance the budget. The end result for future years would maintain or decrease all department budgets and there would be no increases without more revenue. We would also have to dig into our carryover or contingency funding that we use for unforeseen shortfalls or emergencies. Depleting our carryover could have even more potential to put the county in financial stress."
On a more positive note, Haller also mentioned that the levy vote did improve in this most recent election, which he said indicates a better understanding from the public regarding the impact the drug epidemic is having on local families.
"We had already spoken with our legislators before the election and this is a hot topic for the state also, not just Jackson County," Commissioner Haller concluded.