CANTON — Stark County commissioners have taken the initial step to put a Children Services levy increase on the November ballot.

In a 3-0 vote Wednesday, the board asked the Stark County Auditor’s Office to certify how much revenue would be raised by a five-year, 1.4-mill replacement levy.

Officials cited the loss of a longtime federal grant. And they discussed the opioid epidemic driving an increase in the number of neglected and abuse children coming into the county’s care.

Deborah Forkas, executive director of the Stark County Department of Job and Family Services, said her agency has taken custody of young children whose parents died from overdoses or whose parents abandoned or neglected them while seeking addictive drugs. In some cases, the parents left toddlers in the care of siblings who were only a few years older.

“They’re taking care of their siblings because their parents are gone,” Forkas said.

“We have been and will continue to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars as we care for hurting children. ... The complexity of children’s cases has increased their trauma. And as a result has increased the cost to provide them services.”

Agency’s role

Children Services estimates that two-thirds of the children in its custody the past three years have parents with substance abuse issues.

The current 1.4-mill levy, in place since 1990, now funds the Children Services division of the Stark County Department of Job and Family Services, which is under the oversight of the commissioners. The department is largely funded by federal funds. By law, the levy’s millage only applies to property values in place in 2005, when voters approved the last increase as a replacement levy.

County officials are seeking voters’ approval of a levy with the same 1.4 mills but at current, higher property values.

If approved, department officials estimate the replacement levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $13.56 a year and raise roughly an additional $1.9 million a year. The current five-year, 1.4-mill levy, last renewed with voters’ approval in 2015, raises slightly more than $9 million a year.

After it was approved in 2015, it cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $42.75 a year. But due to higher property valuations and a state cap preventing levies from taxing people more as their property values increase, the levy now costs the owner of a $100,000 home about $35.44 a year. If approved, that figure would rise to $49 a year.

If approved, the new levy’s first collection would start in January 2021.

The need

Robert Myers, deputy director of the Children Services Division, described the division’s financial situation with these rough estimates:

A federal grant that funds the “Protect Ohio” program and has provided about $6.8 million a year is set to end by October because Congress hasn’t renewed the program.

Once the federal grant ends, a different federal program will cover about 62 percent of qualified costs related to care of children after Children Services takes custody. That’s estimated to result in funding of about $3 million a year. However, while the prior federal grant paid costs upfront, this program only reimburses for past expenses. And unlike “Protect Ohio,” it doesn’t cover the costs of programs that seek to prevent a situation where Children Services has to take custody of a child.

The department estimates that the new state budget, which hasn’t yet been finalized, will increase state funding of the division by $1.4 million a year.

The division spends about $23 million to $24 million a year.

Expenses of Children Services include the salaries and benefits of 185 staffers; costs of placing children with relatives, foster parents and in group homes; payments to foster parents to care for abused and neglected children in the division’s custody due to a Family Court order; costs of caring for children and payments to nonprofit organizations, which among many things provide group home beds to children and programming for parents so they can win back custody.

The division also investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect, performs home visits or hires nonprofit organizations to do them; gets children ready for adoption; and helps teach independent life skills to older teens.

Even if voters approve the proposed levy replacement, the division will still have $500,000 less in revenue a year, Myers said. It’s not yet clear how the division would cut costs.

“We hope people support the children, the families of our county,” said Myers.

After the Stark County auditor certifies the valuation, commissioners are expected to vote to place the levy on the ballot by the Aug. 7 deadline.

Stark County Commissioner Janet Weir Creighton said she endorses its passage after department officials took her advice for a clear, succinct pitch for the higher tax.

“Wow,” she told Forkas. “You took to heart all the questions we posed at our work session. And you really went into detail. And you hit a home run. With me. Because you have addressed what the public needs to know. They need to know why we’re asking for it. What we’re going to do with it. And you’ve been a good caretaker of the funds.”

 

Reach Repository writer Robert Wang at (330) 580-8327 or robert.wang@cantonrep.com.

On Twitter: @rwang REP