Helping young children the purpose of countywide millage request

An estimated 45,000 children in Kent County are below age 5. Too many of them and their parents need help so they can be healthy and prepared for kindergarten, according to early childhood advocates who are backing a millage proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot.

They are asking Kent County voters to approve a 0.25 mill property tax levy that would provide an estimated $5.7 million a year to agencies and programs that support early childhood development programs. The millage would cost the average Kent County homeowner about $23 a year, or $1.90 a month.

The millage request was placed on the ballot this summer by the Kent County Board of Commissioners on a 13-5 vote. The request was made by First Steps Kent, a coalition of local foundations, community leaders and United Way agencies that support early childhood programs.

“We are reaching only a fraction of these children,” said Karen Lezan, program coordinator for Bright Beginnings, a Kent ISD program that helps parents prepare their children for school success. Although Kent County offers great services for early childhood development, they lack the funding to reach all of the children who could benefit, she said.

Bright Beginnings, an affiliate of the national “Parents as Teachers” initiative, provides parents with tools to encourage language, intellectual, physical and social and emotional growth. Their program was only able to see 532 children last year, Lezan said.

“Investing in early childhood pays off not only for children and their families, but for the entire community,” according to a 2017 “gap analysis” report that inspired the millage request. The study concluded 20,500 children under age 5 in Kent County are “economically disadvantaged.”

“Every child in Kent County deserves to be healthy and ready to learn by kindergarten, and this proposal will help make sure children under age 5 receive vital early childhood and health care services,” said Annemarie Valdez, president/CEO of First Steps Kent. “Working together, we can make sure all Kent County children have brighter futures and the opportunity to succeed.”

If the millage request is passed, the money would be passed along to successful programs selected by a board that is appointed by the county board. The millage request was patterned after the Kent Senior Millage, which provides funding for programs that benefit senior citizens in Kent County.

Taxpayer dollars raised by the millage would go through an independent financial audit every year to ensure taxpayer funds are spent wisely, according to its sponsors. This audit would evaluate the effectiveness of the funded programs to ensure transparency and accountability, sponsors said.

James Harger
James Harger reported on West Michigan's economy, courts and politics for The Grand Rapids Press and Mlive.com for more than 37 years. He also is employed as Servanthood Leader at Immanuel Lutheran Church in downtown Grand Rapids. A graduate of Central Michigan University, he also has worked for publications in Holland, Mount Pleasant and Lansing. He is married to Lisa and has one daughter, who lives in Ann Arbor. Read James' full bio.

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