Washington County commissioners reject levy to support child care
Washington County voters will not have a chance to vote on a local option levy this fall that would create funding for childcare and after-school programs.
The Washington County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, July 28, was split 3-2 on whether to direct staff to draft a ballot title and summary of the proposed levy for consideration at the board's next meeting Aug. 4. A majority voted against it.
Chair Kathryn Harrington and Commissioner Dick Schouten voted in favor of drafting the ballot measure while Commissioners Pam Treece, Roy Rogers and Jerry Willey voted "no."
The levy would have raised more than $125 million over a five-year period to expand and support early education, after-school and summer programs. Homeowners would have been taxed 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, with the average Washington County homeowner paying $104 in the 2021-22 fiscal year, the first year the proposed levy would have taken effect if passed by the voters.
The county would have administered the program at a cost of $1.6 million, working with schools and other groups to provide kids programs.
The county received 27 letters from individuals and organizations supporting the proposal, including from Bridget Cooke, president of Forest Grove-based nonprofit Adelante Mujeres, which runs childcare programs.
The majority of people who testified during a public hearing on the proposal Tuesday were in favor of it.
The levy was proposed by the nonprofit Washington County Kids, whose advocates say there are substantial inequities in Washington County families' ability to access affordable childcare programs, which are expensive and in short supply.
At a previous board hearing on the proposal, Susan Bender Phelps, president of Friends of Washington County Kids, said that lack of access inhibits learning and forces parents to make tough decisions. Parents may need to change jobs, take fewer shifts or stop working altogether to care for their kids, which perpetuates a cycle of poverty, she argued.
She added that the impacts of the coronavirus on the economy and schools only adds to the need to support such programs.
Opposition to the proposal came primarily from officials in cities across Washington County, who said although they agree childcare programs need additional support, they were not sufficiently consulted in formulating the proposal. They added people are currently under too much economic stress as a result of the coronavirus to handle new taxes.
City managers in Beaverton, Hillsboro and Sherwood all submitted letters in opposition. North Plains Mayor Teri Lenahan and Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax testified Wednesday in opposition.
"I'm speaking for myself and a number of other mayors in Washington County, all of whom support our kids," said Truax, a retired schoolteacher. "This measure has put us in a difficult position. This measure gives me pause. Local government officials were given little or no opportunity to weigh in on this proposal."
Katie Riley, president of Washington County Kids, said in an interview Wednesday she disagrees with the assertion that city officials' haven't been adequately consulted about the proposal, which hasn't changed much after years of work and conversations with cities.
Rogers agreed with Schouten that the proposal, or ones similar to it, have been before the board for years, but he reiterated concerns made in previous meetings about whether people have the money to pay more taxes.
"There's only a certain limited amount of funds that we all have," Rogers said.
He added that voters are fatigued from several other recently passed regional and county levies and others already set to appear on the November ballot.
Rogers said adding another levy would take away funds from existing levies due to compression — state law limits on how much residents can be taxed for local levies. If the proposal was in place during the 2019-20 fiscal year, it would have taken away more about $418,000 from the county's public safety and library levies, according to county staff.
Supporters of the proposal said the board should put it to the voters to decide whether or not they can afford the levy.
"The voters are the ones who are the decision-makers," Harrington said. "It's not good timing, given we are dealing with an economic crisis as a result of the coronavirus. But when it comes to meeting the needs of our children, there's never a bad time."
Treece said her decision to vote "no" was difficult because she recognizes the need to support childcare programs.
"I didn't see excitement and unified support from school districts and their school boards, from the library system and from the mayors and cities of Washington County," Treece said.
Riley said she was disappointed by the county's decision not to refer the proposal to the ballot. She said her group will continue to advocate for childcare programs. She pointed to upcoming fundraisers to help the group's advocacy and work to connect parents to childcare providers.
"There are big disparities in our county, and this would have really helped," Riley said.
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