Bill to Tighten Oversight of Children's Services Councils Dies in House

Tallahassee, FL – A bill that would have required Florida's eight independent Children's Services Councils to go back before the voters died in a House committee Thursday. As Margie Menzel reports, the measure's supporters argued for accountability - but opponents wondered why the CSCs were being singled out.

The councils pay for maternal and child health, school readiness, after-school and child care programs for nearly two million children - 43 percent of Florida kids. They're supported by local property taxes and their own fund-raising. SB 1216 by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, would put the councils to a referendum every six years, some on this November's ballot. Negron said it's a matter of "no taxation without representation."

"Voters want to have more oversight and more accountability and more transparency in how their tax dollars are spent," Negron said. "And the Children's Services Councils throughout Florida do a great job, spend about half a billion dollars in eight counties, and I want to make sure it's not treated as a private endowment, that this is an expenditure of public funds. And periodically they need to check in, see how they're doing, [and] check in with the shareholders."

His measure marched through two Senate committees, the second on Wednesday, although Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder, of Negron's district, was so opposed that he came to Tallahassee to speak against it.

"Let the local governments who pay for these - let them deal with them in their own ways," Crowder said. "They're empowered to do so. It's so redundant to have this state legislation pass that would call all of them back into question."

Crowder said if Negron had had a problem with the Children's Services Council in his district, his first move should have been to go to the Martin County Commission.

"If his interest and his purpose is truly as he says it is, the first thing he should have done and could have done was gone to the Board of County Commissioners and discuss this, which he did not do," said Crowder. "Instead, he brought the issue here to Tallahassee, where local hands can't touch it. And it could be another issue of larger government dictating down to local government on something that local government seems to have been very happy with."

Negron said his measure addressed the issue of local oversight.

"Well, the problem with the county commission - I actually had that in my bill, to require them to have their budget and their millage approved by the county commission," said Negron. "A number of senators and, actually, some of the advocates as well didn't like that because they thought that it gave too much discretion to the officials. So I took that out of the bill as a concession to that point, and went straight with having a referendum every six years."

On Thursday, the House companion to Negron's bill, HB1227, was heard in the House Military and Local Affairs Policy Committee. Its sponsor: Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach. She was questioned by Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, who wanted to know why all other special taxing authorities weren't included in her bill.

"Why pick on children's services?" asked Fitzgerald. "If the issue is a matter of principle, why would you select out children's services as opposed to all of the other taxing districts that are under this governance structure? Can you explain that?"

"We have to start somewhere," Mayfield replied, "and I felt this was the best place to start to get the vote of confidence in the people."

Mayfield acknowledged that she was unaware of any situation in which the CSCs had been brought to their county commissions over any abuse. But Negron said he would have thought public entities doing a good job would welcome the scrutiny.

"I just can't understand why any group that accepts public money would object to - every six years - making sure that they still have the voters' support," he said.

The House Military and Local Affairs Policy Committee voted 7 to 7 on HB 1227, killing it for this session. Crowder is making plans to challenge Negron in the next election.